Magic Realism: Art in Weimar Germany 1919 – 1933 @ Tate Modern

This exhibition opened last summer and was timed to coincide with the centenary of the end of the Great War (November 1918) and to complement the Aftermath: Art in the Wake of World War One exhibition at Tate Britain.

It consists of five rooms at Tate Modern which are hung with a glorious selection of the grotesque, horrifying, deformed and satirical images created by German artists during the hectic years of the Weimar Republic, which rose from the ashes of Germany’s defeat in the Great War, staggered through a series of crises (including when the French reoccupied the Rhineland industrial region in 1923 in response to Germany falling behind in its reparations, leading to complete economic collapse and the famous hyper-inflation when people carried vast piles of banknotes around in wheelbarrows), was stabilised by American loans in 1924, and then enjoyed five years of relative prosperity until the Wall Street crash of 1929 ushered in three years of mounting unemployment and street violence, which eventually helped bring Adolf Hitler and his Nazi Party to power in January 1933, and fifteen years of hectic experimentation in all the arts ground to a halt.

The exhibition consists of around seventy paintings, drawings and prints, plus some books of contemporary photography. The core of the exhibition consists of pieces on loan from the George Economou Collection, a weird and wonderful cross-section of art from the period, some of which have never been seen in the UK before.

Moon Women (1930) by Otto Rudolf Schatz © Tate

The exhibition has many surprises. For sure there are the images of crippled beggars in the street and pig-faced rich people in restaurants – images made familiar by the savage satire of Otto Dix (1891-1969) and George Grosz (1893-1959). And there are paintings of cabaret clubs and performers, including the obligatory transsexuals, cross-dressers, lesbians and other ‘transgressive’ types so beloved of art curators (a display case features a photo of ‘the Chinese female impersonator Mei Lanfang dressed as a Chinese goddess… alongside American Barbette.’)

But a lot less expected was the room devoted to religious painting in the Weimar Republic, which showed half a dozen big paintings by artists who struggled to express Christian iconography for a modern, dislocated age.

And the biggest room of all contains quite a few utterly ‘straight’ portraits of respectable looking people with all their clothes on done in a modern realistic style, alongside equally realistic depictions of houses and streetscapes.

The Great War

The First World War changed everything. In Germany, the intense spirituality of pre-war Expressionism no longer seem relevant, and painting moved towards realism of various types. This tendency towards realism, sometimes tinged with other elements – namely the grotesque and the satirical – prompted the art critic Franz Roh (1890-1965) to coin the expression ‘Magical Realism’ in 1925.

Magical Realism

Roh identified two distinct approaches in contemporary German art. On the one hand were ‘classical’ artists inclined towards recording everyday life through precise observation. An example is the painting of the acrobat Schulz by Albert Birkle (1900-1986). It epitomises several elements of magical realism, namely the almost caricature-like focus on clarity of line and definition, the realist interest in surface details, but also the underlying sense of the weird or strange (apparently, Schulz was famous for being able to pull all kinds of funny faces).

The Acrobat Schulz V (1921) by Albert Birkle. The George Economou Collection © DACS London, 2018

Roh distinguished the ‘classicists’ from another group he called the ‘verists’, who employed distorted and sometimes grotesque versions of representational art to address all kinds of social inequality and injustice.

Other critics were later to use the phrase New Objectivity (Neue Sachlichkeit) to refer to the same broad trend towards an underlying figurativeness.

Classicists and Verists

The exhibition gives plenty of examples of the striking contrast between the smooth, finished realism of the ‘classicists’ and the scratchy, harsh caricatures of the ‘verists’.

The first room is dominated by a series of drawings by the arch-satirists George Grosz and Otto Dix, the most vivid of which is the hectic red of Suicide, featuring the obligatory half-dressed prostitute and her despicable bourgeois client looking out onto a twisted, angular street where the eye is drawn to the figure sprawled in the centre (is it a blind person who has tripped over, or been run over?) so that it’s easy to miss the body hanging from a street lamp on the left which, presumably, gives the work its title.

You can, perhaps, detect from the painting that Grosz had had a complete nervous breakdown as a result of his experiences on the Western Front.

Suicide (1916) by George Grosz © Tate

Room one – The Circus

For some reason the circus attracted a variety of artists, maybe because it was an arena of fantasy and imagination, maybe because the performers were, by their nature, physically fit specimens (compared to the streets full of blind, halt, lame beggars maimed by the war), maybe because of its innocent fun.

Not that there’s anything innocent or fun about the ten or so Otto Dix prints on the subject on show here, with their rich array of distortions, contortion, crudeness and people who are half-performer, half-beast.

Lion-Tamer (1922) by Otto Dix © Victoria and Albert Museum

Room two – From the visible to the invisible

This phrase, ‘from the visible to the invisible’, is taken from a letter in which the artist Max Beckmann (1884-1950) expressed his wish to depict the ‘idea’ which is hiding behind ‘reality’.

This sounds surprisingly like the kind of wishy-washy thing the Expressionists wrote about in 1905 or 1910, and the room contains some enormous garish oil paintings, one by Harry Heinrich Deierling which caught my eye. This is not at all what you associate with Weimar, cabaret and decadence. This work seemed to me to hark back more to Franz Marc and the bold, bright simplifications of Der Blaue Reiter school. And its rural setting brings out, by contrast, just how urban nearly all the other works on display are.

The Gardener (1920) by Harry Heinrich Deierling © Tate

A bit more like the Weimar culture satire and suicide which we’re familiar with was a work like The Artist with Two Hanged Women by Rudolf Schlichter (1890-1955), a half-finished drawing in watercolour and graphite depicting, well, two hanged women. Note how the most care and attention has been lavished on the dead women’s lace-up boots. Ah, leather – fetishism – death.

The Artist with Two Hanged Women (1924) by Rudolf Schlichter © Tate

Indeed dead women, and killing women, was a major theme of Weimar artists, so much so that it acquired a name of its own, Lustmord or sex murder.

The wall label points out that anti-hero of Alfred Döblin’s 1929 novel Berlin Alexanderplatz has just been released from prison after murdering a prostitute. The heroine of G. W. Pabst’s black-and-white silent movie Pandora’s Box ends up being murdered (by Jack the Ripper). But you don’t need to go to other media to find stories of femicide. The art of the verists – the brutal satirists – is full of it.

Lustmord (1922) by Otto Dix © Tate

The label suggests that all these images of women raped, stabbed and eviscerated were a reaction to ‘the emancipation of women’ which took place after the war.

This seems to me an altogether too shallow interpretation, as if these images were polite petitions or editorials in a conservative newspaper. Whereas they seem to me more like the most violent, disgusting images the artists could find to express their despair at the complete and utter collapse of all humane and civilised values brought about by the war.

