The link between art and heart

A new Barbican exhibition explores how two were often better than one in the creative process

Michael Prodger

Shared emotion: Dorothea Tanning and Max Ernst with his sculpture, “Capricorn”, in 1947 (©JOHN KATSNESIS)

“Let men busy themselves with all that has to do with great art,” wrote Léon Legrange in the Gazette des Beaux-Arts in 1860. “Let women occupy themselves with those types of art which they have always preferred, such as pastels, portraits, and miniatures . . .” Within a few years, however, and to Legrange’s consternation, everything changed. In Britain the Slade School of Fine Art opened to both men and women in 1871 and the Royal Academy finally allowed women students into the life class in the 1890s; while across the continent art schools and academies relaxed their men-only grip so that by 1910 female art students were accepted on equal terms everywhere except for some provincial schools (although in several, male life models still had to wear some sort of covering around their loins).

One of the results was that women took their place in the wider art world not just as muses, that tired old saw, or as models, but as a creative force in their own right. They met male artists at a younger age in the drawing class, formed alliances as peers, and as well as making their own work, shaped the attitudes of their male partners and entered collaborations with them. They helped turn art from an individual endeavour into a joint one.

This cross-pollination is the theme of Modern Couples: Art, Intimacy and the Avant-garde (October 10-January 27) at the Barbican, which looks at some 40 artist couples from the first half of the 20th century. Some of the pairings are familiar — Ben Nicholson and Barbara Hepworth, Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo — while others are less so, such as Gustav Klimt and the fashion designer Emilie Flöge, Hans Arp and Sophie Taeuber-Arp. The pairings cross the disciplines from painters and sculptors to photographers and designers but seek to show that together the artists amounted to more than the sum of their parts.

Some figures appear more than once: Ben Nicholson was married first to Winifred Nicholson, a painter of still lifes and landscapes, and later to the abstract sculptor Barbara Hepworth. It is perhaps no coincidence that Ben Nicholson’s first abstract sculpture, White Relief, was made in 1933, the year in which his marriage to Winifred ended and when he travelled to France with Hepworth to visit the studios of Arp, Picasso, and Brâncuşi. It was his new lover that drove him to a purer form of Modernism than he had previously essayed. Hepworth herself could have been a double entry in the exhibition, having previously been married to the sculptor John Skeaping. 

Another double entry is the composer and author Alma Mahler who was first married to Gustav Mahler and then to the architect and founder of the Bauhaus Walter Gropius. Immediately before the war she had an unusually intense affair with Oskar Kokoschka: the liaison inspired some of his best work but also his creepiest. Devastated by her desertion he commissioned a doll-maker to create a life-sized mannequin of her: “Pay special attention to the dimensions of the head and neck, to the ribcage, the rump and the limbs,” he instructed. “Please permit my sense of touch to take pleasure in those places where layers of fat or muscle suddenly give way to a sinewy covering of skin. For the first layer (inside) please use fine, curly horsehair; you must buy an old sofa or something similar; have the horsehair disinfected. Then, over that, a layer of pouches stuffed with down, cottonwool for the seat and breasts. The point of all this for me is an experience which I must be able to embrace!” Perhaps appalled, the doll-maker covered the fetish object with feathers, which was enough to cure Kokoschka of his obsession: “I beheaded it out in the garden and broke a bottle of red wine over its head.”

Curiously, Kokoschka’s Mahler figure had a passing resemblance to Bird Superior, a strange 1939 portrait of her lover Max Ernst by Leonora Carrington. Ernst is dressed in a floor-length fur coat with a mermaid’s tail and walks through a frozen landscape with an ice horse behind him. This quirky piece of Surrealism is ripe for interpretation — teasing everything from emotional chilliness and frozen desire to control. It makes a marked contrast with Rapture (1944) by Ernst’s fourth wife, Dorothea Tanning, showing a radiant sunflower floating unmoored above a rippling array of hills. Here is Carrington’s emotional charge reversed. Ernst could have figured twice more: in the early 1920s he formed a ménage à trois with the Surrealist Paul Eluard and his wife Gala (who later married Salvador Dalí) and in 1942 he married the patron Peggy Guggenheim.

What the exhibition shows most successfully is how creation was an indivisible part of these relationships. Orphism — abstract patchworks of colour evoking music — was developed and refined by Robert and Sonia Delaunay between 1905 and 1914 through a shared emotional interest rather than merely technical experimentation. The example of Camille Claudel, one of the most daring sculptors of the late 19th century, whom the influential critic Octave Mirabeau described as “a revolt against nature: a woman genius”, helped push Rodin’s art towards greater daring and dynamism during her time as his student, helpmeet and lover.

A similar interplay occurred between Alexander Rodchenko and his wife the designer Varvara Stepanova, and was an integral factor behind the founding of the applied arts Omega Workshops created by Roger Fry, Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant. These were not nine-to-five endeavours but the result of the artists taking their work home with them.

A spin-off of the exhibition is the way it shows how the avant-garde was marked by innumerable shifting romantic and professional links and one degrees of separation. And in doing so it shows how small and tangled that avant-garde was.

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