After a chilly but beautiful autumnal stroll on Saturday afternoon, I sought warmth at The Barbican and turns out I wasn’t the only one… as the queue for their current exhibition ‘Modern Couples: Art, Intimacy and the Avant-garde’ suggested! Spanning both floors of the gallery, it examines almost fifty artistic couples from Camille Claudel and Auguste Rodin who were in a relationship from 1882 until 1892 through to Unica Zürn and Hans Bellmer whose relationship lasted from 1953 until 1970, and various heterosexual, homosexual, artistic threesomes and friendships in between. It explores “artists” in the broadest sense, including painters, sculptors, photographers, textile makers, musicians, writers, publishers, furniture designers and architects – and more interestingly the impact they had on each other and society by taking a stance on various civil rights issues. Each section comprises a short summary of the couple alongside a portrait of each artist individually or together as a couple, with Virginia Wolfe making two appearances – on the lower level with Vita Sackville-West and on the upper level with Leonard Wolfe. The show includes big name artists such as Salvador DalÍ (and Federico GarcÍa Lorca), Pablo Picasso (and Dora Maar), Frida Kahlo (and Diego Rivera) and Wassily Kandinsky (and Gabriele Münter) but also introduced me to artists I was previously unfamiliar with or highlighted relationships where one partner has certainly hogged the limelight – often unfairly – over the other. The exhibition is certainly tinged with sadness and a sprinkling of madness; numerous tales of forbidden love, age-gaps, and mental health issues as well as Oskar Kokoschka who created a life-size doll of the composer Alma Mahler after jealousy brought an end to their relationship, Marcel Duchamp who sculpted miniature casts of Maria Martins genitals after their illicit affair came to an end, and Lavinia Schulz and Walter Holdt whose relationship came to a horrific close when the dancer and costume designer shot Holdt and then herself.
As an insomniac you make a decision, either you embrace the night or resent it, and I have embraced it. I appreciate everything from London’s night skyline, to nights out in different areas of the city, catching rare quiet moments where you are the only person on an ordinarily busy street, spotting a bold urban fox running across the road, and the general sense of calm after 11pm… so a photography exhibition dedicated to ‘London Nights’ easily caught my attention. In a wonderfully contrary way I visited this exhibition at an early morning private view, and had the pleasure of starting my day by viewing these 200 images captured by over 60 photographers. The exhibition is displayed in the museums’ basement gallery, and is dimly lit with grey walls and dark floors, adding to the nocturnal atmosphere. One of the things that struck me most was a feeling of familiarity, and appreciating how little the city has changed over the last century, as so many of the buildings and streets were immediately recognisable and only the fashion or adverts captured within each image gave away the decade they were taken. This was most evident in George Davidson Reid’s 1920’s photographs of Trafalgar Square, images of Liverpool Street station during the Blitz, Bob Collins’ 1960’s shots of Piccadilly Circus, numerous iconic images of St Pauls Cathedral from almost every decade, and contemporary photos of a night out in East London and West London displayed side by side. Broadly split into three categories; ‘London Illuminated’ which focusses on the capital’s landmarks from both familiar and unusual vantage points, ‘Dark Matters’ which explores the more sinister side of the city and how darkness can evoke fear, threat or isolation, and ‘Switch On Switch Off’ which observes Londoners who inhabit the city rather than the city itself. On until mid November the show is certainly worth a visit – incorporating architecture and portraiture, moments of resilience and shared acts of exhilaration, as well as exploring social issues and current threats to London’s night venues.
The popularity of tattoos has visibly grown in the last decade, seen on the skin of Londoners, television programmes dedicated to inking or “fixing” regrettable past decisions, and its recognition as a worthy art form. ‘Tattoo London’ takes up a small but well curated space in the basement of The Museum of London and offers a concise overview of the history of tattoos in the capital, before focussing on the work of four eminent contemporary artists. The exhibition is photography led but complemented by vitrines displaying tattoo machines, inks, artist influences and designs, as well as a large plasma screen showing a short film entitled ‘A Day in the life of Four Tattoo Studios’ and a tattoo chair visitors can sit in and listen to extracts from interviews with the featured artists. Prior to the exhibition I knew little about the history of tattoos in London and was interested to learn that the first professional tattoo artist, Sutherland MacDonald, began work out of hours from his supervisory job at the Turkish Baths on Jermyn Street in 1889 for the fashionable and wealthy. Between the 1930’s and 1950’s George Burchett who stylised himself as ‘The King of Tattooists’ set up studios in Waterloo, and in addition to his high-class customers also inked servicemen and women with his most common designs comprising regimental badges, large scale Japanese works, and portraits of film icons. Following World War II a stigma around tattoos emerged and artists fought against this, but found they were primarily catering to London’s subcultures (punks, rockers, Teddy Boys, skinheads, and the gay community). The opposite wall of the exhibition concentrates on Lal Hardy, Alex Binnie, Mo Coppoletta and Claudia De Sabe – none of whom were born in London but from 1970’s onwards have set up studios and brought their global influences to the city creating impressive designs on the canvas of human bodies.