The way women are bought, fucked and then brutally stabbed to death, their bodies ripped open in image after image, seems to me a deliberate spitting in the face of everything genteel, restrained and civilised about the Victorian and Edwardian society which had led an entire generation of young men into the holocaust of the trenches. Above all these images are angry, burning with anger, and I don’t think it’s at women getting the vote, I think it’s at the entire fabric of so-called civilised society which had been exposed as a brutal sham.

Room three – On the street and in the studio

The hyper-inflation crisis of 1923 was stabilised by the implementation of the Dawes Plan in 1924, under which America lent Germany the money which it then paid to France as reparations for the cost of the war. For the next five years Germany enjoyed a golden period of relative prosperity, becoming widely known for its liberal (sexual) values and artistic creativity, not only in art but also photography, design and architecture (the Bauhaus).

The exhibition features a couple of display cases which show picture annuals from the time, such as Das Deutsches Lichtbild. The photo album was a popular format which collected together wonderful examples of the new, avant-garde, constructivist-style b&w photos of the time into a lavish and collectible book format.

And – despite pictures such as Deierling’s Gardener – it was an overwhelmingly urban culture. Berlin’s population doubled between 1910 and 1920, the bustling streets of four million people juxtaposing well-heeled bourgeoisie and legless beggars, perfumed aristocrats and raddled whores.

But alongside the famously scabrous images of satirists like Grosz and Dix, plenty of artists were attracted by the new look and feel of densely populated streets, and this room contains quite a few depictions of towns and cities, in a range of styles, from visionary to strictly realistic.

And of course there was always money to be made supplying the comfortably off with flattering portraits, and this room contains a selection of surprisingly staid and traditional portraits.

Portrait of a Lady on the Pont des Arts (1935) by Werner Schramm © Tate

This is the kind of thing Roh had in mind when he wrote about the ‘classicists’, highlighting the tendency among many painters of the time towards minute attention to detail, and the complete, smooth finishing of the oil.

Room four – the cabaret

Early 20th century cabaret was quite unlike the music halls which had dominated popular entertainment at the end of the 19th. Music hall catered to a large working class audience, emphasising spectacle and massed ranks of dancers or loud popular comedians. Cabaret, by contrast, took place in much smaller venues, often catering to expensive or elite audiences, providing knowingly ‘sophisticated’ performers designed to tickle the taste buds of their well-heeled clientele. The entertainment was more intimate, direct and often intellectual, mixing smart cocktail songs with deliberately ‘decadent’ displays of semi-naked women or cross-dressing men.

In fact there are, ironically, no paintings of an actual cabaret in the cabaret room, which seems a bit odd. The nearest thing we get is a big painting of the recently deceased Eric Satie (d.1925) in what might be a nightclub.

Erik Satie – The Prelude (1925) by Prosper de Troyer © Tate

There are the picture books I mentioned above, featuring some famous cross-dressers of the time. And – what caught my eye most – a series of large cartoony illustrations of 1. two painted ladies 2. a woman at a shooting stall of a fair offering a gun to a customer 3. and a group of bored women standing in the doorway of a brothel.

These latter are the best things in the room and one of the highlights of the entire exhibition. Even though I recently read several books about Weimar art, I had never heard of Jeanne Mammen. Born in 1890, ‘her work is associated with the New Objectivity and Symbolism movements. She is best known for her depictions of strong, sensual women and Berlin city life.’ (Wikipedia) During the 1920s she contributed to fashion magazines and satirical journals and the wall label claims that:

Her observations of Berlin and its female inhabitants differ significantly from her male contemporaries. Her images give visual expression to female desire and to women’s experiences of city life.

Maybe. What I immediately responded to was the crispness and clarity of her cartoon style, closely related to George Grosz in its expressive use of line but nonetheless immediately distinctive. A quick surf of the internet shows that the three works on display here don’t really convey the distinctiveness of her feminine perspective as much as the wall label claims. I’m going to have to find out much more about her. She’s great.

At the Shooting Gallery (1929) by Jeanne Mammen. The George Economou Collection © DACS London, 2018

Room five – faith and magic

In some ways it’s surprising that Christianity survived the First World War at all, until you grasp that its main purpose is to help people make sense of and survive tragedies and disasters. Once, years ago, I made a television programme about belief and atheism. One of the main themes which emerged was that all the atheists who poured scorn on religious belief had led charmed, middle-class lives which gave them the unconscious confidence that they could abolish the monarchy, have a revolution and ban Christianity because they knew that nothing much would change in their confident, affluent, well-educated lives.

Whereas the Christians I spoke to had almost all undergone real suffering – I remember one whose mother had been raped by her step-father, another who had lost a brother to cancer – one way or another they had had to cope with real pain in their lives. And their Christian faith wasn’t destroyed by these experiences; on the contrary, it was made stronger. Or (to be cynical) their need for faith had been made stronger.

The highlights of this final room were two sets of large religious paintings by Albert Birkle and Herbert Gurschener.

From 1918 to 1919 there was an exhibition of Matthias Grunwald’s Isenheim altarpiece (1512) in Munich and this inspired Albert Birkle to tackle this most-traditional of Western subjects, but filtered through the harsh, cartoon-like grotesqueness of a Weimar sensibility. He was only 21 when he painted his version of the crucifixion and still fresh from the horrors of the Western Front. Is there actually any redemption at all going on in this picture, or is it just a scene of grotesque torture? You decide.

The Crucifixion (1921) by Albert Birkle © Tate

Herbert Gurschener (1901-75) took his inspiration from the Italian Renaissance in paintings like the Triumph of Death, Lazarus (The Workers) and Annunciation. His Annunciation contains all the traditional religious symbolism, down to the stalk of white lilies, along with a form of post-Renaissance perspective. And yet is very obviously refracted through an entirely 20th century sensibility.

The Annunciation (1930) by Herbert Gurschner © Tate

Thoughts

There is more variety in this exhibition than I’ve indicated. There are many more ‘traditional’ portraits in all of the rooms, plus a variety of townscapes which vary from grim depictions of urban slums brooding beneath factory chimneys to genuinely magical, fantasy-like depictions of brightly coloured fairy streets.

There is more strangeness and quirkiness than I’d expected, more little gems which are not easy to categorise but which hold the eye. It’s worth registering the loud, crude angry satire of Grosz and Dix, but then going back round to appreciate the subtler virtues of many of the quieter pictures, as well as the inclusions of works by ‘outriders’ like Chagall and de Chirico who were neither German nor painting during the post-war period. Little gems and surprises.

And the whole thing is FREE. Go see it before it closes in July.

