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  • Michelle Cook

Is it love or spectacle?: a review of Modern Couples: Art, Intimacy and the Avant-Garde

The Barbican Art Gallery’s newest show Modern Couples: Art, Intimacy and the Avant-Garde invites its audience to re-evaluate modern art through the lens of creative relationships. Turning the critical gaze away from “great artists” and “great works”, the show focuses instead on the interaction between art and society. The Gallery has a reputation for exhibitions about alternative narratives. Past shows have invited a lay audience to reassess the term “vulgar,” to contemplate subculture photography, to experience non-Western architecture, and to reflect upon the emotionally-charged vision of artists like Jean Michél Basquiat. Following suit, Modern Couples, which is posed as an impressive survey of the avant-garde, challenges heteronormativity through forty-six historical relationships. The exhibition is a visual incarnation of current interdisciplinary research about the sociology of love and the impact of the economy of choice. If modernism conceives a departure from the classical and the archaic. Upon entering the gallery, we are primed to see how the modern age has transformed the art of loving, and has shaped the art that love inspires.


The press release promises an ‘major interdisciplinary show … [that] challenges the idea that the history of art was a singular line of solitary, predominantly male geniuses’ (“Press Room: Modern Couples,” 2018). In this respect, it is successful. It humanises household names like Salvador Dali, Picasso, Man Ray, and Rodin by showing cruder, in-progress, works. The male artist-female muse dynamic is upturned through examples where the influence was reciprocal, as in the polyamorous relationship between Paul Cadmus, Margaret and Jared French (“PaJaMa”), or reversed, as with Gerda Wegener whose husband became her favourite model. The exhibition also effectively situates artists within a collective of like-minded practitioners that influence each other and revisit similar themes. Sigmund Freud’s psychoanalytic method emerges both as Gustav Mahler’s consolation and as an inspiration to the Dadaists. The display on the Sapphists, for example, successfully reproduces the ambiance of an intellectual salon: it is enshrined in a circular room with window-like enclaves, and is authenticated through a selection of pamphlets and personal letters. Similarly, the collections on the second floor about the Bloomsbury School and ARTEK, amongst others, show how artists were brought together by modes of production and circulation. Far from being a mere cartography of classifications against which a romantic relationship may be measured, each section invites the audience to briefly inhabit an intimate moment.


The exhibition raises an ethical dilemma, however, related to the phenomenological displacement of the angle of vision. The problem arises in how intimacy is presented. Although the survey is extensive, the choice of art works and documents lacks substance. The scattered selection alludes to stories that are monumental and affective, but ultimately levels them. This is evident in the presentation of Lee Miller’s relationships with Man Ray and Roland Penrose. The three-year relationship with Man Ray is represented by a series of intimate photographs, and their breakup is epitomized in a solitary, gut-wrenching piece of paper on which May Ray obsessively scribbled her name. In stark contrast, Lee Millers’s subsequent marriage to Roland Penrose, which lasted forty years and was highly influential in promoting Surrealism in Britain, is only given a cursory nod through one sculptural work, enclosed in glass, at the center of this emotionally-charged room. The exhibition is a spectacle; the survey fetishizes modern love by unfairly distilling identity to desire.

The archival documents that substantiate the curator’s interpretations also beget an uncomfortable “peeping tom” experience. Text-heavy displays that include dropped quotations are biased towards the curator’s narrative. The compartmentalized and un-structured presentation of each relationship forces the viewer to continually review the historical, social and cultural context, and increases his/her dependence on the curator’s introduction. The outcome is an exhibition which is not open to interpretation, and the impression that the story is told through a heavily-curated prism.


What’s more, the exhibition is information-heavy and too long. The busyness of the lower gallery is evidence of the show’s popularity, but contrasts sharply with the tranquility of the second floor. Towards the end, the capacity to feel empathy is compromised by mental and physical lethargy – in an exhibition about emotion, doesn’t this defeat the point? Or does this exhibition work better as a subversive postmodern joke? Modernism is infamous for its conception of the White Cube, but the walls of this labyrinth of rooms is, paradoxically, black. André Breton, quoted in the exhibition glossary, said: ‘Only love remains beyond the realm of that which our imagination can grasp’. If the modern self defies repression, and modern love is its manifestation, then its satisfactory containment in the White Cube would be ironic.



Modern Couples will show until 27 January 2019.

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© Michelle Cook 2019