This is a ground breaking exhibition in more than one way: it breaks the myth of the solitary artist, it shows the interchangeable role of muse and creator, and sheds new light on the work and relationships of known and less known creative couples. On display are works of over 40 artist couples active in the first half of the 20th century. Drawing on loans from private and public collections worldwide, the exhibition features the creative output of painters, sculptors, photographers, architects, designers, writers, musicians and performers, together with personal photographs, love letters, gifts and other fascinating archival material.
Part of the Barbican Centre’s The Art of Change – a yearlong season that explores the relationship between art, society and politics – this show appeals to visitors at many levels, including social and autobiographical concerns. The array of different types of relationship is mind-blowing, heterosexual, homosexual, transgender, multiracial, age-gap; short liaisons, life-long, the intensity of passion, desire, blending of bodies and minds, tumultuous emotions, insanity, or more sombre, if not entirely business-like. Every room presents one or more couples, with an extensive introductory text highlighting the duration of their relationship, where they met, and what kind of influence they had on each other.
Some of the creative couples are well known, like the Delaunays, or Hannah Höch and Raoul Hausmann, but others will come to most as a surprise, for instance Salvador Dalí and the Spanish poet Federico García Lorca, whose relationship lasted from 1923 until Lorca’s assassination in 1936. The room dedicated to their intimacy (that Dalí tried to keep secret throughout his life) is particularly interesting, with a display of their correspondence (Dalí’s letters enriched with drawings and collages), less seen and unusual work by Dalí (Female Nude Seated in Armchair) and drawings by Lorca, where the influence of his artist’s friend is clearly visible.
Of course some artists, like Pablo Picasso, had many different muses during the course of their lives, but the one chosen for this exhibition is surrealist photographer Dora Maar. Although Picasso tended to belittle photography, her studio at Rue d’Astorg became for a time the centre of his creative world. And together they experimented with photography. Some of Picasso’s photography based work is on display, together with Maar’s portraits of the artist (and a vitrine containing her camera).
Room 12, entitled Mad Love, explores Surrealist love, seen as a route to break the boundaries between dream and reality, madness and sanity. Much space is dedicated to André Breton and Nadja, a mental patient. And some of the exquisite corpses by the likes of Breton, Éluard and Hugo are also on display (and they are, indeed, exquisite).
If, as I hope, you are intrigued with this exhibition, make sure you set aside enough time for your visit. There is a lot to read, a lot to see, and a lot to ponder over.
The booklet accompanying this pioneering exhibition is itself a bit different, being mainly a stimulating glossary. On the last page, though, there is a chronological list of the dates of all the relationships. You could spend some time studying it, if you feel inclined to explore themes like duration versus intensity, or draw other mental graphs, in an effort to better understand the mechanics of artist couples, or, for that matter, of your own love life.
First published in the East Finchley Open Artists October 2018 Newsletter - Click HERE to subscribe to the newsletter.