Love, Infidelity, Polyamory: It's All Happening In Barbican's Modern Couples Exhibition

Modern Couples, Barbican ★★★★☆

Tabish Khan
By Tabish Khan Last edited 37 months ago

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Love, Infidelity, Polyamory: It's All Happening In Barbican's Modern Couples Exhibition Modern Couples, Barbican 4
The extravagant dance costumes of Lavinia Schulz © John Philips / Getty Images

Love makes the world go round, so the saying goes. Barbican is claiming it makes the art world go round too, in an exhibition dedicated to couples who inspired each other to greater creative heights.

Too often, history has sold us the story that the man was the creative genius and their muse (almost always a woman) was simply the match that ignited the spark in them. This show is about redressing that gender imbalance by showing creativity on all sides of these relationships.

© John Philips / Getty Images

The first room plays into the artist-muse stereotype with Camille Claudel as the younger woman who joins Auguste Rodin's team of assistants. Rodin's work, I Am Beautiful, shows a man straining to hold up a woman, with nods to a relationship where Claudel went from assistant to lover.

Nearby and in contrast, we learn the story of Marcel Duchamp, the hermit pairing up with outgoing socialite and fellow artist Maria Martins. It's great to see both their personalities reflected in the work — subtle sculptures by Duchamp and an energised couple cast in bronze by Martins.  

Frida Kahlo's star is now much higher than her then partner Diego Rivera. © John Philips / Getty Images

This show rushes through over 40 artist couples with only a few works to assess each pairing, so it's not always easy to judge for ourselves whether they did influence each other's works. Sometime it's obvious as with the case of Gustav Klimt and Emilie Floge — Floge's textiles have a patchwork quality that may be seen in Klimt's paintings.

Often the pairings are not balanced as with Dora Maar and Pablo Picasso, Picasso famously using women and giving very little back. Ben Nicholson captures both sides of the power balance well, as his abstract works could be seen as stronger than his wife Winifred Nicholson's painting, but when Ben moved on to Barbara Hepworth we can see she's easily in another league and her sculptures leave him for dust.

© John Philips / Getty Images

It's not just all about art, as choreographers, musicians and writers feature too — with Virginia Woolf making an appearance on both floors. Cleverly, she's been positioned opposite her sister Vanessa Bell who formed a love triangle of her own with two male artists.

While most are heterosexual partnerships, the show includes homosexual partnerships and the intriguing three way relationship of Paul Cadmus, Jared French and Margaret French — amalgamating their names to form the collective PaJaMa. Their photographs by the beach are filled with nudity and erotic fizz.

© John Philips / Getty Images

This is a massive exhibition over two floors and several hours could be spent reading up on each couple, their stories just as juicy as the artworks. Lust, infidelity and polyamory abounds, making us realise how unadventurous our romantic lives are in comparison. When looking for creative inspiration, this show suggests a stable relationship isn't much help.

There were times in this show where we wanted more works from each pairing to really test the theory of how much they inspired each other. But if we had that, we'd have to reduce the number of couples in the show and each of the 40 deserves its air time. It shows us how prevalent artistic coupling is, and every story here is golden — it would be a shame to skip over any one of them. Barbican has got the balance spot on.  

© John Philips / Getty Images

It takes two to tango and it seems like it often takes two in most other forms of creativity as well. We've fallen for this show, so we suggest you grab a couple of tickets and head over to this passionate whirlwind of an exhibition.

Modern Couples: Art, Intimacy and the Avant-garde is on at Barbican Art Gallery until 27 January 2019. Tickets are £16 for adults.

Last Updated 10 October 2018