Decline and Fall by Evelyn Waugh (1928)

‘Besides, you see, I’m a public school man. That means everything. There’s a blessed equity in the English social system,’ said Grimes, ‘that ensures the public school man against starvation. One goes through four or five years of perfect hell at an age when life is bound to be hell anyway, and after that the social system never lets one down.’
(Captain Grimes in Decline and Fall)

This was Evelyn Waugh’s first published novel, after a little runup of student and young mannish articles. His preface to the 1961 edition of Vile Bodies tells us it was well reviewed but only sold a few thousand copies. It was Vile Bodies published 2 years later, in 1930, which made his name and shot him into the bestseller league.

Maybe it was because, despite its modish aspects, Decline and Fall is basically a very traditional narrative. It recounts the picaresque adventures of an innocent young man, Paul Pennyfeather, abroad in a naughty world.

Paul is a cipher, a narrative device whose purpose is to lead us through a succession of scenes and incidents conceived solely for their humorous effect, the humour ranging from broad farce, slapstick and caricature, to satire of contemporary mores and, from time to time, hints of something a bit darker. This kind of narrative goes back through his immediate predecessor Aldous Huxley, to Dickens in the 19th century, Tom Jones or Candide in the 18th, Don Quixote in the 17th, and back past them to classical forebears, while also looking forward to the hapless adventures of naive young men in the novels of Kingsley Amis, David Lodge and Howard Jacobson.

The whole of this book is really an account of the mysterious disappearance of Paul Pennyfeather… because, as the reader will probably have discerned already, Paul Pennyfeather would never have made a hero, and the only interest about him arises from the unusual series of events of which his shadow was witness.

Part one – disgrace and public schoolteacher

Oxford

The narrative opens at the fictional Scone College Oxford where Mr Sniggs, the Junior Dean, and Mr Postlethwaite, the Domestic Bursar, witness innocent hapless Paul Pennyfeather being debagged (having his trousers pulled off) by the drunken members of Bollinger Club (obviously a reference to the real-life Bullingdon Club, of which David Cameron and Boris Johnson were members) led by the raffish Sir Alastair Digby-Vaine-Trumpington and featuring the loud Lumsden of Strathdrummond.

Pennyfeather is a mild and harmless student of Divinity and had just returned from a characteristically high-minded meeting of the League of Nations Union, Oxford branch. On the fateful night he is set upon, has his trousers pulled off and is chucked in the fountain. He is last seen running trouserless across the main quad. Next morning he is summoned by the Dean and flabbergasted to be told he is being sent down i.e. expelled. The comedy is in the way the drunken aristocrats who attacked him get off scot-free. No one thinks of blaming them, not even Paul himself. Thus the world as it is.

Paul returns to stay with his guardian (he is an orphan, symbol of his abandonment and forlorn status) in London, his hopes of a decent career in tatters. He traipses round employment agencies, including one (‘Church and Gargoyle, scholastic agents’) which finds iffy graduates jobs at dodgy private schools. Despite a comic absence of any of the qualities required (fluent in German, excellent at music and good at games) the agency puts Paul forward for the job and the desperate school accepts.

Llanabba Castle

Thus he finds himself catching a train to remotest north Wales where he arrives at the grandly named Llanabba Castle, an impressive building stuffed with Victorian crenellations and battlements. (It may be worth noting that this, like so much in Waugh’s books, is closely based on his own experiences. Unemployed after leaving Oxford in 1923, the young, unknown and unpublished Waugh took a job at a prep school in remotest Wales in January 1925. He was, as you can imagine, completely miserable and quit 6 months later.)

At Llanabba Castle, as you would totally expect, he meets a ripe cast of eccentrics. It’s very much St Trinians 20 years avant la lettre.

Thus the head is an obvious rogue, Dr Augustus Fagan PhD. He has two daughters, Florence and Diana, who the boys nickname Flossie and Dingy. There’s a slightly sinister butler, who improbably calls himself Sir Solomon ‘Solly’ Philbrick. Only a few other teachers are named, namely Mr Prendergast,  a weak and vacillating man who constantly thinks about leaving to become a vicar, whose most notable feature is his ill-fitting wig which the boys ceaselessly taunt him about; and Captain Grimes, a leery, rambuctious man with wooden leg and a liking for the local pub.

