Modern Couples:Art, Intimacy, and the Avant-garde at the Barbican

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(a photo taken by myself from the talk at the beginning, as no photos were allowed in the actual exhibition)

“Modern Couples presents a different way of looking at Modernism in art, as seen through the lens of the artist ‘couple’, an elastic term encompassing all manner of intimate relationships that the artists themselves grappled with, expanded, embraced or refuted.”

– From the official booklet for the exhibition

I visited the Modern Couples exhibition today! I was immediately struck by how well thought out it was- the guide spoke to us at length before and during the tour about the level of research and planning that went into this show, and it was apparent throughout how carefully curated it was. The experience of the exhibition is that of a journey, told through the curation of works and couples chosen, the design and layout of the pieces and quotes, the architecture of the space, and the strong visual branding throughout (I appreciated the title font, but I’ll spare you from my inner typography geek!) An especially interesting use of space was for the section on the ‘Temple of Friendship’ and the women who were part of it. It was built to mimic the oval shape of the temple, blocked off from other sections with heavily draped curtains, with a circular display case at the centre. It definitely added a sense of reverence, but also of safety. The ground floor of the gallery is specifically built to invoke an intimate feel, with the works contained primarily focused on the body, and each section dedicated to a different couple, like a small shrine to each. Upstairs the space is a lot more open, with the work becoming increasingly more abstract as you pass through. It simultaneously felt both familiar and yet separate from downstairs.

The most exciting part of the exhibition was the idea that ‘couple’ doesn’t always necessarily denote a romantic pairing. This is an unusual idea that I don’t think has been explored enough- as they said ‘couple’ can be a fluid term for all kinds of relationships, and some of the ‘couples’ in the exhibition were actually polyamorous groups of three or more people. I think this expanded idea of what a couple can be is challenging the old ideas of couples and relationships, and I hope it leads to a cultural shift. The guide talked about how art in the 20th century became a platform to be more experimental- a playground or springboard for different kinds of relationships to happen. As a proud bisexual I was really happy to see a variety of bisexual, lesbian, and gay relationships portrayed- I had not previously heard, for example, that Salvador Dali had an intimate relationship with a man- and it is important to LGBTQ+ people to see that we have always existed, and are finally getting the recognition we need.

As a non binary femme person it was particularly refreshing to see women placed on an equal footing with men, with their contributions given the consideration they deserve. I enjoyed seeing the role of muse flipped by the work of the women displayed, objectifying and exploring the male figure in the same way that we usually see reserved for the female figure. It was equally refreshing to hear about all the women artists who were pushing and playing with the boundaries of gender- it shows that non binary gender identities have always existed, contrary to what a lot of people still think. I wish that there had been more trans artists included, as they must have existed, but I appreciate that the curatorial team had a pool of 300 or more couples to choose from for this exhibition; perhaps a future exhibition could focus solely on LGBTQ+ artists from this period and their impact on modern art.

Whilst the exhibition doesn’t shy away from the negative and unhealthy sides of relationships, such as objectification and obsession, and is at times a very honest examination of what relationships can become I am, however, critical of one thing. I feel that mental health/mental illness could have been explored in a more nuanced way. Many of the people featured in Modern Couples ended their own lives, and in some cases took their partners life, at least in part due to the unhealthy aspects of their relationships, and although the topic is dealt with sensitively I felt it could have been discussed a little more frankly. I appreciate that this can be difficult when looking at people who are no longer here to speak for themselves, and when you consider that mental health/mental illness was even less talked about or recognised as legitimate in the 20th century than it is today. I understand that this all makes it hard to find out about mental health of the artists displayed, so I am not sure how it could be approached differently, but it is something that could be considered in future. I wrote in my notes that it would have been nice to see some positive endings for artists with mental health issues, but even today many people don’t even realise someone is unwell until they take their own lives, so I understand that this is wishful thinking.

All in all it was a really eye opening experience, finally shining a light on all the amazing women and LGBTQ+ people behind the great male artists of the 20th century, I would recommend it to anyone who has in an interest in modern art, especially those who would like to delve a little deeper into the relationships that fuelled some of the most progressive and innovative art ever made.

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