Full list of paintings

This is a list of most of the paintings in the exhibition, though I don’t think it’s quite complete. Anyway, I give it here in case you want to look up more examples of each artist’s works.

Introduction

  • Marc Chagall, The Green Donkey, 1911
  • Giorgio de Chirico, The Duo, 1914
  • Otto Dix, Portrait of Bruno Alexander Roscher, 1915
  • George Grosz, Suicide, 1916
  • Heinrich Maria Davringhausen, The Poet Däubler, 1917
  • Carlo Mense, Self Portrait, 1918
  • Heinrich Campendonk, The Rider II, 1919
  • Henry Heinrich Dierling, The Gardner, 1920
  • Max Beckman, Frau Ullstein (Portrait of a Woman), 1920
  • Otto Dix Beautiful Mally! 1920
  • Otto Dix Circus Scene (Riding Act) 1920
  • Otto Dix Zirkus, 1922
  • Otto Dix Performers 1922
  • Paul Klee They’re Biting 1920, Comedy 1921
  • Albert Birkle The Acrobat Schulz V, 1921
  • George Grosz Drawing for ‘The Mirror of the Bourgeoisie’ 1925
  • George Grosz Self-Portrait with Model in the Studio 1930-7
  • George Grosz A Married Couple 1930

From the visible to the invisible

  • Otto Dix Butcher Shop 1920
  • Otto Dix Billiard Players 1920
  • Otto Dix Sailor and Girl 1920
  • Otto Dix Lust Murderer 1920
  • Otto Dix Lust Murderer 1922
  • Rudolf Schlichter The Artist with Two Hanged Women 1924
  • Christian Schad Prof Holzmeister 1926

The Street and the Studio

  • Richard Biringer, Krupp Works, Engers am Rheim, 1925
  • Albert Birkle, Passou, 1925
  • Rudolf Dischinger, Backyard Balcony, 1935
  • Conrad Felix Műller, Portrait of Ernst Buchholz, 1921
  • Conrad Felix Műller, The Beggar of Prachatice, 1924
  • Carl Grossberg, Rokin Street, Amsterdam, 1925
  • Hans Grundig, Girl with Pink Hat, 1925
  • Herbert Gurschner, Japanese Lady, 1932
  • Herbert Gurschner, Bean Ingram, 1928
  • Karl Otto Hy, Anna, 1932
  • August Heitmüller, Self-Portrait, 1926
  • Alexander Kanoldt, Monstery Chapel of Säben, 1920
  • Josef Mangold, Flower Still Life with Playing Card, undated
  • Nicolai Wassilief, Interior, 1923
  • Carlo Mense, Portrait of Don Domenico, 1924
  • Richard Müller, At the Studio, 1926
  • Franz Radziwill, Conversation about a Paragraph, 1929
  • Otto Rudolf Schatz, Moon Women, 1930
  • Rudolf Schlichter, Lady with Red Scarf, 1933
  • Marie-Louise von Motesicky, Portrait of a Russian Student, 1927
  • Josef Scharl, Conference/The Group, 1927
  • Werner Schramm, Portrait of a Lady in front of the Pont des Artes, 1930

The Cabaret

  • Josef Ebertz, Dancer (Beatrice Mariagraete), 1923
  • Otto Griebel, Two Women, 1924
  • Prosper de Troyer, Eric Satie (The Prelude), 1925
  • Sergius Pauser, Self-Portrait with Mask, 1926
  • Jeanne Mammen, Boring Dolls, 1927
  • Jeanne Mammen, At the Shooting Gallery, 1929
  • Jeanne Mammen, Brüderstrasse (Free Room), 1930
  • Max Beckmann, Anni (Girl with Fan), 1942

Faith

  • Albert Birkle, Crucifixion, 1921
  • Albert Birkle, The Hermit, 1921
  • Herbert Gurschener, the Triumph of Death, 1927
  • Herbert Gurschener, Lazarus (The Workers), 1928
  • Herbert Gurschener, Annuciation, 1929-30

Curators

  • Matthew Gale, Head of Displays
  • Katy Wan, Assistant Curator

Related links

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Modern Couples: Art, Intimacy and the Avant-Garde @ the Barbican

This is an extraordinarily packed, dense and demanding exhibition.

The basic idea is deceptively simple. The show looks at over 40 artistic couples who were pioneers of early 20th century avant-garde art, photography, design and literature, and explores the stories of their sexual, emotional and artistic relationships, liberally illustrating the narratives with photos and art works, books and pamphlets, fabrics and ceramics, chairs and bookshelves, which one or other or both of them produced.

Women first

One central aim of the exhibition is to show that, more often than not, the women in these artistic relationships were as, if not more, important and influential (and creative in their own right) than the male artists and male critics of their time – and ever since – have acknowledged.

So, in a small but telling detail, in all the displays of couples, it is the woman who is presented first, the woman’s name which appears first and the woman’s work and contribution which is most explored.

Thus in the opening room we are told that the model Camille Claudel played a larger role in the career of sculptor Auguste Rodin than is usually credited, as well as being an interesting sculptor in her own right, with samples of her work to prove it.

The same goes for Maria Martens, who enjoyed a long and passionate working relationship with the more-famous Marcel Duchamp, but was a notable artist in her own right.

Later on we learn that Gustav Klimt’s lifelong soul-mate, and the model for some of his most famous paintings – Emilie Flöge – was more than just a muse and model, but a talented fashion designer who ran her own very successful couture house, the Schwestern Flöge (1904–1938), in Vienna.

Emilie Flöge and dress designs c.1900

Emilie Flöge and some of her dress designs c.1900

The exhibition works through scores of other examples, in each case showing that the women in each famous couple were often notable artists, sculptors, designers and business people in their own right, as well as contributing ideas, designs and artworks to what would nowadays be seen more as collaborative relationships than the old-fashioned story of an active Male Artist and a passive Female Muse.

Natalia Goncharova, the Russian Futurist artist, painter, costume designer, writer, illustrator, and set designer was every bit as innovative as her lifelong partner and founder of Rayonism, Mikhail Larionov.

Frida Kahlo, during the 1930s overshadowed by her husband, the famous mural painter Diego Rivera, has subsequently emerged as a powerful artistic figure in her own right.

Leonora Carrington has traditionally been seen as a ‘muse’ for the Surrealist artist, Max Ernst, during the three intense years of their relationship, 1937-40, but she was a sculptor and painter in her own right, as well as the author of a harrowing account of her experience of mental illness, Into the Abyss.

Early in their relationship Georgia O’Keeffe was the junior partner to her husband, the famous New York photographer Alfred Stieglitz, but her career as a painter would go on to eclipse his reputation.

And so on.