Obviously there are several chapters filled with comic incidents, especially Paul’s abrupt introduction to the rough and tumble of teaching i.e. the boys ragging him, playing tricks, him slowly realising how pointless it is to try and teach them anything. Once a week he has to take young Peter Beste-Chetwynde to the local church and supervise him playing the organ, which neither of them know the first thing about.

There are a number of storylines or themes. Paul discovers that everyone wants to tell him the story of their lives, he’s that kind of person, a passive listener. The most florid example is Philbrick who tells him a long cock and bull story about being an experienced burglar and criminal which goes on for pages and pages. Later Paul discovers that he’s spun equally as extensive and detailed yarns to Prendergast and Grimes except with completely different content.

Grimes finds himself manoeuvred into a position where he is going out with, and then expected to marry, Dingy, which fills him with comic unhappiness. As often as he can, he takes Paul down the local pub, run by a Mrs Roberts, to bemoan the latest blow to his fortunes. He is, he laments, constantly landing ‘in the soup.’

Sports Day

The big set piece – rather as in the St Trinians films – is the annual sports day. It is, of course, a fiasco. There are no running tracks laid out (the boys are told to run to a clump of trees at the edge of the ground and back), the marquee keeps falling down, a local company delivers ‘hurdles’ which turn out to be 5 foot tall metal railings with lethal spikes along the top, and so on.

It’s an opportunity to meet the some of the parents who all have comic names, for example Mr and Mrs Clutterbuck, the Earl of Circumference whose son, little Lord Tangent is at the school, the local Vicar, Colonel Sidebotham and the Hope-Brownes. A mangy looking peevish local brass band shambles up. It’s a comic version of an Agatha Christie village fete.

By far the most impressive parent is Mrs Margot Beste-Chetwynde whose son Peter Paul has got to know and like on their pointless weekly trips to the organ loft. She arrives in ‘an enormous limousine of dove-grey and silver’. She is to become the dominating presence of the narrative, certainly dominating and guiding Paul’s destiny.

The door opened, and from the cushions within emerged a tall young man in a clinging dove-grey overcoat. After him, like the first breath of spring in the Champs-Elysées, came Mrs Beste-Chetwynde—two lizard-skin feet, silk legs, chinchilla body, a tight little black hat, pinned with platinum and diamonds, and the high invariable voice that may be heard in any Ritz Hotel from New York to Buda-Pest.

Not only is she magnificent but she has brought her boyfriend, Chokey, who is an impeccably dressed, stylish black man. Some modern readers may struggle to get past the fact that several of the other characters refer to him using the n word. But it seemed to me an obvious reference to the extreme fashionability among a certain type of upper class bohemian woman of taking a cool black lover, as exemplified by the rich society heiress Nancy Cunard who, in 1928, began an affair with Henry Crowder, an African-American jazz musician who was working in Paris. Chokey drops out of the narrative later, but makes a great impression in his beautiful suit, accompanying the stunning Margot.

(It’s initially a peripheral event among the general mayhem that Prendergast fires the starting pistol (an actual service revolver lent to him by Philbrick) into the ground as ordered, but in doing so grazes little Lord Tangent’s foot, his ankle in fact. Later we learn that the foot becomes infected and has to be amputated. One of 3 or 4 harsh and bleak snippets or details away to the side of the main narrative, which hint at a darker world.)

After the fiasco of the sports day, attention shifts to Captain Grimes and his reluctant marriage to Dingy, much to the disgust of her father, Dr Fagan. He’s doing it because he needs to get on and the marriage will, he hopes, bring him a part share in the business.

There is, however, a catch, which Grimes points out to Paul. He’s already married! To an Irishwoman, who shortly afterwards begins to make enquiries about him. Miserably unhappy in his new marriage, Grimes one day stages his own suicide, leaving all his clothes on the beach, in the style of John Stonehouse and Reggie Perrin.

