Iconic partnerships and queer love are celebrated in the Barbican Art Gallery’s current exhibition, Modern Couples: Art, Intimacy and the Avant-garde.
In 1887, art critic Paul Leroi warned the sculptor Camille Claudel about her mentor, Auguste Rodin. ‘One must beware of being absorbed by his fascinating influence,’ he cautioned in his article for the Parisian magazine, L’Art. ‘The young artist must be Mademoiselle Claudel exclusively, not just a reflection.’ Leroi’s words, uttered in what was an enthusiastic review of her work, touched on issues that went beyond Rodin’s role as teacher and employer. For in the great sculptor’s atelier the professional had become the personal, the pupil the lover, the model the muse. Rodin’s ‘powerful personality’ had already made an impression on ‘Mademoiselle’ Claudel’s heart and was fast shaping her stylistic sensibilities. Even after a gruelling 12-hour day in the studio, his ‘mastery’ still held sway in private letters and through clandestine liaisons. In light of their relationship – an unequal one except when it came to artistic skill and vision – how was she to be ‘Mademoiselle Claudel exclusively’? How could Claudel avoid becoming Rodin’s ‘reflection’, the lesser moon to his ‘superior’ sun, the dwindling Echo to his self-regarding Narcissus?
Iconic partnerships like Claudel’s and Rodin’s sit at the heart of the Barbican Art Gallery’s latest exhibition, Modern Couples: Art, Intimacy and the Avant-garde. Spanning the work of over 80-plus artists (around 40 couples in total) from the late nineteenth to the mid-twentieth century, the show uncovers the collaborative efforts and hitherto unknown influences of Modernism’s greats. Using the term ‘couple’ elastically, curators Jane Alison and Emma Lavigne celebrate the loves, lives and legacies of artist duos such as Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville-West, Nancy Cunard and Henry Crowder and many more. As if in response to Leroi’s remarks, Alison and Lavigne have prioritised women and marginalised artists over their more exposed, often male, counterparts. Thus in Modern Couples, the female or lesser known artist is celebrated in their own light and shown to be ‘exclusively’ their own. Here, Camille Claudel is no mere ‘reflection’ of Rodin; her sculptures no trite testimony to his ‘advanced’ ability and art. Instead, Claudel and artists like her are not only presented as equals to their feted lovers, but equally important to the history of art.
Then again, parallels between the work of one artist and their partner are never ignored. In the case of Rodin and Claudel, the first and earliest artist duo to feature in the show, Leroi’s fears of emulation are not so much averted but subversively evinced in the work of both sculptors. That is, their work reflects the influence of the other, whether stylistically, aesthetically or erotically, all the while preserving their individual artistic integrity. This is seen in Claudel’s terracotta studies for her sculpture Sakountala (c.1886). Named after the heroine of a fifth-century Hindu drama, Claudel’s delicate clay studies capture the moment of ecstatic reunion between King Duchmanta and the young woman, Sakountala. Diminutive, fragile and intensely moving, these preparatory modellings are regarded by Alison and the critic Odile Ayral-Clause as the artistic summation of Claudel’s feelings for Rodin at this time. No bigger than an open-palm, the entwined bodies of these lovers are indecipherable; female lover and king are one. Raw in form, but tender in essence, her clay lovers were eventually immortalised in a refined marble version known as Vertumne et Pomone (1905). Prior to this later work, the Sakountala studies and plaster versions were compared to Rodin’s The Kiss (1882). Yet Claudel’s terracotta lovers do not share the fulsome solidity of that famous embrace; nor do they have the same masculinised eroticism and fantasy found in Je Suis Belle (1882), a smaller sculpture included here which again channels Rodin’s feelings for Claudel. What the studies betray are her own thoughts and feelings on the creative and equalising potential of love.
Unlike Claudel’s tiny terracotta forms, the clay bust she made of her lover, entitled Portrait of Rodin (1888-9), is still regarded as evidence of his tutelage. Similarly, Rodin’s plaster Mask of Camille Claudel (1898) betrays a sensitivity characteristic of her Sakountala studies. Far from being subsumed into Rodin’s ‘powerful personality’, Claudel mastered his style and her own. Although Rodin went onto gain worldwide fame, her portrait of the artist will forever be a potent reminder of her mastery when it came to sculpture.
Other female artists to emerge from under the bloated reputation of their male partners are Alma Mahler, Emilie Flöge and, amongst others, Dora Maar. For each of these female creatives, their partner’s representation or idealisation of her has long survived any auto-portrait or repertoire she sought to leave behind. Maar’s unique, atmospherically surreal and technically innovative black and white shots have definitely been eclipsed by Picasso’s abstract depiction of her as a worrisome or weeping woman. Alma Mahler’s music has long been a footnote to that of her husband’s, Gustav Mahler, not to mention the morbidly fetishistic doll, his ‘Second Alma’, that Oskar Kokoschka had made. And Emilie Flöge, the life-long companion of Gustav Klimt and founder of a successful fashion house, was lost to the painter’s exotic swirls and erotically tinged patterns. Placing the work of each couple side by side, Alison and Lavigne shift the narrative and reverse the reputational eclipse that these women suffered.
Running counter to these heterosexual partnerships, are queer couples, lesbian duos, polyamorous groupings and all that’s in between. Disproving the monolithic cast of modernism with their art, these amorous couplings and collectives modernised love. Innumerable writers and creatives are gathered here: the works of Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas, Romaine Brooks and Natalie Clifford Barnay, Djuna Barnes and Thelma Wood. But the work that best celebrates the art of collaboration and the loving collaborative nature of art-making is Claude Cahun and Marcel Moore. This Sapphic sisterhood not only worked closely to produce photographic portraits and collages of a performative nature, but they embraced the opportunity of one to reflect the other.
To Cahun’s mind, ‘the couple is a duplicate entity, a split personality, alien to the undivided whole of narcissism’. No longer wishing for Moore to be ‘the subject of my private drama’ – the bust on a pedestal, the weeping woman on the canvas, the life-like doll – Cahun recognised her as ‘my collaborator’; ‘I am one half, you are the other.’ Although Cahun’s and Moore’s gender-bending work placed the former in the picture and the latter outside directing it, they still saw the images as mutually conceived works. Two photographs that encapsulate this intersubjective, mutually inclusive ethic are Self Portrait (reflected image in mirror, checked jacket) (1928) and Suzanne Malherbe / Marcel Moore (1928). Standing in front of a mirror, both the costumed Cahun and the unmannered Moore look out to the viewer. Moore does so inadvertently by looking away from us and into the reflective surface; Cahun, with a dramatic nod, peers over her upturned collar cool and suave. Both remind us of the performativity of gender and the construction of the self in general. Both have us asking whether they stand as Claude Cahun and Marcel Moore or their birth-given feminised epithets, Lucie Schwob and Suzanne Malherbe. Mirroring each other’s position and locality, in front of the metaphor of illusion (a looking glass) and self-construction, Moore and Cahun embrace their co-created reflections. Exclusively themselves, they also lovingly and flauntingly reflect the other. She is ‘the other me’, Cahun asserted. Moore would most definitely have agreed.
Modern Couples: Art, Intimacy and the Avant-garde is on at the Barbican Art Gallery until 27 January 2019. For more information, click here.