Art Review: Modern Couples, Barbican Centre ‘Brilliant in its Breadth’

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It seems the myth of the lone male genius-artist is a hard one to kill, even to me. Only earlier this year I was wandering the halls of the Tate’s Picasso 1932 exhibition marvelling at the man’s sustained brilliance across so many artworks. It’s hard wired into us, isn’t it? That willingness and compliance to accept that some men – always men – are simply born with a talent that sets them apart.

The art world has seen recent attempts to address that skew with big solo shows for women – Anni Albers’s fantastic retrospective is currently on display in the very same galleries that only, weeks before, showcased Picasso 1932 – but this new show at the Barbican Art Gallery goes one step further, presenting a different way of looking at Modernism in art by considering the role of couples. By looking at the development of Modernism as an exchange of ideas between artists, rather than exulting the myth of the lone solo male talent.

This exhibition, ‘Modern Couples: Art, Intimacy and the Avant-Garde’, starts with a reassessment that has long been overdue – that of the influence of Camille Claudel on Auguste Rodin. Often relegated to the role of young lover or muse, Camille Claudel was pivotal in interrogating how the intimacy she had with Rodin could be captured in sculpture and the few objects on display here shows how they worked in tandem, their output made side by side in the studio.

Indeed, the reclaiming of acclaim for women oft-relegated to the role of the dreaded ‘muse’ is one of the central themes in the show that recontextualises Dora Maar’s work, showcases how Man Ray lifted from Lee Miller, and (a personal fave) shows how Leonora Carrington influenced Max Ernst as much as the other way around.

Modernism was also accompanied with more visible sexual liberation, The Bloomsbury Group are obviously included with that in mind, and it is lovely seeing Vanessa Bell’s Nude with Poppies again (the first time I’ve seen it since her retrospective at Dulwich Picture Gallery). But this show also looks at how Claude Cahun and Marcel Moore collaborated to represent gender fluidity and the celebration of a queer identity in their work, and how Dali drew on his relationship with Frederico Garcia Lorca.

Indeed, the breadth of this exhibition is a wonder. Frida and Diego, Barbara Hepworth and Ben Nicholson, Nancy Cunard and Henry Crowder, Georgia O’Keeffe and Alfred Stieglitz, Sonia and Robert Delaunay, Emile Flöge and Gustav Klimt…. The roll call of artist included really does feel like a register of modernism. But perhaps what the exhibition achieves in breadth is at the expense of depth.

The compartmental layout of the Barbican is perfect for this multitude of examinations, but how I wish I could have seen more of Lee Miller’s influence on Man Ray and Roland Penrose, and how I wanted more on the women in the Surrealist movement who have been marginalised for so long – as they had been in that movement at the time.

In fairness to the Barbican perhaps each of these individual stories is worth an exhibition in itself and it is the bringing all these individual histories together that gives this show its power and emphasises the importance of its central message.

But there’s no doubt that as much as I loved seeing Frida’s The Wounded Deer and Tamara de Lempicka’s fabulously sexual Les Deux Amies of two powerful female physiques in union, this show is at its best when it has been able to secure many works to demonstrate a point, and this is at its best when looking at Gabriele Münter and Kandinsky.

The riot of colours in this subsection is a wonder. Two artists depicting landscapes in a blur of bright reds and brilliant greens. The whirlwind of colours lifts you, its impact immediate. And though we all think we can spot a Kandinsky a mile away, as you look at the dozen paintings in this cubicle – because obviously you must see this show – just, for a second, ignore the placards and see if you can determine which are by Kandinsky and which are by Gabriele because even if I faltered on one or two, such was Gabriele’s achievement.

Point made.

Barbican Art Gallery, London, to January 27, 2019.
Admission £16 (Concessions available)
All installation images © John Phillips/Getty Images

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