The art of relationships

The Modern Couples exhibition at the Barbican is powerful and educational. Go and see it before 27th January 2019.

It tells the story of 46 relationships between artists. Each story has dates of the relationship, extracts from personal letters and a selection of art created by all the people involved.

Why is it special?

I can’t remember reading every single description in an art gallery before. And I’ve never studied art so I know as much/little as the average lay person. Yet I spent 3 hours here. If you are in any way curious about other people’s relationships, you’ll find a treasure trove here.

I was drawn to Man Ray and Lee Miller, partly because the photos are beautiful. Their relationship story has a familiar theme. The woman is significantly younger (17 year age gap) and begins as a pupil/muse to the more experienced male artist. But the exhibition highlights that the women involved were far from passive models; they were artists in their own right. Miller became a photographer and discovered the technique of ‘solarisation’ which became a trademark of Ray’s work. A true collaboration.

The art shows a relationship trajectory. There is an obsessive capturing of the beauty one sees in the other, fetishisation and fracturing. One of the works Ray created after they split up (‘Object of Destruction’) was a metronome with a cut-out of Miller’s eye attached. Creepy. It’s well placed in the Amour Fou / crazy love section.

Lee Miller


I wasn’t feel well-disposed to Pablo Picasso based on what I’ve read about him lately, and there is more evidence here. The relationship between Picasso and Dora Maar was complicated. He depicted her as ‘the weeping woman’, which she didn’t like much. There is a photo of Maar sitting alone on a chair with a cat on her knee, underneath a Picasso painted portrait. I like to think this is a peaceful moment where she’s thinking cats can be less trouble than relationships between humans.

Dora Maar

Georgia O’Keeffe and Alfred Stieglitz, painter and photographer, were another interesting couple. They were letter writers. When Stieglitz sent O’Keeffe a box of photos he took of her, she wrote that she loved them and she loved herself in them (paraphrasing!) It reminded me that others can sometimes show us new aspects of ourselves to appreciate. I was also fascinated by the fact that although their marriage lasted until his death, O’Keeffe moved away from him to pursue a different kind of life. It seemed a modern decision, driven by the idea that you don’t need to sacrifice your own happiness for a relationship. This is an extract she wrote to him:

I have not really had my way of life for many years…And I chose coming away because here at least I feel good — and it makes me feel I am growing very tall and straight inside — and very still — Maybe you will not love me for it — but for me it seems to be the best thing I can do for you.
<Extract from a letter by Georgia O’Keeffe>

The exhibition is a bold attempt to correct the bias that left many of these women out of the history books. But there is an alternative theme too, of business women. Emilie Flöge, Sonia Delaunay and Aino Aalto set up fashion and design businesses, inspired by artistic relationships. There is a greater sense of equality in their stories. The seeds of economic independence.

I was already fascinated by the Bloomsbury Set so it’s good to see Virginia Woolf and pals in this collection. Virginia Woolf and Leonard Woolf, Vita Sackville-West and Virginia Woolf, Vanessa Bell and Roger Fry, AND Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant. A lot of overlapping relationships with nods to the fluidity of gender and the flexibility of marriage. I remember discovering some of this when I visited Charleston a few years ago. It’s the former home of the Bloomsbury Set in Sussex, UK. I expected it to be the run of the mill National Trust experience, so was wide-eyed by the tales of complicated love lives explained by the volunteers. A privileged group they may have been, but their ideas are influencing today’s relationships.

They lived in squares, painted in circles and loved in triangles.                                                                                                                        <Dorothy Parker on the Bloomsbury Set>

For all the love-at-first-sights and hanging out on the Left Bank in Paris, the exhibition reminds us that relationships can be amazing and awful. They are often both. It shows that they move us into different spaces, challenging and changing what we thought we knew. They evoke our most extreme emotions and spark our greatest collaborations. And they are unconventional and unpredictable.

Like art.

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