How do romance, love, and relationships change an artist? For Vladimir Nabokov, for instance, it allowed him to focus solely on his writing — the usual, mundane tasks of domesticity were quietly taken care of by Vera, a helpmate if there ever were one. She even licked his stamps for him. For someone like Pablo Picasso, the situation was darker and more complicated. The many women in his life, from his wives — Olga Khokhlova and Jacqueline Roque — to his main mistresses — Marie-Therese Walter and Dora Maar — were bled for his art. “He submitted them to his animal sexuality, tamed them, bewitched them, ingested them, and crushed them onto his canvas,” wrote Marina, one of Picasso’s granddaughters, in her memoir. “After he had spent many nights extracting their essence, once they were bled dry, he would dispose of them.”
When it comes to one’s art, what is traded, lost, and gained in relationships? Is someone always getting the better of the other? And what about love between two artists, each of whom is struggling to fulfill his or her own vision? As the poet Rainer Maria Rilke wrote, true love is about protecting the solitude of another, of letting your companion become her best, most independent self.
“It's not just love, but porosity to the other, how one is affected by the universe, the imagination of the other,” Emma Lavigne, a curator of Contemporary art at the Centre Pompidou-Metz, told Agence France-Presse.
With this idea of artistic exchange through romance in mind, Lavigne has co-curated “Modern Couples: Art, Intimacy and the Avant-garde,” on view until August 20 at the Pompidou-Metz, an outpost of the Parisian Contemporary museum and an hour-and-a-half, high-speed train ride from the capital.
The exhibition showcases 40 artistic couples, from Picasso and Maar to Alfred Stieglitz and Georgia O’Keeffe to Man Ray and Lee Miller. With over 800 works coming mostly from the Pompidou in Paris, the National Museum of Modern Art in Paris, and a variety of international private collections, the show is split into four sections: “the artistic adventure,” “1900 to 1950,” “fusional or independent couples,” and “official or unofficial.” (Along with Lavigne, the show is co-curated by Jane Alison, Elia Biezunski, and Cloe Pitiot; Pauline Creteur serves as an assistant curator.)
“Modern Couples” is primarily interested in the mechanics of artistic romantic partnerships. Can they ever be complementary, or must they always be oppositional? By looking at what was traded between these couples, the show tracks the development of new forms of art. As the First World War approached, for instance, there was a rise in spiritual art led in part by Vassily Kandinsky and his partner Gabrielle Munter, and it was this spirituality shared by the two of them that in part spurred the New Artists’ Association of Munich. In the realm of Dadaism, shortly thereafter, Tristan Tzara, writing in the “Dada Manifesto of 1918,” called for “the interlacing of opposites and all contradictions” in art — the implication being that even the most dynamic, head-butting relationships can provide great artistic value.
Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, who are featured prominently in the exhibition, together built up a Mexican legend of misery, religion, suffering, and revolutionary discourse. Kahlo’s self-portraits depicted her individual physical suffering; Rivera’s works often depicted the nation’s suffering. Together, they worked to craft a micro- and macro-scale mythos; and, as different as they were, they proved vital to not just Mexican history but to one another as well. “I always want to commit suicide,” wrote Kahlo in her diary near the end of her life. “Only Diego prevents me. Because I imagine that I might miss him.”
Lavigne and her co-curators don’t content themselves simply with the big-name artists. Those who were often shadowed by their more famous partner throughout their lives are also on show here, including the designer Marcel Moore (nee Suzanne Malherbe), the lover of the photographer and writer Claude Cahun (nee Lucy Schwob) as well as the pianist Nelly von Moorsel, who was married to the artist and architect Theo van Doesburg.
Marcel Duchamp called romantic relationships a “co-intelligence of opposites.” Maria Martins, the Brazilian sculptor who had a passionate, five-year affair with him, helped him clarify his ideas on love and art. For Duchamp, romance was a game of chess, a “movement of pieces devouring each other.” It ended miserably for him when she returned to Brazil in 1951, but their honeyed time together opened his eyes to the simplicities and possibilities of living. “Do not burden yourself too much, give yourself too much to do, worry about what to call a woman, children, a country house, a car,” he would later write. Love, Duchamp believed, was additive for one’s art: the push and pull in a relationship as a multiplier of the work’s intelligence.
“We wanted to show how the creation with four hands makes it possible to bifurcate the history of art,” said Lavigne. “As if the couple increased creativity tenfold.”
A version of “Modern Couples” will go on to the Barbican Center in London from October 10 to January 27, 2019; but, if you can, it’s worth seeing it first at the Pompidou in Metz. A town in France’s eastern Lorraine region, like the Guggenheim in Bilbao, Spain, or like the Dia Art Foundation in Beacon, New York, the Pompidou in Metz is the central draw to the relatively unknown city. The museum’s architecture, especially, is blazingly modern. Designed by the Japanese architect Shigeru Ban, the museum’s roof comprises over ten miles of laminated larch and spruce and is shaped like an undulating wave, inspired, Ban says, by a Chinese hat he once found in Paris. (The rest of the museum’s structure is made of concrete, glass, and steel.)
It feels particularly foreboding arriving outside this massive, glassy museum in order to see an exhibition dedicated to the intimate relationships of artists. But these relationships are largely not the Hollywood-ready, cozy kinds of romances that one may have come to expect. Rather, they are bold, modern, and often destructive. And sometimes they proved vital to some of the 20th century’s key artistic breakthroughs. Love and lust becoming their own forms of art.
Modern Couples is on view at the Centre Pompidou Metz through August 20. More information: https://www.centrepompidou-metz.fr/
Founder Louise Blouin