In fact, the show at moments suggests that it was sometimes the men who were the muse figures for a woman artist, for example in the section on Picasso and how his image was crafted and shaped by his lover Dora Maar, in her own photographs and sculptures.

Picasso en Minotaure, Mougins, 1937 by Dora Maar © ADAGP, Paris. Photo © Centre Pompidou

Picasso en Minotaure, Mougins, 1937 by Dora Maar © ADAGP, Paris. Photo © Centre Pompidou

So, on one level, this exhibition is a massive, encyclopedic review of twentieth century avant-garde art as retold from the women artists’ perspectives. Redressing a balance. Restoring, or creating, a new feminist interpretation of many artistic relationships, from the super-famous to the sometimes relatively obscure.

Collaborations

But this theme – rediscovering and rethinking the importance of the women collaborators vis-avis often more famous male artists – is not the only one. It is complemented by explorations of the diverse meanings of the very ideas of ‘working relationships’ and ‘collaborations’.

Take homosexual partnerships. Alongside the long sequence of heterosexual couples, there are rooms devoted to gay, lesbian or bisexual couples, for example the passionate same-sex relationship between Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville-West which inspired Woolf’s novel, Orlando. Or the room devoted to the long-lasting artistic relationship between transgender couple Claude Cahun and Marcel Moore.

Other rooms expand the notion of ‘relationship’ beyond the idea of a simple binary couple, for example the relationship of the three Magic Realist painters – Paul Cadmus, Jared French and Margaret Hoening French – who worked together so closely that they attributed their works to a joint pseudonym made up from the first two letters of their first names – the PaJaMa collective.

Other rooms move beyond threesomes to explore larger groups of artists who collaborated and worked together during this exuberant period. Thus one room focuses on the community of lesbian writers and artists in 1920s Paris, while another explores the Surrealist idea of the ‘Chance Encounter’ in a room which brings together some ten or so artists, male and female, who collaborated together in loose and shifting networks of co-operation.

Paul Cadmus and Jared French (1937) photographed by George Platt Lynes © 2018 Estate of George Platt Lynes

Paul Cadmus and Jared French (1937) photographed by George Platt Lynes © 2018 Estate of George Platt Lynes

In other words, the exhibition starts off by exploring the notion of modernist artistic couples but quite quickly deconstructs, reconfigures, explores and rethinks what working artistic relationships actually meant in practice for a wide variety of artists.

It may begin with women who challenged conventional notions of female behaviour and the role of ‘the wife’ or ‘the mistress’ or ‘the muse’, but soon becomes an investigation of a number of types of artistic working relationships, between not only heterosexual and same-sex couples, but among larger and more fluid groupings.

Is Modernism about Love or the Machine Age?

But alongside the notion of the couple, the collaboration and the group, the curators make a bold assertion which I find hard to agree with, namely that artistic modernism was coterminous with ‘modern love’. To quote the introductory wall label at the start of the exhibition:

Modern art. Modern love. From the 1890s through to just after the Second World War, these two phenomena were interwoven and indelibly linked. Side-by-side, artist couples forged new ways of making art and of living and loving.

And in the scores and scores of wall labels which follow, there is much, much more along the same lines. All of the artists are given thumbnail biographies and these tend to focus as much on their love lives, on their bohemian rejection of bourgeois conventions around love, marriage, sexuality and so on, as on their actual artistic achievements.

Central to the exhibition is the claim that Modernism, or the 20th century avant-garde, was about love and sex and desire. Or, as the curators put it:

‘Modern Couples’ roots Modernism in the field of desire.

This claim, or assertion, allows the curators to present a coherent and persuasive narrative. Modern Art is about love and desire. 20th century women artists and authors invariably depicted love and desire. Therefore women artists are central to Modern Art.

Or: If love and desire are the core subject of Modernism, then women artists, who focused on love and desire, must be central to Modernism.

It is a circular, self-fulfilling and self-reinforcing argument.

Having established this axiom, the show can then settle down to ticking off a familiar checklist of feminist art concerns, demonstrating how these radical women artists ‘subverted’ traditional ‘patriarchal’ ideas of ‘gender stereotyping’ and explored ‘transgressive’ sexuality i.e. by having numerous lovers or by being lesbians.

By selecting love and ‘desire’ as the central theme of Modernism, the curators are able to pull together:

  • the heterosexual and homosexual relationships of women artists
  • women artists’ ambivalent roles as sexual objects and muses to men
  • women artists’ own sexual feelings and needs, expressed in infidelities, affairs and multiple partners
  • the fact that women artists sometimes got pregnant and gave birth
  • the way women artists explored and mythologised the condition of femininity and fertility
  • alongside the legion of lesbian artists, seen as social and political pioneers in the way they explored man-free notions of same-sex desire

All of these multifarious activities and interests can be pulled together as if they make up a single coherent movement, all saying the same thing, all addressing the same handful of ‘issues’, all united in the same aim.

And the way the same theme and subject – love, sex and the (generally female) body – is repeated on all the wall labels and is exemplified again and again in the artworks also contributes to this sense of a huge transcontinental network of artists, sculptors and writers all inspired by the same theme. Reinforcing the curators’ premise that ‘modern art’ is coterminous with ‘modern love’.

This strikes me as being very neat, very convenient and not completely true, for one very big reason.

At university I was taught that the huge array of new artistic and literary strategies which we call ‘Modernism’ was, at least in part, a reaction to the ongoing dominance of the Machine in modern life, and a response to the hectic pace of technological change which accelerated from the 1890s onwards.

Electric lights, bicycles, skyscrapers with electric elevators, motor cars and airplanes, the cinema and portable cameras, were just a few of the technologies which didn’t exist in 1890, were only just being developed in 1900, and which had become almost commonplace by 1910, in a few decades of dizzying technical and engineering change.

I was taught that T.S. Eliot in The Waste Land and James Joyce in Ulysses and Alfred Döblin in Berlin Alexanderplatz and John Dos Passos in U.S.A. use techniques of collage, parody and fragmentation to convey the disorientating experience of life in modern, fast-moving cities and the way it had uprooted sensitive people from their cultural and communal identities, producing a blizzard of fragmented experiences.

The City of Ambitions (1910) by Alfred Stieglitz. Courtesy of the George Eastman Museum

The City of Ambitions (1910) by Alfred Stieglitz. Courtesy of the George Eastman Museum

Same with the photomontages of Alexander Rodchenko and the Russian Constructivists, or the zealous machine-worship of the Futurists, or the angularities of the Vorticists, or the geometric forms of Fernand Léger, or the Suprematism of Kazimir Malevich, or the shock close-ups and split screens and montages of Sergei Eisenstein, or the grid pictures of Piet Mondrian which began life as attempts to capture the energy of fast-moving traffic around modern city blocks.

