Modern Couples: Art, Intimacy and the Avant-garde

Anyone going to the Barbican’s latest exhibition is not going to go away short-changed with the number of exhibits on display. This is a massive exhibition exploring twentieth century artistic couplings – and sometimes triplings – that led to those artists feeding off one another creatively.

If I came away with one thought, it was that artists don’t look very far from home when seeing a relationship. I also came away wondering whether or not this was actually a something that would have sat better in another medium. 

There is an awful lot of reading going on here. At the start of each section, a piece of explanatory text explains the details of the relationship, and to put it mildly, these can be somewhat wordy. When you add in all the quotations, the detailed notes alongside the various exhibits and everything else, you probably end up with several thousand words pasted along the walls.

From a practical perspective this means that some of the rooms are very crowded – especially among the earlier areas on the ground floor where space is at a premium. Invariably exhibition goers tend to spend more time earlier in the exhibition than later – assuming there is some blockbuster work the whole thing is gearing up towards. I don’t think I’ve been to an exhibition where the biggest crowds were gathered by the text on the wall rather than the works themselves.

The other problem here is that there are so many big-hitters of the twentieth century art world here that you know that there aren’t going to be that many exhibits for each of them. Only the most prolific get more than a handful of  items – and often those are simply photographs taken either by themselves or friends.

This all make it sound a bit negative, and I really don’t mean it to. The various couplings are interesting and even if some are well known – or have already garnered their own joint exhibitions like the recent Man Ray and Lee Miller one – there is still new information to learn. 

It’s notable that many of these relationships didn’t last the full life of one or other party, and that sometimes the same names would move on to another pairing later. Equally, there are some significant age differences between some of these pairings, while some it’s more about pushing the boundaries of what is or was acceptable at that time. 

I came away a little overwhelmed from it all. You certainly need to give yourself plenty of time to see this, ideally at an off-peak time when you wont’ be fighting crowds just to read some labels.