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Tortuous trajectories: the loves and lives of Modern couples

Activating multiple modernities and identities, the Barbican’s Modern Couples exhibition probed the explicit intertwining of lives and art

Gettyimages 105220089

Gettyimages 105220089


Nancy Cunard and Henry Crowder at work in the Hours Press

On Twitter recently, passed around like a smutty note at the back of the class, was a diagram entitled ‘Modernism’s Sexual Networks’, a rough guide to ‘who had had who’ in the worlds of art and literature during the first half of the 20th century. Perusing this tangled cat’s cradle revealed some intriguing liaisons, notably the shipping heiress and self-styled anarchist Nancy Cunard, who created her own kind of literary history by having had both TS Eliot and Ezra Pound. ‘Imagine being the woman who could compare Eliot and Pound’, opined one online pundit. ‘Il miglior fabbro, indeed’.

Cunard featured prominently in Modern Couples, the Barbican’s recent anthropological safari into the landscape of liaisons ‘from the fleeting to the lifelong’, a contested, uneven and sometimes disturbing terrain. Instead of a titillating seasoning spicing up the reputations of great men, the Barbican’s ménages were presented as the main course, winkled out from behind history’s arras for public delectation and consumption. Closeted in a series of darkly claustrophobic rooms, lives, loves and transgressions became the art, inseparably intertwined. Within this physical and existential labyrinth, the viewer/voyeur was invited to peer into and pore over the myriad encounters – some 40 ménages, over 80 individual artists – played out in letters, memorabilia and artworks of all kinds, explicitly conjoining the personal with the political. 

‘By re-situating and re-evaluating the avant-garde through the prism of intimate relationships, Modern Couples sought to give hitherto marginalised female partners their artistic due’

In this respect, Cunard had form beyond bed-hopping with titans of poetry. The show focused on one of her more controversial relationships, when she took up with African-American jazz pianist Henry Crowder in 1928 after encountering him in Venice while he was playing a residency at the Hotel Luna. Together they formed a professional as well as a personal partnership, publishing experimental poetry through their imprint, the Hours Press, which featured works by Samuel Beckett, Pound and the sexologist Havelock Ellis. Extending their collaboration, Cunard encouraged Crowder to compose music for poetry, roping in Man Ray to design the cover of Henry Music. Man Ray also took the famous photograph of Cunard, her slender arms decked in heavy ‘African’ bracelets. Emblematic of the Modernist fetishising of the ‘primitive’, this image of bohemian hauteur became especially totemic, going on to adorn the walls of hundreds of student bedrooms.

Cushioned by her inherited wealth, Cunard could afford to take financial and personal risks that others could not, yet as one of the very few mixed-race relationships documented in Modern Couples, it pointed up the unsparing tenor of the times. Cunard’s liaison with Crowder aroused intense social and familial hostility, igniting in her an activist streak that dominated her life as she ricocheted hectically from cause to cause, eventually undone by it all. Just before her death in 1965, she was scraped off the streets of Paris, frail, deranged and emaciated, expiring in hospital two days later.

By re-situating and re-evaluating the avant-garde through the prism of intimate relationships, Modern Couples sought to give hitherto marginalised female partners their artistic due. Yet though the frame might shift, what swims into view is not necessarily pleasant or palatable. For every wholesome paradigm of productive lives well spent – the industrious Aaltos, the chromatic Delaunays, the exultant synchronicity of Varvara Stepanova and Alexander Rodchenko – there were darker, seamier narratives, riddled with misogyny, obsession, madness and abuse. It all added up to a disquieting sense that women were always fair game, to be objectified, belittled and consigned to the periphery, or worse.

Gettyimages 961793210

Gettyimages 961793210


When Oskar Kokoschka was spurned by Alma Mahler, he commissioned a life-size ‘replica’ from Viennese doll-maker Hermine Moos

Within the Barbican’s torrid maze of rooms, certain individual narratives stood out. Camille Claudel, Rodin’s muse, mistress and collaborator, became increasingly unstable as she attempted to develop her own career as a sculptor, furiously battling the gravitational pull of the male genius and the sexist proscriptions of the late 19th century. As Rodin’s reputation soared, Claudel’s sank. Ultimately, at her family’s request, she was incarcerated in an asylum where she languished for 30 years until her death.

Lucia Moholy, who was married to László Moholy-Nagy between 1921 and 1929, suffered another kind of indignity. As a pioneering photographer, her work helped to cement the public image of the Bauhaus, documenting its buildings, students and teachers. When she fled Germany in 1933, leaving everything behind, her collection of glass negatives was appropriated by Walter Gropius who subsequently used them without credit in books and exhibitions. After decades of legal wrangling, she finally managed to retrieve a fraction of her work in the 1960s, but for many decades was effectively edited out of Bauhaus history. Her legacy is only now being reclaimed by scholars.