I was taught that all of these undeniably ‘modernist’ books and artworks were first and foremost responses to what many artists felt was the disruptive impact of a host of new technologies on modern life. They have nothing – visually or intellectually – to do with love and desire.

So it’s a surprise to realise that this indisputably key element of Modernism – the hectic, alienating, urban, machine-riddled aspect of the Modernist movement – is largely absent from this exhibition. If it’s mentioned at all it is only to be quickly downplayed.

Thus when the exhibition describes the Futurist poet and provocateur, Marinetti it does so mainly in order to prove that his partner, Benedetta, was a pioneering artist in her own right, who feistily stood up to Marinetti’s misogynist rhetoric and co-wrote a lot of his most famous works.

Fair enough, but this perspective downplays Marinetti’s importance as (half-crazed) apostle of The Machine – of the new age of fast cars, planes and trains, a mania which influenced the Surrealists in Paris and the Vorticists in London.

Room 20, devoted to Russian Modernism, describes the artistic output of Alexander Rodchenko, Varvara Stepanova, Lilya Brk and Osip Brik, and Vladimir Mayakovsky mainly in terms of their fluid relationships and collaborations i.e. in order to justify the curators’ central premise.

What is underplayed is the crucial importance of The Machine Age to their development of new styles of photography and photomontage, design, experimental film and so on – radical responses to the impact of new technologies on human life which were so acute and perceptive that many of them still influence us to this day.

A. Rodchenko and V. Stepanova descending from an airplane in a still for the film The General Line by Sergei Eisenstein (1926) a very rare appearance of a machine in an exhibition overwhelmingly devoted to bodies and desire. Courtesy Rodchenko and Stepanova Archives, Moscow

A. Rodchenko and V. Stepanova descending from an airplane in a still for the film The General Line by Sergei Eisenstein (1926). A very rare appearance of a machine in an exhibition overwhelmingly devoted to bodies and desire. Courtesy Rodchenko and Stepanova Archives, Moscow

Some of the exhibition wall labels do refer to the new experience of the modern city, a bit, where absolutely necessary, reluctantly – but overall the exhibition systematically downplays or ignores it in order to focus on its core concern – with relationships, love, ‘desire’ and the female body.

For me, this is simply to ignore, underplay and obscure a vital element in early 20th century avant-garde modernist art and literature.

Moreover, if you think about it, the curators’ unrelenting focus on love, sex and (generally) women’s bodies leads to a deep irony.

By choosing to equate Modernism exclusively with love and desire, an exhibition which sets out to reject sexist stereotypes of women in a subtle way ends up limiting women to – the realm of the emotions, of love and desire.

An exhibition which ostensibly sets out to tell us that women were interested in more than just the stereotypical concerns of love and sex (they were also successful businesswomen and designers), paradoxically goes to great lengths to tell us in sometimes embarrassing detail about the love lives, partners and sensuality and eroticism of these same women.

Which tends to have the cumulative affect of confirming the stereotypical prejudice that women, at the end of the day, aren’t interested in wider ideas, social change, technology, science and engineering, in designing better engines, cars, planes and trains.

No, with a handful of exceptions, most of the women in this exhibition are described as being predominantly interested – in their lives and art and writing – in love and sex. The lesbians, gays and transgender people, too, are defined, categorised and interpreted in the light of their sexual preferences, not in any wider social or intellectual concerns.

[At a more remote level, for people who don’t give a damn about art or artists (90+% of the population), this exhibition confirms every philistine prejudice they’ve ever held about the art world, namely that it’s a Sodom and Gomorrah of sexual perversion, infidelity, adultery and pornography. (There is quite a lot of nudity on display, as you’d expect in an exhibition about desire and the body, lots of bare boobs and one or two naked penises. Visitors are warned that the room about the Surrealists’ ‘Chance Encounter’ has so much explicit content that it might not be suitable for under-16s. Oooh er.)]

Meanwhile, beyond the artists’ studios and bedrooms in the 1910s and 20s, there was an immense and exciting world – the world of motorbikes and racing cars and fast trains and ocean liners and skyscrapers and high speed elevators and escalators and department stores and cinemas and world wars and machine guns and tanks and airplanes, the world where people tested themselves against machines, climbed mountains, did solo flights across the Atlantic.

But all this is ignored, left out, omitted, elided and glossed over, in the curators’ keenness to assert that the essence of Modernism was… love and desire, marriages and mistresses, ‘transgressive sexuality’, ‘the queer citizen’, ‘women’s liberation’, ‘same-sex acceptance’ and so on.

It is difficult to read every word of all the wall labels, not only because there are so many of them, but also because so many of them end up saying the same thing. The circumstantial details of each artist and their relationships maybe be distinct and individual but so many of the labels take us to the same destination – explaining that so and so made ‘the body’ the centre of their practice or ‘the site of transgressive desire’ or an epitome of ‘queer citizenship’, and so on.

The explosively diverse and often fascinating works of many of these artists are time after time reduced, interpreted via the same handful of ideas which rotate obsessively around sex, ‘desire’, the body, and transgressing gender stereotypes.

It is, in my opinion, both a narrow view of Modern Art, and a very narrow view of the female, lesbian and gay achievement of the time, both in the art world and beyond.

A tsunami of information

So much for the core ideas of the exhibition, and my issue with some of them.

The actual experience of visiting Modern Couples is to be completely overwhelmed by a tsunami of names and stories. The two floors of the Barbican Gallery have been divided up into some 23 small rooms, into most of which have been crammed displays about at least two sets of couples, with each couple introduced and explained by sometimes lengthy texts on the wall, as well as scores and scores of key quotes from the respective artists and authors.

It’s a lot to take in – to read the explanation of each couple, and then try and match the quotes to what you’ve just read about their lives – and then to find the energy to look at the actual art works.

