“We were two moving forces. One made one thing and one made the other” said the artist Sonia Delaunay of her relationship with her husband, Robert Delaunay. Together, in the second decade of the 20th century, they had founded Orphism, an influential art movement known for its vivid colours and geometric shapes. But while Robert’s name has endured, Sonia’s has faded, her preoccupation with textiles and fashion limiting her work to “craft”, while Robert’s paintings were deemed worthy of the label “art”. It’s only when you see their work together (left and right) that you understand just how much they influenced each other.
Throughout art history, women in creative partnerships with men have been relegated to the position of muse, imitator or domestic support. A new exhibition at the Barbican Art Gallery in London issues a robust challenge to the myth of lone, male genius, arguing that modernism was nurtured through intimate collaboration. It immerses the viewer in the worlds of 40 couples (and the occasional love triangle) that span the whole spectrum of sexuality. There is a mix of visual artists, including Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera and Alexander and Varvara Stepanova (pictured), writers (Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville-West) and composers (Alma and Gustav Mahler). Packed with photographs, works of art and letters, it’s an overwhelming experience, and extensive wall texts demand far more reading than is necessary, or fun.
The exhibition is good at showing the dark side of some of these creative partnerships, an alarming number of which ended in madness, suicide or murder. There are plenty of disturbing stories. When the painter Oskar Kokoschka was left by his lover, the composer Alma Mahler, he commissioned a life-size doll – a substitute Alma – to “deceive me with such magic that when I see it and touch it I imagine I have the woman of my dreams in front of me”. But there are more positive tales too. Filipo Tommaso Marinetti, the artist behind the “Futurist Manifesto”, was a committed misogynist until he fell in love with the artist Benedetta Cappa. Under her influence, Marinetti softened, as did Futurism, which became more inclusive of women, if still in hock to fascist ideology. He desribed her as “Divine milk / in my rough bark”.
Gustav Klimt, “Emilie Flöge in a loose dress in the Mayr Hof garden in Litzlberg/Attersee” (1906)
Gustav Klimt’s portraits are known for their lavish patterns, gold leaf and decorative surfaces. His interest in ornamentation was inspired by his long relationship with the fashion designer Emilie Flöge, whose rich Viennese clients he painted. Klimt’s sideline was fashion photography and he often took pictures of Flöge in her latest designs, which included reform dress, the loose-fitting fashions favoured by modern, liberated women. Despite Klimt’s endless affairs – he fathered six children with three different women – Flöge and Klimt continued their professional and personal collaboration until his death in 1918.
Camille Claudel, “Bust of Rodin” (1888-9); Auguste Rodin, “Mask of Camille Claudel” (1889)
“Desire! Desire! What a formidable stimulant”, said France’s most famous sculptor, Auguste Rodin. His love affair with his pupil Camille Claudel was a powerful source of inspiration for them both. Claudel’s “Sakountala” was conceived at the same time as Rodin’s own sculpted embrace, “The Kiss”. Claudel’s “Bust of Rodin” looks as though it has been created by someone running their hands over familiar and much-loved contours. It feels warmer than Rodin’s “Mask of Camille Claudel”, which was made by taking plaster casts of her head. There was a distinct power imbalance in their relationship. Desperate to escape the shadow of her celebrated tutor, who was 24 years older than she was, Claudel left Rodin in 1892 and became increasingly paranoid, convinced that her former lover was stealing her ideas. Eventually she was committed to an asylum, where she would remain imprisoned for the last 30 years of her life.
Man Ray, “Man Ray Sleeping” (c.1930); Roland Penrose, “Lee Miller with a cast of her torso” (1940)
Lee Miller is celebrated for her war photography, but her earlier work as an artist has been overshadowed by her relationship with Man Ray, her mentor, collaborator and lover from 1929 to 1932. She was a famous beauty and inspired several of Man Ray’s Surrealist works in which parts of her body – her torso, her lips, an eye – are isolated and fetishised. In 1937 she met the artist Roland Penrose who was more willing to acknowledge the extent of his collaborations with her, though he too found inspiration in Miller’s body.
In 1939 Penrose produced a cast of Miller’s torso and photographed her posing with it suggestively. It was designed to titilate, but Miller here is portrayed as active, willing participant – a sexual being rather than simply an object.
Claude Cahun, “Self-portrait (reflected image in mirror, checked jacket)” (1928)
The French photographer Claude Cahun was in a relationship with the photographer and illustrator Marcel Moore for 40 years. The women, who were stepsisters before they became lovers, made themselves the subjects of their art. When Cahun’s works, many of which show her subverting feminine stereotypes, were rediscovered in the 1980s, it was presumed that they were self-portraits. In fact, they were close collaborations with Moore, who Cahun referred to as “the other me”. They moved from Paris to Jersey in 1937. In 1944, they were sentenced to death for distributing anti-Nazi propaganda, but were saved when Jersey was liberated in 1945.
Federico García Lorca and Salvador Dalí in Cadaqués (1927)
The poet Federico García Lorca and the Surrealist artist Salvador Dalí were lovers between 1925 and 1928. Dalí wrote to Lorca: “You are a Christian whirlwind and you are in need of some of my paganism”. They were ardent supporters of each other’s work, and perhaps it was the confidence that came from this support that allowed them each to explore the other’s discipline. Dalí dabbled in poetry; Lorca became a draughtsman, producing wildly imaginative ramblings that respond to the work of Dalí. Their relationship collapsed in 1928, when Dalí was unsparing in his criticism of Lorca’s “Poema del canto jondo”.
Modern Couples: Art, Intimacy and the Avant-garde Barbican Art Gallery until January 27th 2019