Making Each Other Up: Modern Couples at the Barbican

Billie Manning

In a more and more socially connected world, we are very used to being privy to the intimate details of celebrities and modern artists’ lives. It’s no wonder then that we’re so curious about the personal lives of those figures who came before, and shaped the artists we celebrate today.

Pablo Picasso, Portrait de femme,1938, Courtesy of Centre Pompidou, ParisAs the Frida Kahlo exhibition 'Making Herself Up' at the V&A did recently, the Barbican’s extensive new exhibition showcases personal histories of the artists alongside their work. This exhibition focuses on romantic relationships, exploring the entwined lives and work of more than 40 couples, from Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera to Salvador Dalí and Federico García Lorca, shining a light on the web of personal relationships that influenced the avant-garde art and politics of the early 20th century.

Artists from a great range of disciplines are featured: photographers such as Man Ray and Lee Miller; designers such as Barbara Hepworth and Ben Nicholson; writers, sculptors, musicians. There are tiny, black-and-white personal portraits and huge, colourful Kandinskys. Displayed alongside the creations made during or influenced by the relationship are many letters, photographs and other artefacts relating to the couples’ time together, whether this varies from a months-long fling or a decades-long partnership.

The exhibition also celebrates variety in love by featuring trans artists, same-sex relationships and interracial relationships from a time when all would have been socially unacceptable - though the exhibition does make it clear that the upper classes have always been able to flaunt convention without quite the ramifications suffered by everyone else. This variety means that on the whole the exhibition stays fresh, although it can’t quite escape the fact that its size may have you dragging your feet by the end. 

One of the exhibition's biggest achievements is the comprehensive overview it gives of the turn of the century artistic networks that influenced movements and fashions in the art world. There is a one room dedicated to the queer women of Paris’ Left Bank who created androgynous self-portraits and amorous female nudes, another to Breton’s concept of ‘mad love’. A mention of Sigmund Freud’s consultations with Gustav Mahler on how to improve his relationships encourages us to think about how new psychological ideas, and simply the desire to get on better with his wife Alma, may have influenced his music.
The invention and fluidity of identity are two themes that certainly emerge strongly; seeing Claude Cahun and Marcel Moore’s photography alongside documentation of their 45-year partnership showcases how their symbiotic artistic relationship allowed them to reject gender roles and reinvent self-portraiture, and it is intriguing to see Virginia Woolf’s tribute to Vita Sackville-West’s ambiguous identity, Orlando, displayed along with their letters, ‘if you’ll make me up, I’ll make you.’

Photographs by Dora Maar, who was in a relationship with Pablo Picasso for around 10 years, are not only an innovative example of surrealism and beautiful to look at, but also shine a light on Picasso in the role of muse rather than vice-versa. Maar is just one of the many women highlighted in the exhibition whose work and legacies have been overshadowed by their partners, destroying the myth that the history of art has been a long line of solitary, male geniuses.
Dora Maar, Picasso en Minotaure, Mougins, 1937, Paris, Centre PompidouIt is often presented as lowbrow or simplistic to relate an artist’s art to their personal life, but what this exhibition shows is that isolating art from its creator can be very reductive. By looking at how one artist began incorporating new styles and ways of working during a relationship, Modern Couples reveals more and deeper meaning behind the pieces. In fact, it begins demystifying the myths behind creativity: that it is some kind of divine inspiration, that blesses a lucky few and enables them to produce great works, rather than hard work and commitment from humans who are influenced like the rest of us by their environment, relationships and experiences.

After exploring the entirety of the venue, it becomes clear that this is an innovative exhibition in its scope, ambition and in the perspective we use to look at art itself. It’s a hugely enjoyable journey across a period of time that was an explosion of creativity and political thought that was incredibly varied. It’s not one to miss if you’re interested in the period, and in the influence of romantic relationships on the artistic process. Just remember to wear flat shoes.

Modern Couples: Art, Intimacy and the Avant-Garde is at the Barbican until 27 January 2019.

Image credits from top to bottom: Federico Garcia Lorca and Salvador Dali in Cadaques
Pablo Picasso, Portrait de femme,1938, Courtesy of Centre Pompidou, Paris
Dorothea Tanning and Max Ernst with his sculpture, Capricorn, 1947 © John Kasnetsis
Tamara De Lempicka, Les Deux Amies, 1923, Association des Amis du Petit Palais, Geneve
Dora Maar, Picasso en Minotaure, Mougins, 1937, Paris, Centre Pompidou


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