To give you a sense of the scale and the deluge of information, here’s the list of the Artist Couples:

  • Aino and Alvar Aalto
  • Vanessa Bell and Roger Fry
  • Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant
  • Lilya Brik and Vladimir Mayakovsky
  • Claude Cahun and Marcel Moore
  • Benedetta and Filippo Tommaso Marinetti
  • Leonora Carrington and Max Ernst
  • Camille Claudel and Auguste Rodin
  • Nancy Cunard and Henry Crowder
  • Sonia Delaunay and Robert Delaunay
  • Lili Elbe And Gerda Wegener
  • Emilie Flöge and Gustav Klimt
  • Federico García Lorca and Salvador Dalí
  • Natalia Goncharova and Mikhail Larionov
  • Eileen Gray and Jean Badovici
  • Barbara Hepworth and Ben Nicholson
  • Hannah Höch and Til Brugman
  • Hannah Höch and Raoul Hausmann
  • Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera
  • Dora Maar and Pablo Picasso
  • Alma Mahler and Oskar Kokoschka
  • Alma Mahler and Gustav Mahler
  • Maria Martins and Marcel Duchamp
  • Margrethe Mather and Edward Weston
  • Lee Miller and Man Ray
  • Lee Miller and Roland Penrose
  • Tina Modotti and Edward Weston
  • Lucia Moholy and László Moholy-Nagy
  • Gabriele Münter and Wassily Kandinsky
  • Winifred Nicholson and Ben Nicholson
  • Georgia O’Keeffe and Alfred Stieglitz
  • PaJaMa: Paul Cadmus, Jared French, and Margaret French
  • George Platt Lynes, Monroe Wheeler and Glenway Wescott
  • Lavinia Schultz and Walter Holdt
  • Varvara Stepanova and Alexander Rodchenko
  • Sophie Taeuber-Arp and Jean Arp
  • Toyen and Jindrich Štyrský
  • Marianne von Werefkin and Alexej von Jawlensky
  • Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville-West
  • Virginia Woolf and Leonard Woolf
  • Unica Zürn and Hans Bellmer

That’s a lot of biographies to read and digest, that’s a lot of names to remember.

Nude with Poppies (1916) by Vanessa Bell. Swindon Art Gallery

Nude with Poppies (1916) by Vanessa Bell. Swindon Art Gallery

Here are the names, careers, art and writing of the ‘Sapphists’ featured in just one room, the one dedicated to ‘The Temple of Friendship’ i.e. the lesbian writers and artists of 1920s Paris:

  • Djuna Barnes and Thelma Wood
  • Natalie Clifford-Barney and Romaine Brooks
  • Natalie Clifford Barney and Rémy de Gourmont
  • Natalie Clifford-Barney and Liane de Pougy
  • Natalie Clifford Barney and Renée Vivien
  • Sylvia Beach and Adrienne Monnier
  • Luisa Casati
  • Radclyffe Hall and Una Troubridge
  • Tamara de Lempicka
  • Ida Rubinstein
  • Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas

And that’s before you get to the artists featured in the Surrealist ‘Chance Encounter’ room, namely:

  • Eileen Agar and Joseph Bard
  • Eileen Agar and Paul Nash
  • Marcel Duchamp as Rrose Sélavy
  • Leonor Fini and André Pieyre de Mandiargues
  • Gala and Salvador Dalí
  • Gala, Paul Éluard and Max Ernst
  • Valentine Hugo and André Breton
  • Jacqueline Lamba and André Breton
  • Kiki de Montparnasse and Man Ray
  • Nadja and André Breton
  • Nusch and Paul Éluard
  • Grace Pailthorpe and Reuben Mednikoff
  • Valentine Penrose and Alice Rahon
  • Valentine Penrose and Roland Penrose
  • Dorothea Tanning and Max Ernst
Dorothea Tanning and Max Ernst with his sculpture, Capricorn, 1947 © John Kasnetsis

Dorothea Tanning and Max Ernst with his sculpture, Capricorn, 1947 © John Kasnetsis

Not only must the visitor assimilate this tsunami of names, relationships and diversity of artistic and literary practices, but every visitor to the exhibition is given a free handout, a ‘glossary’, which includes even more themes to think about.

For when the curators had collated this much information about this many people and assembled this many works all in one place – it turns to be an interesting exercise to detect all kinds of further links and connections between the huge diversity of artists, activities or artworks on show.

Thus the free handout suggests that, as you walk round the exhibition, you look out for the following themes:

  • Activism
  • Agency – ‘Feminism, agency and the desire for independence underpins much of the work by women artists in the avant-garde period.’
  • Breaking up
  • Businesswomen – Emilie Flöge, Sonia Delaunay, Aino Aalto
  • Chance encounter
  • Chloe liked Olivia – quote from Virginia Woolf epitomising ‘the new queer citizen of the 20th century’
  • Clandestine
  • Co-authored – or collaboration, one of the show’s central themes.
  • Communicating vessels – ‘Two different bodies, rubbed against one another, attain, through the spark, their supreme unity in fire’ – André Breton, 1932.
  • Collage
  • Daring – ‘What have I dared embark upon by entering your life?’ Dora Maar to Picasso, 1936.
  • Desire
  • Elegy – ‘Butterflies represent a scene of your life in which the dawn awakens on your lips. A star takes shape according to your design.’ Jean Arp remembering Sophie Taeuber-Arp after her death.
  • Escape to the country
  • Feminism – ‘We will be better than the wife, the mother or the sister of a man, we will be the female brother of the man’ – Natalie Clifford Barney
  • Gift
  • Homoeroticism – ‘The work that came out of Monroe Wheeler, Glenway Wescott and George Platt Lynes’s at times uneasy polyamorous relationship opened up a queer utopian space, away from 1930s American conservatism, in which the male subject could be liberated.’
  • Intimacy
  • Liberation – sexual liberation, liberation from Victorian clothing and Victorian morality, liberation from constricting fabrics and dull designs, liberation from boring interiors, liberation from artistic naturalism and even from language
  • Love
  • Mad love
  • Mirroring – ‘I am one, you are the other. Or the opposite. Our desires meet one another.’ Claude Cohun, 1930.
  • Muse – Dora Maar took photos of her lover Picasso in ‘a turnaround of gender expectations‘.
  • Mythology
  • Nest
  • Non-binary – ‘Gender fluidity, sexual empowerment, awakening, and the fight for safe spaces of becoming, were part of the avant-garde currency.’
  • Play
  • Printed word – ‘It could be a political text, a perfect branding platform, a token of love, a site of artistic collaboration or a platform for transgressive or erotic content.’
  • Procreation
  • Publishing – Many modernists experimented with setting up their own publishing company, most notably the Hogarth Press of Leonard and Virginia Woolf.
  • Pygmalion
  • Radical abstraction
  • Reinvention – The importance of the portrait, in art and literature. Claude Cohun and Marcel Moore, life partners for 45 years, and produced a huge body of work playing with ‘gender politics‘.
  • Revolution – Alexander Rodchenko and partner Varvara Stepanova’s revulsion for the West’s cult of ‘Woman as object’ and determination to embrace ‘gender equality‘.
  • Selfie
  • Sidelined – women sidelined by men, obviously
  • Total work of art
  • Triadic
  • Two-people movements – Rayism invented by Natalia Goncharova and Mikhail Larionov, the Mask Dancer movement of Lavinia Schultz and Walter Holdt, the Tactilism of Benedetta and Filippo Marinetti, the Orphism of Sonia and Robert Delaunay.
  • Utopia
  • War
  • X-rated – ‘Many artists in this exhibition used eroticism in their art as a way of fighting bourgeois conformity, propaganda and artistic censorship.’

