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

Updated: Jan 24, 2019

Until 27 January 2019



Covering two floors, this vast and ambitious exhibition is set out in booths or open rooms with a section for each couple or "menage a trois". The floor plan signals the contradiction of private lives made public which was the case for these notorious, modern couples - painters, sculptors, photographers, architects, designers, writers, musicians and performers. Together, they shaped the Avantgarde during the first half of the twentieth century across Russia, Europe and America. Their private lives underlined the very nature of their creativity. It's revealing to find that as photography entered the realm of art, the personal became increasingly public, perhaps as much to the artists' detriment as their benefit.


“What rings true from the exhibition is the way in which avantgarde artists, rather than creating as individuals in isolation, drew on their intimate relationships as inspiration from which movements were forged that resound in the history of art."

What is particularly revelatory is the toll many of these couples took in being so out there. They were scrutinised as much for their persons and relationships as their art. The eyes that stare back at the photographer are most poignant. Note the desperate gaze of Camille Claudel towards Auguste Rodin, twenty-four years her senior. Despite the love letters, the despair in Camille’s eyes hint at an imbalanced and doomed relationship. And then there is the defiant, pained stare of political activist and publisher Nancy Cunard, whose relationship with the Afro-American poet and jazz musician Henry Crowder, was vilified by her family and society.


Many of the modern couples were pioneers in their relationships as much as their art, notably the well-documented lesbian relationships between Natalie Clifford Barney and Romaine Brooks and Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville-West. What stands out is courage and audacity, as much as love and intimacy.


What rings true from the exhibition is the way in which avantgarde artists, rather than creating as individuals in isolation, drew on their intimate relationships as inspiration from which movements were forged that resound in the history of art. Every relationship is fascinating and holds as much resonance as the art created. The list of couples (below) is outstanding. Allow plenty of time to peruse and reflect.


Artist Couples include: Aino and Alvar Aalto; Vanessa Bell and Roger Fry; Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant; Lilya Brik and Vladimir Mayakovsky; Claude Cahun and Marcel Moore; Benedetta and Filippo Tommaso Marinetti; Leonora Carrington and Max Ernst; Camille Claudel and Auguste Rodin; Nancy Cunard and Henry Crowder; Sonia Delaunay and Robert Delaunay; Lili Elbe And Gerda Wegener; Emilie Flöge and Gustav Klimt; Federico García Lorca and Salvador Dalí; Natalia Goncharova and Mikhail Larionov; Eileen Gray and Jean Badovici; Barbara Hepworth and Ben Nicholson; Hannah Höch and Til Brugman; Hannah Höch and Raoul Hausmann; Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera; Dora Maar and Pablo Picasso; Alma Mahler and Oskar Kokoschka; Alma Mahler and Gustav Mahler; Maria Martins and Marcel Duchamp; Margrethe Mather and Edward Weston; Lee Miller and Man Ray; Lee Miller and Roland Penrose; Tina Modotti and Edward Weston; Lucia Moholy and László Moholy-Nagy; Gabriele Münter and Wassily Kandinsky; Winifred Nicholson and Ben Nicholson; Georgia O’Keeffe and Alfred Stieglitz; PaJaMa: Paul Cadmus, Jared French, and Margaret French; George Platt Lynes, Monroe Wheeler and Glenway Wescott; Lavinia Schultz and Walter Holdt; Varvara Stepanova and Alexander Rodchenko; Sophie Taeuber-Arp and Jean Arp; Toyen and Jindrich Štyrský; Marianne von Werefkinand Alexej von Jawlensky; Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville-West; Virginia Woolf and Leonard Woolf; and Unica Zürn and Hans Bellmer Artist Couples in Chance Encounter: Eileen Agar and Joseph Bard; Eileen Agar and Paul Nash; Marcel Duchamp as Rrose Sélavy; Leonor Fini and André Pieyre de Mandiargues; Gala and Salvador Dalí; Gala, Paul Éluard and Max Ernst; Valentine Hugo and André Breton; Jacqueline Lamba and André Breton; Kiki de Montparnasse and Man Ray; Nadja and André Breton; Nusch and Paul Éluard; Grace Pailthorpe and Reuben Mednikoff; Valentine Penrose and Alice Rahon; Valentine Penrose and Roland Penrose; and Dorothea Tanning and Max Ernst. Artist couples in a room dedicated toTemple de l’Amitie (The Temple of Friendship): Djuna Barnes and Thelma Wood; Natalie Clifford-Barney and Romaine Brooks; Natalie Clifford Barney and Rémy de Gourmont ; Natalie Clifford-Barney and Liane de Pougy; Natalie Clifford Barney and Renée Vivien; Sylvia Beach and Adrienne Monnier; Luisa Casati; Radclyffe Hall and Una Troubridge; Tamara de Lempicka; Ida Rubinstein; and Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas.


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