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Art to art: a portrait of creative couples

A new – and vast – exhibition at the Barbican celebrates the lives and loves of artistic couples during the avant garde period

01 November, 2018 — By Jane Clinton

Frida Kahlo Le Venadita (little deer), 1946. Private Collection. Photo: Nathan Keay, © MCA Chicago. Frida Kahlo’s painting is shown alongside Diego Rivera’s Les vases communicants, 1938. The artists had a notoriously turbulent and emotionally charged relationship through marriage, divorce and remarriage

DISTRAUGHT that his lover had left him the artist Oskar Kokoschka decided the only way to heal his heartache was to commission a life-size “replica” of her.

The woman in question was Alma Mahler, who had been married to the legendary composer Gustav Mahler.

A writer and composer in her own right, as well as a prominent figure in the avant garde scene, the Austrian-born Alma embarked on a passionate affair with Kokoschka in 1912, months after the death of Gustav.

Oskar, who was seven years her junior and was known for his Expressionist portraits, painted her constantly. His jealousy and possessiveness, however, would eventually drive the independent Alma away.

While Oskar was fighting in the First World War, Alma rekindled her romance with the Bauhaus architect Walter Gropius, whom she would go on to marry.

Oskar, newly returned from battle, was devastated. In 1918, still pining for Alma, he commissioned the doll-maker Hermine Moos to create a life-size “replica”of Alma.

The “replica Alma” was not entirely to Oskar’s satisfaction. Nevertheless the rather creepy doll, shown in photographs in an exhibition at the Barbican, remained a regular fixture in his home and gained some notoriety.

Diego Rivera, Les vases communicants,1938. Courtesy of Centre Pompidou, Paris

Up until 1922 he channelled his unrequited love into numerous portraits of his “second Alma” (including on fans on display). He pleaded with her to return, worried that without her his genius would “self destruct”.

After 80 such portraits he finally “cured” himself of his heartache. The doll was redundant. He threw a champagne party which culminated in a “quite drunk” Oskar beheading it in the garden and breaking a bottle of red wine over its head.

Alma went on to marry Gropius and then to the novelist, playwright and poet Franz Werfel.

As for Oskar, in 1941 he married Oldriska-Aloisie (known as “Olda”) in Hampstead and they remained together until his death in 1981.

Oskar and Alma are just one of more than 40 artist couples active in the first half of the 20th century featured in the vast, perhaps too vast, exhibition, Modern Couples: Art, Intimacy and the Avant Garde .

Celebrating the artist, writer, composer and designer couples during the avant garde period, we see work from among many others Frida Kahlo, Klimt, Virginia Woolf, Georgia O’Keefe, Rodin, Picasso, Man Ray and the photographer Lee Miller.

American-born Miller had started out as a model. While modelling in Paris for Man Ray (with whom she had an affair), she decided to become a photographer.

Her war photography, including images of the Blitz, and the Dachau concentration camp, sealed her reputation.

Roland Penrose, a significant figure in Surrealism, was a painter, art patron and founder of the Institute of Contemporary Arts and the British Surrealist Group.

He moved to Hampstead’s Downshire Hill in 1936 and Miller followed in 1938.

Visitors to the house, which at one point had a Henry Moore sculpture in its front garden, included Man Ray, André Breton, Joan Miró and Picasso. Picasso was good friends with Penrose and painted Miller six times.

He also had an affair with her.

Man Ray, Man Ray endormi, c.1930, Courtesy of Centre Pompidou, Paris

Indeed, sexual convention did not trouble the Downshire Hill household.

There were frequent ménages à trois.

During the war it was with the Life photographer David Scherman and then later on Penrose’s first wife moved in. According to their son, Antony Penrose: “They all shared each other; they all exchanged partners fluidly.”

Eventually, however, Miller, who had battled depression and alcoholism, tired of it.

The pair, who married in 1947, moved to Farley Farm House in East Sussex, now a gallery dedicated to the work of Miller, Penrose and their famous friends.

It was only after her death in 1977, that the full extent of Lee’s talent was realised. In the attic of the farmhouse Antony found 60,000 negatives. He has been unlocking the “time capsule” of that remarkable period ever since.

Modern Couples: Art, Intimacy and the Avant Garde is at the Barbican until January 27, 2019. www.barbican.org.uk, Under-14s must be accompanied by an adult.

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