Featuring some of the biggest names in Modern Art history, the latest exhibition at the Barbican in London—Modern Couples—presents a different way of looking at Modernism in art: as seen through the lens of famous couples. Couples who together forged new ways of making art, of living and of loving. Here is a short summary of the exhibition with who and what was included.
The word ‘couple’ here is an elastic term and one that the artists involved expanded, embraced and refuted; at their most productive these relationships, whether short-lived or life-long, were inspirational and empowering. Over forty couple’s lives and their works are spread across the two floors of the gallery; the lower floor gallery introduces the exhibition and presents all the principle themes which gave rise to the Modernism art and design movement. Featuring the likes of Maria Martins & Marcel Duchamp, Camille Claudel & Auguste Rodin, Emilie Flöge & Gustav Klimt, Dora Maar & Pablo Picasso and Lilly Reich & Ludwig Mies van der Rohe.
Themes of desire, transgression, liberation, activism, collaboration as well as the urgent pulse of experiment are all introduced which underpin the exhibition concept.
The upper floor gallery expand on these themes and highlight the cross-fertilisation of design and art together whilst also exploring utopian and revolutionary spaces and the move to abstraction. Couples on show here include, but not limited to, Lucia Moholy & László Moholy-Nagy, Georgia O’Keeffe & Alfred Stieglitz, Aino Aalto & Alvar Aalto, Barbara Hepworth & Ben Nicholson and Til Brugman & Hannah Höch.
In both sections each couple is given their own section with a small selection of their work, the majority of which help to give context to the couple as well as the adjoining personal, hand-written notes to one another, photographs and pull-quotes. The visitor is invited to explore the intimate and creative world of each couple through a carefully orchestrated journey.
The majority of couples exhibited are predominantly heterosexual focused, however there are sub-exhibitions here which centre around communities of friends and lovers. One exhibition, Chloe liked Olivia, is dedicated specifically to the lesbian and bisexual artists and writers that gravitated to Paris in the 1920s and in particular highlights the relevance of Virginia Woolf’s 1928 book, Orlando, a work of political satire and feminist fantasy. ‘Mad Love’ is another exhibition which is a foray into the intersecting Surrealist world of love, image and text.
As well as the important stories of the couples lives and relationships throughout the exhibition, the result of their relationship and work is an important aspect also, with many of the most important artists of the 20th century who helped to build the Avant-garde, Modernism art and design movement; most of the important sub-movements are covered such as Cubism, Orphism, Surrealism, Bauhaus, Expressionism, Modernisme, Dada, Suprematism, Constructivist, De Stijl and more covering the mediums of art, sculpture, photography, fashion, writing, poetry, product design, graphic design, architecture and more.
Alas, this exhibition lacked something; it felt like an attempt to cram in as many artists and couples as possible with a lot feeling like filler. Sure it is interesting to explore and learn about new artists but in giving each couple near enough the same amount of space; some of the more prominent and known couples were very unrepresented. Some of the couples are so important in Modernism that they could warrant an exhibition of similar size on just their work such as the Anni Albers exhibition at Tate Modern which although about Anni, did have some focus on her husband Josef and their relationship, personally and professionally.
Although, something that I found very interesting was how this exhibition does a great job of recognising and highlighting the female artists and designers who have often been overshadowed by their more famous male partners; there are however many women on show who are very famous and known in their own right such as Frida Kahlo, Barbara Hepworth, Sonia Delaunay, Georgia O’Keeffe and Eileen Gray.
To accompany the exhibition, there is a book which has been beautifully designed by the London based studio A Practice for Everyday Life/APFEL and published by Prestel for the Barbican. The book goes into more detail about each couple’s lives and work; highlighting the main artists.
“The publication’s muted colour palette was derived from the many paper-based works included in Modern Couples; this is echoed by the use of textured laid paper for the book cover and selected sections within. The red used on the cover provides a visual connection to Surrealism and Russian Constructivism — both movements are represented extensively within the exhibition — and the back cover design was inspired by a magazine cover featuring Marcel Duchamp’s alter-ego Rrose Sélavy, which is included in the show. Where photographic images are incorporated into the exhibition and publication design, they are reproduced at varied sizes without the use of a rigid grid, referencing the layouts found in photo albums within the exhibition.”