A London exhibition looks at the art that came out of the twentieth century’s most tumultuous relationships. But is it only within the context of romantic unrest that the best art can be made?
It was a Friday evening in 1914 and the American novelist and playwright Natalie Clifford Barney was throwing a garden party in Paris. Throughout the decades, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Truman Capote, and Marcel Proust would all drop by, but Barney’s salons were particularly known as gathering places for lesbian and bisexual women. That night, the painter Romaine Brooks had, true to character, shown up alone.
An American born in Rome, Brooks was already becoming known for her uniquely dark and somber portraits of women. That Friday—and over the course of many Friday salons—in the cool of Barney’s garden, she and Brooks fell in love and would remain so for the rest of their lives. However, their disagreements, which became famous in their circle, often exploded in their art—to great creative success. Brooks was a loner—she disliked parties and much of the social jockeying on which Barney thrived. Barney, on the other hand, adored social energy and refused to have a monogamous relationship. She dated a string of other women, including Élisabeth de Gramont (a descendant of Henry IV of France) as well as the socialites Janine Lahovary and Dolly Wilde (niece of Oscar), which put pressure on her relationship with Brooks.
But the challenges of their relationship were also at the core of their many artistic breakthroughs. When Brooks met the Italian heiress and socialite Luisa Casati at one of Barney’s parties, she channeled her jealousy into a lustful, hypersexualized, and remarkably original portrait in which Brooks depicts Casati exposing herself in a black cape, her hair and nipples a fiery red. In an earlier portrait of Ida Rubinstein, an heiress and Russian ballerina, Brooks allowed the other side of her relationship with Barney to shine through: Brooks depicted Rubinstein looking off into the distance while remaining unbowed by the winds and clouds around her—a stoic strength seemingly derived from the lasting love and respect she had for Barney.
Not all romantic turmoil translates into genius, but for nearly all artists, affairs of the heart leave a mark on their oeuvre. “Modern Couples: Art, Intimacy, and the Avant-garde,” an exhibition that I saw at the Centre Pompidou-Metz outside Paris (opening soon at the Barbican in London) explores how more than forty artistic couples—from Jean Arp and Sophie Taeuber-Arp to Camille Claudel and Auguste Rodin to Brooks and Barney—aided or destroyed their partner’s creativity.
The show does not answer the question of whether some of these artists would have been better off without their partners, or whether their partners were crucial to their work. It does, however, imply that it is only in especially difficult and fraught relationships that exceptional creativity is channeled. In the case of Brooks and Barney, their relationship was difficult, often desperately so, but it ultimately served to benefit both of their careers. For a couple like Pablo Picasso and Dora Maar, it would seem that one member of the relationship benefited disproportionately—perhaps many of the women in these relationships would have been better off without their man. (There is, of course, a vital difference between a partner who is a fellow artist and a partner who is a muse: a muse is rarely an equal.) Most interesting is the question of whether great art derives primarily from romantic collaboration or domination—that is, in romantic ease or unease—because it is most often the latter that receives our focus and our mythologizing.
There is Picasso and Maar, of course. There is also Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo. Kahlo’s painting The Wounded Deer, in which a deer with Kahlo’s face is mortally wounded by arrows, depicts the physical trauma of the many operations related to her childhood polio, a bus crash, and her miscarriage, but it also shows the pain of feeling that so little of her love for Rivera was returned. Rivera was Kahlo’s everything. She wrote in her diary: “Diego = my husband / Diego = my friend / Diego = my mother / Diego = my father / Diego = my son / Diego = me / Diego = Universe.” But to him, she seemed to mean far less. He was an open philanderer, and had an affair with her younger sister, Cristina. His respect for Kahlo and her feelings often seemed close to nil. One of Kahlo’s best paintings, Diego on My Mind (Self-Portrait as Tehuana), grapples with this constant romantic devastation. In this self-portrait, an image of Rivera is stamped onto her forehead. She looks out towards the viewer—glum, quiet, almost beatific—and one wonders if she is weighing whether she has brought their heartbreak on herself. Perhaps only by being dominated in love was she able to access such a scarring, fundamentally true emotion. Romantic unrest thus seems to lend itself to accessing new perspectives—to creativity.
