If you’re after a cultured dose of voyeurism, Modern Couples is your best bet.
The Barbican show is a multi-orgasmic concoction of 40 early 20th century artist couples and the work they produced. Intimacy is put forward as the instigator to inspiring modern art, while the tired character of the solitary artistic genius is – rather refreshingly – quashed.
Modern Couples surveys the private lives of the avant-garde artists that shaped Modernism. From fiery, heterosexual loves like that of Frida Kahlo’s and Diego Rivera’s, to transgressive unions like that of trans woman Lili Elbe and Gerda Wegener, the exhibition is inclusive in its presentation of intimacy across varying sexual and gender identities. Refreshingly, female artists share equal weighting with males, with the misogynistic lens of the woman existing purely as a male muse removed.
Instead, we see art by women such as Dora Maar, who is often simply known as Pablo Picasso’s muse. We’re given space to explore her Surrealist photography, and are able to view artist-muse relationships more as a collaboration, rather than one-man-show. Auguste Rodin and Camille Claudel’s sculptures – which open the show – are tangible manifestations of their love and highlight the synchronicities in the sensual sculptures they both produced.
While the artworks themselves and messaging behind the curation are no doubt beautiful, the enormity of the exhibition is at times overwhelming. Twenty-three rooms are spread across two floors, and you’d be forgiven if you dreamed of a coffee break halfway through.
But nonetheless, the subject matter is timely: in the wake of the “Me Too” movement, women’s voices take centre stage and are presented as intellectual equals to their male counterparts. While Edward Weston is more of a household name than Margrethe Mather, Modern Couples examines Mather’s influence over Weston’s photography, giving her the creative recognition she duly deserves.
Literature is also rife throughout: the words of Virginia Woolf appear near the start of the exhibition and open the conversation to queer partnerships and feminism. Her prose softens the stomach-churning objectification and age gaps prevalent in many of the artist relationships (think 19-year-old Leonara Carrington’s relationship with a 46-year-old Max Ernst).
Throughout, text is interspersed with photographic portraits of the couples and intimate handwritten letters and poignant quotes bring new meaning to the paintings, sculptures, furniture and photography.
Notable exhibits include the trailblazing relations of those such as George Platt Lynes, who’s homoerotic works are viewed through the story of his 17-year-long, three-way relationship, and white, privileged heiress writer Nancy Cunard’s union with black jazz musician Henry Crowder, and the influence it had over the Black Civil Rights Movement.
It’s fascinating and it’s fluid, and while Modern Couples will make your brain ache, the message is pertinent: love, in all its shapes and forms, can shape history.
Modern Couples runs until the 27th of January