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

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 Woolf 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.

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Musée national Picasso: Paris

Having attempted to visit the Musée national Picasso-Paris on a couple of occasions but defeated by queues, it was third time lucky for me on a drizzly Saturday afternoon pottering around Le Marais! The museum is in the old Hotel Sale building dating back to the 17th century and listed by The Historic Monuments department. It opened as a museum in 1985 following extensive restoration, creating stunning modern gallery spaces whilst being sympathetic to the original architectural features and surviving furnishings. The collection comprises over 5,000 paintings, sculptures, ceramics, prints, engravings, illustrated books as well as an archive of newspaper articles and personal documents associated with the Spanish artist. The vast majority of the collection was acquired through two large donations from Picasso’s heirs, and is currently host to an additional body of work on loan from the Pompidou Centre as part of their 40th anniversary celebrations – offering a full spectrum of Picasso’s myriad styles and techniques. The lead exhibition focusses on the year 1932 during which Picasso dated every painting or sculpture he created, highlighting the strong biographical element in his work. This was also an interesting year with regards the artists’ personal life as many of the portraits painted depict variations of just two women; Dora Marr and Marie-Thérèse Walter, the former a photographer and surrealist artist who was Picasso’s mistress leading to the demise of his marriage to Russian ballerina Olga Khokhlova, and the latter a seventeen year old additional love interest of the forty-five year old artist! The variable and often contrasting portrayals of these two woman is a good analogy for the multifarious nature of Picasso as an artist, embracing innumerable different styles throughout his career. Ultimately that was what I took away from my visit to this museum – that Picasso was far more than the surrealist painter I was familiar with, but a far more complex and talented creator unafraid to provoke.

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Albertina: Vienna, Austria

Albertina is housed in a former Habsberg palace in district 1 (the centre) of Vienna. The museum comprises a permanent collection and several temporary exhibitions, as well as the imperial state rooms decorated in Empire Style following Archduke Carl’s redevelopment of the original Louis XVI décor in 1822. In addition to grand interiors and furnishings, these state rooms also display the Archduke’s personal art collection including pieces by Da’ Vinci, Rubens and Rembrandt. The lower ground floor displays ‘Worlds of Romanticism’ which offers a wonderful insight into Austrian art from its founding as a nation in 1804 until the end of the 19th century; highlights for me included Carl Belchen’s ‘The Wild Hunter’ and ‘Withered Tree Trunks’ and Peter Cornelius’ ‘Faust Illustrations’. The top floor contains the permanent Batliner Collection which showcases works chronologically from Monet to Picasso including Renoir, Toulouse-Lautrec, Degas, Klimpt, Matisse, Rodin, Gaugin, Kirchner, Giacometti, Kandinsky, Chagall, Margritte and Miro amongst others. The pinnacle of the museum for me however was a temporary exhibition on the second floor dedicated to Edvard Much entitled ‘Life, Death and Loneliness’ displaying a vast number of the Norwegian printmakers woodcuts, lithographs and dry-point works. All of his pieces have a haunting intensity and centre around psychological themes, evident in their titles ‘Jealousy’, ‘Separation’, ‘Anxiety’, ‘Melancholy’ and ‘The Lonely Ones’ and echoed in the artists’ personal battles with long term alcoholism, a nervous breakdown and even inflicting a gunshot wound to his own left hand following an argument with his lover! I was delighted to see ‘The Scream’ (arguably Munch’s most infamous work) in person, and was moved by the lesser known ‘Madonna’ which combines imagery associated with both femme fatale and femme fragile alongside religious iconography to produce a truly stirring piece. Albertina is without doubt a stunning building both inside and out!

Munch self portrait
Munch self portrait
The Scream
The Scream
Madonna
Madonna

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