A more contemporary example of heartbreak inspiring great work is Marina Abramović and her former partner, Ulay. They made one of their most meaningful works at the lowest point of their relationship: the very moment of their breakup. In 1988, the two began walking from opposite ends of the Great Wall of China, met in the middle, and officially ended their romantic relationship. The fact that neither of them seemed to want it to end but knew that it had to end added an extra layer of emotional wreckage, each person deeply wanting to be with—and not wanting to be with—the other. They then continued walking past one another. “For her, it was very difficult to go on alone,” Ulay said in a later interview. “For me, it was actually unthinkable to go on alone.”
They met again, in 2010, during Abramović’s performance “The Artist is Present” at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Ulay visited the performance without warning. They looked at one another from across a table, blinking and slightly shaking as if their entire pasts, as if all of the memories of their relationship, were flooding through their bodies. What might be considered their greatest works of art came, therefore, at the moment of romantic devastation—their breakup—but also at this second moment of reckoning.
At their best, romantic relationships are able to foster openness and trust, inspiring a belief in the goodness of all people. A strong relationship, even amidst its inevitable tumult, allows one to feel protection, kindness, empathy, even autonomy. Studies show that being in love allows you to think in a more global, long-term, and creative way because it pushes you to think further ahead—beyond the literal and concrete. And yet, though inter-artist romance is so often venerated, should it be? What, for instance, would Maar have accomplished had she not had to deal with Picasso? What about Kahlo vis-à-vis Rivera? Perhaps they might have been able to blossom into artists renowned in their own lifetimes.
So, too, when love manifests itself as manipulation and heartbreak, it might not really be love. The truest form of love is a kind of aloneness, spent together. Love is the protection of a partner’s independence, the providing of space and freedom and a sense of earnest openness when the rest of the world desperately wants to infringe upon all of that. The trouble with romanticizing chaotic love is two-pronged: it is emotionally destructive, but, less obviously, it implies that it is only within the realm of power dynamics—domination or submission—that art is created. More often, it is within the context of collaboration that the best art is made.
Emilie Flöge, for instance, Gustav Klimt’s long-term partner, was a skilled fashion designer who ran her own couture house in Vienna. She modeled for him and was in his painting Portrait of Emilie Flöge, as well as, more famously, The Kiss, in which they both star. More subtly, though, her talent for dressmaking and her advocacy for free-hanging, corsetless dresses known as the “rational dress style,” embraced by turn-of-the-century feminists, became one of Klimt’s signature artistic themes, no doubt a quieter but equally important contribution. (His paintings, in turn, bolstered her couture practice.)
In the case of Brooks and Barney, their tumult was perhaps useful, but they were far more collaborative in their art than is often known. Brooks craved solitude and, although Barney got a rush from parties, they decided to make a place where they could be alone, together. While Barney was still living on the rue Jacob in Paris, before the Second World War, they had a summer home built in the south of France, which they dubbed the “Villa Trait d’Union,” or the Hyphenated Villa. It was called that because the house was composed of two distinct wings, which came together into a central dining and living room. Brooks would work at one end and Barney at the other. Of course, their relationship would continue to careen. Brooks would soon slowly go mad, believing her chauffeur was trying to poison her and that someone wanted to steal her drawings. Barney continued seeing other women.
But, at that house, Barney completed her feminist text Thoughts of an Amazon (which drew a philosophical line between the poisonous ideologies of war and the inherent aggression of all male relationships), and Brooks worked on her most richly nuanced portrait of Una Vincenzo, Lady Troubridge, the British sculptor and long-term partner of Marguerite Radclyffe Hall. They were apart and together—protecting each other’s independence even as the Second World War approached. No matter what happened inside and outside of their relationship, they allowed the other her time, her space, and her selfhood. It was their collaborative love and their protection of the other, far more than their power struggles, that fueled their art. Each day, in the mornings and the evenings, they would come together in the center of the house, bearing witness to the truth of their solitude, reflected in the other.
Cody Delistraty is a writer and critic in Paris and New York.