Is that enough to think about yet?

A self-portrait by Claude Cahun, subverting gender stereotypes. Courtesy of Jersey Heritage Collections

A self-portrait by Claude Cahun, subverting gender stereotypes. Courtesy of Jersey Heritage Collections

This is what the exhibition is like. Overflowing with texts, quotes, references, biographical data, artistic theory and, underpinning it all, emerging sooner or later in every wall label for every artist – the axioms of modern identity politics and feminism – gender politics, the body, gender fluidity, transgressive art, gender equality, and so on.

Numbers

I counted a total of 103 paragraphs of wall text – sometimes very long, densely factual paragraphs. It would take at least an hour just to read them, and that’s before the 50 or so quotes from artists’ letters, diaries and so on.

There are over 40 couples, but many more ‘couples-plus’ – groups and movements of artists and writers to get a handle on – with the result that the exhibition features more than 80 writers and artists in total.

And there are a staggering 600 objects on display, including paintings, sculptures, models, furniture, personal photographs, love letters, gifts, books – 35 first editions from Virginia and Leonard Woolf’s Hogarth Press – magazines, rare archival material and much, much more!

Les deux amies (1923) by Tamara de Lempicka. Association des Amis du Petit Palais, Geneve

Les deux amies (1923) by Tamara de Lempicka. Association des Amis du Petit Palais, Geneve. A portrait of two naked women painted by a woman!

In the event, this was simply too much for me to take in. I started off dutifully reading every wall text but quickly got tired, saturated, full up – I started skimming some and then just ignored others. I went round about five times, each time reading at new bits of text, toying with quotes here and there – above all, trying to let the actual art fight its way through the jungle of biography and interpretation and bitty quotations and make its impact.

I came to roughly two conclusions.

1. One is that, if you’re a student or have an educational motivation, this is a spectacular opportunity to see works great and small, by artists famous and obscure, by men, women, gays, lesbians and trans people, from what feels like all the most important art movements of the early 20th century.

(In fact it’s far from being a complete overview of early 20th century art – that would fill ten Barbican galleries – but it is an impressive stab at conveying a really comprehensive overview of important modern art as retold with women, gays and lesbians to the fore.)

2. The second point is that among the 600 paintings, books, photos and furniture on display there are some real masterpieces, many on loan from abroad, and so a rare opportunity to see many beautiful things in the flesh.

Small is not necessarily beautiful

In this respect – my response to the art – I found the smaller, more cramped rooms to be unconducive to aesthetic enjoyment.

For example, the small first room which is shared by the story of Camille Claudel and Auguste Rodin, and the story of Maria Martins and Marcel Duchamp, included some plaster busts and faces by the former pair, and some bronze casts of Maria’s body parts (her buttocks and vagina) made by Duchamp. But it was so small, cramped and crowded that it felt more like a reading and learning space, than an art space.

The reduction ad absurdum of this shoehorn approach was the way that the no doubt complex and interesting working relationship between modernist designer Lilly Reich and her long-term partner and collaborator, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, was explained via one chrome and black leather chair and three paragraphs of text plonked at the bottom of the stairs to the first floor.

He claimed to be the sole designer of this classic and hugely influential chair. Only decades later did it emerge that she had as least as much input as he did into the design. What a beast!

Barcelona chair by Mies van der Rohe (1929)

Barcelona chair by Mies van der Rohe (1929)

Interesting story, but blink and you might miss it altogether.

The show is co-curated by Emma Lavigne, Director of the Centre Pompidou in Metz. The French connection made me think of some of the smaller displays as types of ‘bonnes bouches’ or ‘tasty bites’ – fleeting treats designed to add to the overall argument, but whose main function would be to inspire you to go away and find out more.

Big rooms where art can breathe

By contrast, I only really felt comfortable – and that I was really getting an aesthetic kick (as opposed to processing large amounts of biographical and art information) – in some of the larger rooms. There were plenty of other highlights, but I would single out rooms 14, 15 and 17.

Room 17 displayed the work of two and a half couples: of the English artist Ben Nicholson, who 1. enjoyed a close working relationship with Winifred Nicholson (whom he married) in the early 1930s before 2. then partnering with the sculptor Barbara Hepworth. The wall labels quote letters they exchanged in which they spoke of becoming, literally, one person, with one taste and one artistic motivation.

In this same room, on the opposite wall, was a suite of work by Jean Arp and Sophie Taeuber-Arp. I found the juxtaposition of the sculptural abstractions of Nicholson and Hepworth with the playful abstracts of Arp really interesting.

But I was transfixed by the four or five 18-inch-high marionettes made by Sophie Taeuber-Arp for a puppet production of a folk tale about King Stagg. These possessed something almost nothing else in the exhibition did – which was charm and humour.

Marionettes by Sophie Taeuber-Arp (1918)

Marionettes by Sophie Taeuber-Arp (1918)

Room 15 is a rare example of a room devoted to just one couple, in this case the wife-and-husband partnership between Sonia and Robert Delaunay (who were married from 1910 to Robert’s death in 1941). This married couple developed a movement variously titled Simultanism and then Orphism, in which different patterns of colours are set against each other to create disruptive effects.

The Delaunay room benefited immensely from being just about them, with no other couple squeezed in. It had more than twenty works hung around the walls, most of them – from what I could see – the calm, restful abstract designs by Sonia, mostly for fabrics and dresses. This made for a really absorbing and beautiful space.

Design B53 (1924) by Sonia Delaunay

Design B53 (1924) by Sonia Delaunay

But the room I found it literally hard to leave and, even when I’d left it, found myself walking round the entire ground floor in order to visit again with a renewed frisson of delight, was room 14 devoted to the overlapping artistic partnerships of Gabriele Münter and Wassily Kandinsky, and Marianne von Werefkin and Alexej von Jawlensky.

This foursome produced German Expressionist paintings of wonderful colour and vivid design at their self-styled artist colony at Murnau in Bavaria, in the years just before the Great War. Wow.

I liked lots of other things in the exhibition (the enormous painting of naked lesbians by Tamara de Lempicka, the thrilling Constructivist photos of Varvara Stepanova and Alexander Rodchenko, the dazzling photos of Lee Miller done by Man Ray, the couple of small but wonderful paintings by Gustav Klimt, some of the abstract paintings produced by Roger Grant and Vanessa Bell’s Omega Workshop, the wonderfully aloof portraits painted by Romaine Brooks), but for sheer visual pleasure, nothing beat this room of hyper-bright, vivid brushstrokes, bold childlike designs, and colour-drenched splashes and flourishes by this German foursome.