(It may be worth noting the striking fact that this mode of suicide was based on Waugh’s own. In the summer of 1925 he quit his job at a Welsh prep school, believing he had secured a post as assistant to the noted author, C. K. Moncrieff, at the same time enthusiastically sending off the manuscript of his first novel to a friend from Oxford. But the post with Moncrieff fell through and the friend from Oxford savaged his novel, and the twin blows were enough to make him suicidal. He records that he went down to a nearby beach, left a farewell note with his clothes and walked out into the cold waves. However, in the best comic tradition, an attack by jellyfish made him reconsider his plan of action and he returned quickly to the shore.)

Part two – Margot

Mrs Beste-Chetwynde had taken rather a fancy to Paul at the sports day and now asks him (via a letter to her son, Peter) to come and visit her at her house, King’s Thursday, in Hampshire, over the upcoming East holidays.

Margot’s house is the pretext for some broad satire of contemporary life, namely the fashion for the new, modernist, Continental architecture of the Bauhaus mode. Several pages are devoted to describing the traditional splendour of King’s Thursday, its Tudor brickwork and original wood carvings and panelling etc. We are told that when it is put up for sale, a national campaign is launched by the Society for the Preservation of Ancient Buildings to save it for the nation. Then, with comic brutality, we are told that Mrs Beste-Chetwynde buys it and has it completely demolished.

She has it rebuilt in the modern style by fierce and unforgiving Professor Otto Friedrich Silenus, a Hungarian modernist architect of advanced opinions. His advanced opinions are described in detail, rotating around the idea that houses are machines for living in and would ideally be inhabited by machines. He is very disappointed by humans and their failure to be more like machines.

The utterly up-to-date modernist masterpiece he constructs for Margot becomes a running joke throughout Paul’s extended stay there, the narrative dotted with casually comic references to the luminous ceiling in Mrs Beste-Chetwynde’s study, the india-rubber fungi in the recessed conservatory, to the little drawing-room whose floor was a large kaleidoscope set in motion by an electric button.

There are references to the glass floor and the pneumatic rubber furniture and the porcelain ceiling and the leather-hung walls. To the lift which carries passengers to the top of the great pyramidical tower from which they can look down on the roofs and domes of glass and aluminium ‘which glittered like Chanel diamonds in the afternoon sun’ (p.142). There’s a tank of octopuses. The study is shaped like a cylinder (p.133).

Here Paul is taken by young Peter Beste-Chetwynde in a chauffeur-driven car and spends wonderful, idle weeks of what turns into a permanent house party, a more brittle, glass and steel version of the weekend house parties which feature in the early novels of Aldous Huxley only more chaotic, the young people ‘faster’, with racier slang. The guests have names like the Honourable Miles Maltravers MP and Lord Parakeet, with pride of place going to the slightly older Sir Humphrey Maltravers, the Minister of Transportation who wanly wants to marry Margot. In fact all the men want to marry Margot. But as the arrive, have hi jinks and cocktails, play tennis, go for walks, pine for Margot and eventually leave, Paul remains a fixture and slowly becomes aware that she has taken a shine to him.

In fact she manages to manoeuvre Paul into proposing to her and she accepts. That night, in a scene which was presumably daring for 1928 (remember some of D.H. Lawrence’s novels were banned for obscenity) Margot slips into the darkness of Paul’s guest bedroom, lets her silk pyjamas fall to the floor and climbs into bed with him, just to check that she isn’t making a mistake.

At one point Paul is surprised to discover his old friend from Oxford, Arthur Potts, arriving at King’s Thursday to enquire the whereabouts of Captain Grimes. As far as Paul knows Grimes is dead, but he’s struck by Potts’s role as some kind of official snoop.

The looming marriage promises to transform Paul’s life. He is going to be rich. He writes to Dr Fagan quitting his job at Llanabba Castle.

The Latin-American Entertainment Co. Ltd

All this is very entertaining in a lazy social comedy kind of way, but the plot sharpens up a bit when we hear that Margot is involved in a commercial enterprise, The Latin-American Entertainment Co. Ltd, which was founded by her father. Margot and Paul head to London to finalise arrangement for their marriage i.e. sending invitations to all the Bright Young Things and a lot of shopping.

In among this Margot takes Paul along with her to an ‘audition’ carried out in a bizarrely furnished sports room, where she interviews a series of young women for work in her entertainment venues in South America. Paul is puzzled by the way the ones with the least experience get the gig. They are all quite rough, working class girls.

