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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Hassan Hajjaj: Somerset House

I was first introduced to the ebullient world of Hassan Hajjaj last year at an exhibition on dandyism and black masculinity at The Photographers’ Gallery which included two of his portraits – and was intrigued to see more when I heard that Somerset House were hosting a solo exhibition by the Moroccan-British artist. The Terrace Rooms in the South Wing of the building are entirely dedicated to ‘La Caravane’, an exhibition which features photographic portraits, video installations, music, an installation of a motorcycle, and pieces dedicated to humble socks and woolly hats! The first of a trio of rooms contains photographic portraits of sitters ranging from other artists to street performers, athletes and musicians, all beautifully framed with his typical repetitious tin-can or food packaging border. At the centre of the space, a motorbike bedecked in re-imaginings of the Louis Vuitton logo sits on top of bright red pallets, a green patterned base and mini cans of paint around the border which echo the framing of the portraits on the walls. The next room is dominated by a 1960’s inspired sofa facing multiple video installations of people who have sat for portraits playing musical instruments, signing, or talking to camera, as well as two portraits framed in Hajjaj’s ubiquitous style hung above the fireplaces at either end of the room. The final space contains more photographic portraits alongside three unusual works; one focusing on plastic sunglasses, one on socks and another on woolly hats. The vivid colours and customised textiles, furniture and household items utilised throughout the show evoke the street culture of Marrakesh where the artist was born and spends much of his time. Similarly his deliberate arrangements and careful positioning of people and objects in each shot shape the viewers understanding of each portrait, and question the relationship between “people” (or objects) and “place”. Vibrant, irreverent and full of personality this free – yes free – exhibition certainly put a smile on my face!

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