Improvisation III by Wassily Kandinsky (1909)

Improvisation III by Wassily Kandinsky (1909)

Probably I should have been reading up on how their work ‘subverted’ this or that tradition, and ‘challenged gender stereotypes’, or how the two women definitely contributed as much or more to their commune as the men.

But I switched off all that curatorial chatter, and just stood in awe of these wonderful, beautiful, transcendent works of art. No reproductions can do justice to the shiny vibrancy of the real thing in the flesh. Go and see them for yourself.

Conclusion

It must have taken an immense amount of effort by the four co-curators to bring together such an epic collection of objects and art works and to bring order, coherence and meaning to the multiple stories behind them.

If you are a feminist I can see how this exhibition of feminist artists lovingly assembled by feminist curators with scores of texts by feminist scholars would thunderingly confirm all your feminist beliefs. That’s what it’s designed to do.

And I wondered, as I left, whether this exhibition now and in the future, might be seen as a landmark show, a really massive rethinking of early 20th century modern art which reinstates women’s stories in all these important relationships, and often rehabilitates them as being as, if not more, creative than their male partners.

And also for the way it explores the idea that modern art was characterised, more than any previous type of art, by its collaborative nature, by the way it was produced by partnerships, by trios or quartets, by small groups working, thinking and making together.

It is a strong, well-argued, illuminating and very thought-provoking show.

But, that said, it’s hard to imagine that a lot of these artists and their stories won’t already be well known to the average gallery goer – the stories of Picasso and Dora, Frida and Diego, Virginia and Vita and the names of Dali, Ernst, Man Ray, Klimt, Marinetti, Nicholson and Hepworth are hardly unknown, and the notion that, ‘behind every great man there’s a great woman’, is hardly a radical thought – as indicated by the fact that there’s a centuries-old proverb on the subject.

Similarly, it’s hard to imagine that the fact that there were lesbian writers in the 1920s or gay photographers in the 1930s, will come as a great surprise to the average gallery goer. Homosexuality is not really news to most people. Most of the people the exhibition is targeted at will, I suspect, have heard of Virginia Woolf before, and will know she had a lesbian affair with Vita Sackville-West.

My position, after forty years of studying twentieth century art, literature and history, is that the Century of Catastrophes is too diverse and complex to be reduced to any one narrative or interpretation. From about the 1890s onwards there was (and still is) too much going on in an interconnected world of billions of human beings for any one narrative or story to hope to tell any kind of definitive ‘truth’.

For example, this is an exhibition, at bottom, about European and American white women, often very wealthy women (Nancy Cunard, Natalie Barney). You can immediately see that focusing on these often very privileged people tends to omit the stories of working class people of both genders in those continents. You could be forgiven for not realising there were things called the First World War and the Russian Revolution during the period the exhibition covers. Not enough ‘same sex desire’ to merit inclusion.

Similarly, there is precious little (surprisingly) about the black experience of modernity (there is one black person in the exhibition, the jazz musician Henry Crowder, who is included because of his influence over the immensely wealthy patron of the arts and writer, Nancy Cunard).

In fact, now I think about it, jazz is a crashingly obvious and central element of Modernism, from Stravinsky to Eliot, and is depicted in countless modernist art works. But it doesn’t fit with the curators’ insistence that Modernism be defined by couples, love and relationships, sex and partners and gender and desire and so… it isn’t here.

My view is that the ‘Modern’ experience of humanity, the bewildering catalogue of technological, scientific and cultural change which overwhelmed Homo sapiens in the early twentieth century – is too vast and multiform for any one narrative to encompass.

The curators make a powerful and persuasive case that Modernism was characterised above all by new thinking about love, eroticism, desire and relationships, much of which promoted the liberation of women (and trans people and gays).

Lee Miller with a cast of her torso, Downshire Hill, London, England 1940 by Roland Penrose © Roland Penrose

Lee Miller with a cast of her torso, Downshire Hill, London, England 1940 by Roland Penrose
© Roland Penrose

I accept all their points as valid, and the body of evidence they’ve assembled is pulverisingly persuasive. And yet I still think that an equal if not more important element of Modernism was artists’ reaction to the revolution in everyday life caused by new technologies. And everyone’s world was turned upside down by the Great War. And the entire intellectual world was galvanised by the radicalism of the Russian Revolution. And I haven’t mentioned the famously disruptive discoveries of Einstein and others, undermining the static view of the forces of nature held since Newton. Too much was happening. No wonder the art from this period is so excited and effervescent.

Alternative interpretations

But I’m well aware that my own interpretation can itself be trumped by other competing narratives. That there are numerous ways of looking at this period of cultural history.

For example, arguably the most important aspect of the era was the collapse of the old European empires – the German, Austro-Hungarian, Russian and Ottoman Empires. The entire art of the period could be interpreted in terms of the breakdown of the ideologies, laws and customs which supported them, of which conventions about relations between the sexes are just a small sub-set.

Or there’s a Marxist interpretation which suggests that the era was characterised by unprecedented wealth derived from the West’s imperialist domination of the rest of the world – wealth which gave rise to a new class of super-rich collectors and connoisseurs who patronised ‘modern’ art and literature and experimented with new ‘decadent’ lifestyles. (Vide Nancy Cunard, Natalie Barney and the numerous other rich American women who populate the 1920s lesbian room).

Or there’s a strong post-colonial interpretation which says that the decisive impetus for Modernism and its revolutionary overthrow of 400 years of realistic art came from the cultural appropriation of the African masks and Oceanic art looted by imperial collectors, which were enthusiastically copied by Picasso and Matisse, and which had a transformative effect on everyone who followed them.

To give just a few of the most obvious interpretations of the art of the period.

This exhibition is an impressive and stimulating attempt to write one particular story about early twentieth century art. But it is only one interpretation among a sea of alternative stories.

The promotional video

P.S. What does ‘modern’ mean?

When I told my wife I was off to see an exhibition titled ‘Modern Couples’ she thought it would be a V&A-style celebration of contemporary celebrity pairs like Elton John and David Furnish, the Beckhams, Kanye West and Kim Kardashian, and so on.

No, I explained. When art and literary critics say ‘modern’ what they mean is art from the 1900s, 1910s and 20s. They mean art and literature which is over a hundred years old. That’s what they mean by ‘modern’.

And even as I explained it, I realised how odd this use of the word ‘modern’ is. Eventually this stuff is going to be 150 years old. Will we still be describing it as ‘modern’ in 2050? At what point will someone have to come up with a better name? Or will Modernist art remain ‘modern’ forever?


Related links

Women in art

Reviews of artists featured in this exhibition

Reviews of previous exhibitions & concerts at the Barbican

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