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Tamara de Lempicka Les deux amies, 1923
Les deux amies, 1923By Tamara de Lempicka, Association des Amis du Petit Palais, Geneve

Six progressive artist-couples who defined the 20th century

A look at the same-sex, polyamorous, and gender-fluid couples who inspired, and made, some of the century’s greatest art

The 20th century was a time of flux, when the profound trauma of two world wars meant nothing could be the same again. Faith in establishments and religion was undermined, and Sigmund Freud’s radical ideas about sexuality and the psyche had severed the alliance between sex and procreation, providing many women with greater freedom than they’d known before. As the map of Europe was being redrawn, the rigid borders and boundaries of gender, class, sexuality, and identity were shifted in the upheaval. Modernism was born out of turmoil and the desire to find new forms of expression able to articulate this brave new world.

Modern Couples, a new exhibition just launched at the Barbican, explores the inextricable interplay between modern art and modern love in this time. The show features work created by artists engaged in mutually transformative romantic and artistic collaborations of many different forms, across a variety of mediums – including paintings, sculpture, photography, architecture, design, writing, and performance. The work is shown alongside the private photographs, letters, and mementoes that shine a light on the intimate dynamics of these fertile and fascinating relationships.

We take a look at some of the modern couples featured in the exhibition, whose intellectual, sexual, and creative exchanges transgressed social norms of the time.

CLAUDE CAHUN AND MARCEL MOORE

The 1920s was a time of febrile activity for French artist Claude Cahun (born Lucie Schwob, 1894-1954) and the illustrator Marcel Moore (born Suzanne Malherbe, 1892-1972). Despite being step-sisters, the pair had been lovers since they were schoolgirls and remained “partners in love and art” for 45 years.

Throughout this decade they experimented prolifically with photography, creating the influential and radical self-portraits that Cahun is best known for. These striking images depict her in a number of different guises, challenging ideas about the subject and the object, and undermining existing expectations of gender (prefiguring artists such as Cindy Sherman). In Cahun’s surrealist autobiography Aveux non avenus – published in 1930 – the artist mused, “Shuffle the cards. Masculine? Feminine? It depends on the situation. Neuter is the only gender that always suits me”. The book was illustrated with collages by Moore, whose influence and participation in her lover’s art and life is undeniable. Cahun herself referred to Moore as “the other me”. Even in death, the pair remain inseparable – buried together beneath a shared headstone in the churchyard next to the home they shared.

GEORGE PLATT LYNES, GLENWAY WESCOTT, AND MONROE WHEELER

The homoerotic work by photographer George Platt Lynes defied the conservatism of early 20th century America, where homosexuality was still illegal and the culture was vehemently hostile to any lifestyle or desire perceived as deviant from the norm. The huge influence of his explicit black and white compositions is visible in the work of many artists who followed (including, most evidently, Robert Mapplethorpe).

The most creative time in Lynes’ career was the period he was embroiled in a 17-year-long threesome with the publisher and curator Monroe Wheeler and novelist Glenway Wescott. During the 1920s, the ménage à trois fled to Europe where they mixed with the artistic and sexually-liberated intelligentsia, including Jean Cocteau and Stravinsky.

“The three friends lived a profoundly creative but an emotionally tangled existence,” explains Jane Alison, Head of Visual Arts at the Barbican. Their passionate and artistically charged relationship became the subject the pioneering text Sexual Behaviour in the Human Male by the famous sexologist, Dr Alfred Kinsey in 1948.

TAMARA DE LEMPICKA AND SUZY SOLIDOR

The memory of French singer, actress, and openly gay nightclub owner, Suzy Solidor, has now slid into obscurity, but in her time she was a celebrity and referred to as “the most painted woman in the world”. Her portrait had been painted by the likes of Pablo Picasso, Francis Bacon, and Man Ray, but the most enduring image of her is by one of her lovers, artist Tamara de Lempicka.

The Polish-born painter had forged a successful career as a portrait artist for the social elite. She had sexual encounters with both men and women and she moved in circles with progressive Parisien aesthetes.

According to legend, when Solidor asked de Lempicka to paint her, the artist agreed on the condition she posed nude. Solidor – an exhibitionist and a self-confessed womaniser – obliged.

Although it’s unclear whether the figure in one of de Lempicka’s most famous paintings, “Les deux amies” (1923), is Solidor, the art work remains a provocative representation of two anonymous female nudes, captured by the female gaze in an intimate moment of exchange. 

VIRGINIA WOOLF AND VITA SACKVILLE WEST

Virginia Woolf’s love affair with the writer and aristocrat Vita Sackville-West had a profound influence on both their work. They first met in 1922 and, though the affair only lasted three years, remained friends until Woolf’s suicide in 1941.

The seminal work of queer/feminist fiction, Orlando: A Biography (1928) is Woolf’s startlingly modern and conceptual tale of transformation, in which the protagonist inexplicably shifts gender partway through the narrative. The book is the author’s tribute to her sexually-fluid lover, and was described by Sackville-West’s son as “the longest and most charming love letter in literature”.

As their affair cooled, Sackville-West complained that Woolf was more interested in writing a fantasy about her than returning her affection in the real world. But, although she may have felt objectified by the novel, she is not a passive muse. It was her work, her agency and active non-conformism that inspired Woolf, and it’s these qualities that make Sackville-West a kind of co-creator of the book; she shaped and influenced Orlando through the act of her own identity.

GERDA WEGENER AND LILI ELBE 

The 1920s art world was shocked when they discovered the chic woman depicted in the paintings of the Danish artist Gerda Wegener was actually her artist husband. Born Einar Magnus Andreas Wegener, she had begun posing for her wife’s painting and identifying as a Lili Elbe in the 20s.

In 1930, Lili became one of the first people to successfully undergo gender reassignment surgery. But, according to the scholar Tobias Raun, “These portraits suggest that Lili was intelligible as a woman to Wegener long before she was to the outside world – and long before her body was modified.”

The many portraits Wegener painted of Elbe suggest an intensely creative dialogue between the two artists and lovers. “Gerda’s painted portraits of Lili and herself are imbued with intimacy,” writes Raun. “Thus their exchanged gazes within the picture frame suggest not only tenderness but also a flirtatious lesbian desire.”

DUNCAN GRANT, ROGER FRY & VANESSA BELL

Vanessa Bell – the celebrated painter, designer, and sister to Virginia Woolf – was a key figure in the network of intellectuals and creatives who became known as the Bloomsbury Group, a bohemian set who famously “lived in squares, painted in circles, and loved in triangles”. She was also an instrumental part of the Omega Workshop – an enterprise that aimed to bridge the gulf between art and design. The Fitzrovia-based showroom sold decorative homeware intended to bring the bold colour and abstraction of modern art into everyday life.

The liberal, libertine, and libidinous atmosphere of the Bloomsbury Group was a hotbed of artistic and sexual exchange. It’s almost impossible to discuss Bell without invoking the names of her most influential lovers and co-directors of the Omega Workshop – Roger Fry and Duncan Bell. Their tangled artistic and romantic web kept the trio bound together the rest of their lives. Fry – a painter and art critic at the forefront of introducing the European avant-garde to Britain – was heartbroken when Bell fell in love with the handsome painter Duncan Grant, but remained crucially connected to the pair. Grant, though homosexual, lived with Bell (and her husband) and fathered one of Bell’s children, Angelica (who grew up to marry a man who had once attempted to seduce her mother and been a lover of her father’s). Talk about tangled.

Modern Couples runs until 27 January 2019 at London’s Barbican. Flick through the gallery below to see which other famous lovers and artists are included in the show.