‘Kokoschka’s urge to replace his paramour with a stuffed imitation is a grotesque exaggeration of artists’ habitual treatment of their muses’

Bleakly mirroring the exhilaration of mutually fulfilling love, the trauma of separation and spurned affection often catalyses extreme outpourings. The loss of Alma Mahler to Walter Gropius (ever the villain of the piece) drove Oskar Kokoschka to commission a full scale replica of her from Viennese doll-maker Hermine Moos.

‘Pay special attention to the dimensions of the head and neck, to the ribcage, the rump and the limbs’, Kokoschka wrote. ‘The point of all this for me is an experience which I must be able to embrace.’ Kokoschka’s urge to replace his paramour with a stuffed imitation is a grotesque exaggeration of artists’ habitual treatment of their muses, at once subjects and lovers. It ended badly. Kokoschka was displeased with the result, comparing the doll’s extraodinary feathery epidermis to ‘a polar-bear pelt, suitable for a shaggy imitation bedside rug rather than the soft and pliable skin of a woman’. He ultimately decapitated it with a wine bottle.

Untitled 7

Untitled 7

Source: Courtesy of Musée Rodin, Paris

Head of Rodin, sculpted by his muse, pupil and lover Camille Claudel, left. Claudel, in turn, modelled for Rodin, right. Despite her talent she could not sustain her career and was ultimately committed to an asylum where she remained for 30 years, dying in 1943

Such malevolently Pygmalian impulses find further expression in Hans Bellmer’s La Poupée, its bloated and contorted doll-like forms taking the Surrealist obsession with the femme-enfant to disturbing extremes. In the photomontage Tenir au Frais, Bellmer’s partner Unica Zürn is sadistically trussed in fl esh-lacerating string, like a piece of meat, her torso abstracted and rendered mutely inanimate. Together for 17 years, Bellmar and Zürn shared a fascination with mapping desires and fears on the female body. Bellmer’s mutated dolls were originally conceived as a savage commentary on the cult of bodily perfection in Nazi Germany, while Zürn’s own drawings are like wounds that reflect, or, arguably, come to personify and breathe life into the splintered personas of Bellmer’s terrifying mannequins. However, Zürn, who described herself as ‘an eternal victim’, was diagnosed as schizophrenic and frequently hospitalised. In 1970 she killed herself by jumping out of the couple’s Parisian apartment.

It is a truth universally acknowledged that Western art and literature have a tradition of aestheticising violent misogyny. And as Modern Couples demonstrates, the Surrealist project, in particular, was predicated on Sadean and Freudian perceptions of women that undermined and stifled female agency. Thought to be in touch with the deeper workings of the mind, women were at the heart of Surrealism’s poetic and political revolution. Nonetheless, the movement was haunted by otherness, instability and unbridled sex drives, with women expected to conform to the demands of male partners within a predominantly heterosexual milieu.

‘“I am the work of your life”, Claude Cahun told Marcel Moore in 1914’

Yet within the wider compass of the avant-garde, experimental pieces by artists such as German Dadaist Hannah Höch defiantly subverted female bodily and social conventions. Höch’s often tempestuous seven-year relationship with the already married Raoul Hausmann fuelled her acerbic reflections on family life and sexual inequality and fed into her blisteringly satirical collages. Among them is Der Vater (The Father) with its monstrous male Madonna. During the course of her affair with Hausmann, widely regarded as her artistic inferior, she sustained two aborted pregnancies.




Der Vater, collage by Hannah Höch, 1920, satirising family life and gender inequality with a monstrous male Madonna

Art produced within the context of a relationship is a procreative process, a kind of giving birth. Equally, artistic partnerships can allow artists to reciprocally give birth to each other as artists. ‘I am the work of your life’, Claude Cahun told Marcel Moore in 1914. Life partners for 45 years, the two women, who assumed masculine noms de guerre, created a radical body of work resonantly intercut with performativity and gender politics. Retreating to their summer house in Jersey during the Second World War, they chose to make a stand and remain during the Nazi occupation, covertly distributing anti-Fascist tracts. Arrested in 1944, they were due to be deported to the death camps in mainland Europe, but narrowly escaped. In the interim, their house was ransacked by occupying forces and the majority of their photographs and artworks destroyed.

By all accounts, theirs was a genuinely reciprocal partnership, forged in childhood, with Cahun referring to Moore as ‘the other me’. Loosely affiliated to the Surrealist movement, they enlarged and challenged its scope. Where most of the movement’s artists were men depicting women as isolated and objectified symbols of eroticism, Cahun and Moore mined the intoxicating, chameleonic possibilities of gender identity and the body. Amid the visual and experiential cacophony of Modern Couples, the duo’s quiet, insistent reframing of the personal and political stands out as a truly defining moment in the tortuous trajectories of Modernist lives and art.

Untitled 6

Untitled 6

Source: Courtesy of Jersey Heritage Collection

Self-portrait of Claude Cahun, left, and Marcel Moore, right

Modern Couples: Art, Intimacy and the Avant-Garde

The Barbican art gallery, London from 10 October 2018 to 27 January 2019, with accompanying catalogue

This piece is featured in the AR March 2019 issue on Sex + Women in Architecture awards – click here to purchase your copy today