Paul is surprised to discover Arthur Potts hanging round outside the interview venue, as if he’s spying on things.

With only days to go, Margot asks Paul to do her a little favour and fly to Marseilles to sort out the passports and visas for Margot’s girls to catch their ships to South America. Being the unquestioning cipher and innocent abroad that he us, Paul proceeds to do this, excited at flying to the South of France and staying in a swish hotel, though there is momentarily a sense of menace when he finds himself taken by taxi later the same night into an increasingly dark, dingy and threatening slum quarter of Marseilles. He is eventually so scared that he runs away and back towards the well lit streets, but not before the reader has gotten a pretty shrewd idea that these English girls are being shipped into prostitution.

Next day Paul shuttles between French passport and visa offices to clear the girls’ way to travel abroad, not understanding the officials’ nods and winks and innuendos, although the reader does. Then he flies back to London just days before the date set for the wedding.

Paul is enjoying a is surprised at the squalid slum they seem to be staying in and then the nods and winks and innuendoes of the French officials he has to speak to and pay small bribes to ensure their passage.

Back in London he is having a boozy lunch with his best man-to-be, Alastair Digby-Vaine-Trumpington, (the same bounder who debagged him right at the start of the story, but all’s fair in love and war, old man) when there’s a tap on his shoulder and Inspector Bruce of Scotland Yard arrests him.

Part three – prison

Paul is convicted of white slaving and sentenced to 7 years hard labour. Margot’s name is never mentioned during the trial and Paul doesn’t mention the fact that he was simply carrying out instructions for his fiancée who, he now realises, made her money from running what they used to call the white slave trade and we nowadays call people trafficking. In fact the reverse; the pompous judge goes out of his way to contrast Margot’s spotless reputation with Paul’s implied depravity.

Margot Beste-Chetwynde’s name was not mentioned, though the judge in passing sentence remarked that ‘no one could be ignorant of the callous insolence with which, on the very eve of arrest for this most infamous of crimes, the accused had been preparing to join his name with one honoured in his country’s history, and to drag down to his own pitiable depths of depravity a lady of beauty, rank and stainless reputation.’

This is a complete comic inversion of the truth, structurally identical to the way the titled yobbos who debagged Paul at Oxford got off scot free while his life was ruined.

Paul is shipped off to Blackstone Prison as Prisoner D.4.12. Here, in the best tradition of comic novels, he meets many of the characters we know from earlier in the book, namely Philbrick, who’s got the cushy job of meeting new convicts, delousing them and handing out a uniform covered in arrows. And when the chaplain visits Paul in his cell, he turns out to be none other than weedy Mr Prendergast, still full of doubt and uncertainty, still wearing a terrible wig, and ragged by the prisoners even worse than he was by the boys.

Satire

The prison is the setting for multiple strands of comedy and satire. There is a great deal of fun at the expense of the newish governor of the prison who is an academic, Sir Wilfred Lucas-Dockery, a sociologist, whose fatuous attempts to treat the prisoners as sensitive individuals is epitomised by his belief that:

I came to the conclusion many years ago that almost all crime is due to the repressed desire for aesthetic expression.

Thus Sir Lucas insists that all the prisoners take part in an Arts and Crafts class he’s set up for them to express their creativity but where, in fact, one or two prisoners each week take advantage of the sharp tools to try and commit suicide. He sets up a bookbinding class which fails because many of the prisoners eat the paste, claiming it’s better than the prison porridge.

Sir Lucas is prey to all kinds of fashionable fads like his plan to introduce artificial sunlight into prisons. He also wants to hire a permanent psychoanalyst and his interviews with the prisoners are continually pushing psychoanalytical ideas (‘Would you say you are an introvert or an extrovert?’) which confuse both the prisoners and the strict disciplinarian Chief Warder. He is, in other words, a broad caricature of the well-meaning, high-minded liberal whose pampered upbringing means he has no understanding at all of the institution and people he has been set to manage. The dynamic between his wispy ideas and the hard-knuckled approach is identical to the dynamic between the governor of Slade Prison and Mr Mckay in the TV series Porridge.

