Modern Couples: Art, Intimacy and the Avant-Garde at the Barbican Art Gallery

Je Suis Belle, Auguste Rodin, 1882

There are some exhibitions where the exhibition contrives to be less than the sum of the works included. But there are others where a theme or themes is identified and described so successfully that the exhibition is greater than the sum of its parts. Modern Couples is a compelling case of the latter, a fascinating exposition of some of the great creative pairings of the Modernist period.

There is a romantic theme in art history of the creative power of the single, almost exclusively male, artist whose towering genius drives the art world forward. It has always been substantially a myth. Great artists have, as Newton said, stood on the shoulders of giants, studying, copying and building on what has gone before. And they have regularly relied on studio support systems of one sort of another to assist them in their achievements.

‘Some people think that women are the cause of Modernism, whatever that is’ , New York Evening Sun, 1917.

This exhibition reminds us that many artists have also relied on the stimulus, debate and intellectual challenge of highly charged intimate relationships to spark their creativity and deliver their best work. The exhibition examines many of these relationships and the effect that it had on both parties. It charts the almost frightening intensity of some of them, and both the creativity and destructive effect that had on both the work and the people.

‘I express in a loud voice what all artists think. Desire! Desire! What a formidable stimulant.’ Auguste Rodin

‘Barbara (Hepworth) and I are the SAME. We’ll live, think and work and move and stay still together as if we were one person.’ Ben Nicholson

That shared creativity intensity and subsequent destructiveness often go together on show from the very first couple featured, Rodin and Claudel. Camille Claudel, whose own abilities as a sculptor were very considerable and who assisted Rodin very considerably at the time he was making his reputation, sadly spent the last 30 years of her life locked in a secure mental asylum.

And of course, those susceptible to these intense, almost obsessive relationships seem destined to repeat them. Several of the characters in the exhibition recur several times. And whilst the only Picasso relationship to feature in the exhibition is that with Dora Maar, we know that such relationships were a recurring feature of his life. His creativity needed to be fed by the life force of his then partner, and when that partner has been drained of her life force it is time to move on.

The example of Claudel also highlights another recurring theme of the exhibition; the frequency with which the female contribution to a male artists success was left unacknowledged.

But whilst some of the relationships illustrated in the exhibition are between men and women, many or not. Important gay and polygamous relationships are also celebrated, such as those between Woolf and Sackville-West, or between the various members of the Bloomsbury set.

It is a large exhibition illustrating more than forty creative relationships from Russia to Mexico. Inevitably the work is highly varied and covers painting, sculpture, dance, design and more. Not everything will be of equal interest to every visitor. But as an overall exhibition and a reinforcement of the frequently greater power of two or three over one in the creative process, it is not to be missed.