The extended satire comes to a gruesome climax when the governor, in thrall to his faddish beliefs about psychoanalysis and frustrated creative urges, lets a man who is clearly a religious psychopath attend carpentry class in order ‘to express himself’. With utter predictability, at the first opportunity, the psychopath uses the carpentry tools to attack Mr Prendergast the chaplain, who he is convinced is the antichrist, and saw his head off! Like the incident of little Lord Tangent being shot in the foot and dying of blood poisoning, only on a much bigger scale, this incident takes farce and ‘humour’ to the limit.

The good news for the prisoners is the incident quite dampens Sir Wilfred’s faddish ideas and the prison returns to being run by the Chief Warden, who is much more of a stickler for rules and regulations. The prisoners like him. They know where they are and what to expect. Everyone is very happy.

There’s a minor thread satirising public school (every novel written by someone who went to public school has to criticise public school, it’s part of the contract). There’s comedy in the way that Paul, like all arrivals at Blackstone, has to undergo 4 weeks of solitary confinement but how, when the 4 weeks are up and he goes to see the governor, he surprises both him and the Chief Warden by asking if he can continue being in solitary. He finds it peaceful and thoughtful. After all:

anyone who has been to an English public school will always feel comparatively at home in prison. It is the people brought up in the gay intimacy of the slums, Paul learned, who find prison so soul-destroying. (p.188)

Egdon Heath and Captain Grimes

After a few months, Paul is transferred to the Convict Settlement at Egdon Heath, where the prisoners spend the day hacking rocks in a quarry. Here he meets none other than Captain Grimes. After faking his own death, he travelled incognito to London and was hoping to start a new life away from his two wives, but he was caught, charged, convicted and sentenced to 3 years for bigamy.

On the train to Egdon a warder charitably shows him the day’s paper which happens to contain a big photo of Margot and the news that Peter has inherited the title of Earl of Pastmaster. While we were at King’s Thursday Peter somehow morphed in a few weeks from being a schoolboy to becoming the self-possessed young man who claimed to have set Paul and Margot up (though, as we know, Margot had her own motives in ‘hiring’ Paul to do her bidding). Now he is an Earl. He has aged far more than the time described in the novel, but then it is a panto.

Paul settles in to life at Egdon but soon becomes aware that a guardian angel is looking after him: unaccountably nice food is sent to his cell, the prison trusty offers, instead of greasy tomes from the library brand new books sent from London. The guardian angel is, very clearly, Margot, who feels frightfully guilty at how things turned out for him.

Then the Great Lady herself comes to visit, mainly to complain that her acquaintances are cutting her and she feels she is growing old and to tell Paul that she is going to marry Maltravers (who has now been promoted to Home Secretary) she hopes he doesn’t mind and she sweeps out, leaving Paul stunned but no longer surprised. Nothing surprises him.

Meanwhile Grimes gets restless. He can’t stand being locked up (unlike Paul who rather likes the solitude and lack of distraction). One foggy day in the quarry Grimes creates a distraction, then manages to leap astride a warder’s horse and gallop off into the gloom. He escapes. His hat is found in the centre of the great Egdon Marsh and he is reported dead, but Paul realises Grimes is too much of a life force to ever be extinguished.

Paul’s escape

Then Paul escapes. It is impresario-ed by Margot, with the details managed by her now very capable son, the ever-more mature Peter. Peter arranges for his stepfather, Sir Humphrey, who is now the Home Secretary, to sign a form permitting Paul to be taken to a clinic to have his appendix removed.

(Sir Humphrey has been made a lord and taken the name Lord Metroland, which makes Margot Margot Metroland. We learn that none of this has stopped Margot taking a younger lover, Alisdair.)

Paul protests to the warder taking him to the clinic that he’s already had his appendix out, but the warder gives him a broad wink and more or less tells him it’s a scam. Paul will be taken to a clinic on the South Coast where he will apparently ‘die’ under the knife. Death certificates will be signed to terminate his legal existence. Then the man with no legal existence will be rowed out to Margot’s yacht, waiting anchored off the coast, and sail civilisedly round France, into the Med and be conveyed to Margot’s luxury villa on Corfu.

Which is exactly what happens, the comic element being played up by the fact that the clinic he is sent to is run by none other than our old friend Dr Fagan, who’s packed up the teaching lark and sold Llanabba Castle. And by the presence of young Peter and Sir Alastair Digby-Vaine-Trumpington to oversee it all, not least handling the comically drunk surgeon, who is so plastered they easily persuade him the patient has died under the knife, with the result that he bursts into drunken tears and signs the death certificate before passing out.

Corfu

The scene cuts to Corfu. Life is very civilised in Margot’s villa. Who should he meet but Professor Otto Friedrich Silenus, spouting his metallic modernist opinions. He delivers a speech which might sort of be the serious point of the novel – or a semi-serious meditation on life provided for readers who enjoy that sort of thing. It’s to the effect that there are two kinds of people, the static and the dynamic. Paul is static and ought to sit in the stalls watching life. Margot is dynamic and loves throwing herself onto the whirling fairground ride of life, screaming her head off. Silenus naturally gravitates to the centre of the spinning wheel of life where, for a master such as himself, there is stability. Paul should never have got involved with dynamic people.

Epilogue

The book ends with a very satisfactory completion of the circle, when Paul, comically disguised with a moustache, returns to Oxford, gains readmission to his old college and resumes his studies in divinity.  After a bit of thought he retains the surname Pennyfeather but takes another first name and tells everyone he is the other guy’s cousin.

There is some broad comedy in the way he discovers that ‘Paul Pennyfeather’ has, in his brief absence (of, we are startled to discover, only a little over a year) become a legend at Scone College, various college worthies telling him about the legendary figure’s madcap escapades, all of which Paul knows to be utterly fictitious. Fictions within a fiction. Comic quirkiness and character are added when Waugh gives us details of some of the early Christian heresies Paul is now happily studying.

The story really does come full circle when, one quiet and studious evening, Paul hears a loud commotion in the quad outside and realises it’s the Bollinger Club again. Soon afterwards his door crashes open and it is none other than Peter Beste-Chetwynde who is now a student at Paul’s college and has been getting plastered with the other aristocrats. He drunkenly reels off all the adventures they’ve had in the past year, which serves as a useful summary of the story, told by a drunken student, a clever and funny device. Peter reels out and quiet Paul returns to his study of the Ebionite heresy.

Very neat, very stylish, very satisfying.

Descriptions

So much for the plot. This young man’s first novel also contains all kinds of verbal and stylistic pleasures. Here are a couple from Paul’s time at King’s Thursday.

Paul had noticed nothing in the room except Mrs Beste-Chetwynde; he now saw that there was a young man sitting beside her, with very fair hair and large glasses, behind which his eyes lay like slim fish in an aquarium; they woke from their slumber, flashed iridescent in the light, and darted towards little Beste-Chetwynde.

And:

As the last of the guests departed Mrs Beste-Chetwynde reappeared from her little bout of veronal, fresh and exquisite as a seventeenth-century lyric. The meadow of green glass seemed to burst into flower under her feet as she passed from the lift to the cocktail table.

Characters and tones

Waugh is excellent at mimicry, at ventriloquism, at doing various voices. There’s the raffish, disreputable voice of Captain Grimes always wanting to go off down the pub; the Germanic mechanical tone of Professor Silenus; or the impressive capture of Peter Beste-Chetwynde’s drunken dialogue right at the very end. There’s the elaborate Welsh locutions of the Llanabba brass band and the chilled drawl of Chokey, the extremely smooth black man.

Waugh particularly relishes music hall cockney, which I find particularly enjoyable to read in my mind’s ear, or out loud. Here’s a warder at Egdon reassuring Margot, when she comes to visit, that she can say what she likes without fear of being reported:

‘Don’t mind me, mum, if you wants to talk personal,’ said the warder kindly. ‘I only has to stop conspiracy. Nothing I hears ever goes any further, and I hears a good deal, I can tell you. They carry on awful, some of the women, what with crying and fainting and hysterics generally. Why, one of them,’ he said with relish, ‘had an epileptic fit not long ago.’ (p.194)

‘He said with relish’ :). Waugh is always looking for the comic detail, the foible which reveals people as the rogues and rascals that, deep down, they all are.


Related links

Evelyn Waugh reviews

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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