The Death of Virgil by Hermann Broch (1945)

The silver lamp next to the couch swung gently to and fro on its long silver chain and outside the window the emanation of the city, ebbing and flowing above the roofs, was dissolved into purple, from purple-violet into dark blue and black, and then into the enigmatic and fluctuant.
(The Death of Virgil, page 47)

The Sleepwalkers

A few years ago I read and reviewed The Sleepwalkers (1931), the masterpiece of Modernist German novelist Hermann Broch (1886 to 1951). The title in fact refers to a trilogy of novels each of which focuses on a troubled individual from successive generations of German society, the novels being titled: The Romantic (1888), The Anarchist (1903) and The Realist (1918).

I reviewed each novel individually but also subjected the magniloquent claims often made about the trilogy to fierce criticism, using evidence from Walter Laqueur’s blistering attack on the failure of intellectuals in the Weimar Republic, Weimar: A Cultural History 1918 to 1933 by Walter Laqueur (1974). I argued that calling the trilogy things like ‘a panoramic overview of German society and history’ were wrong in fact and misleading in implication. The three novels are more eccentric and particular than such generalisations. But then lots of critics make sweeping claims about books they haven’t read.

Broch flees Austria

In March 1938, Nazi Germany annexed Austria in a move known as the Anschluss. Within days Broch was arrested by Nazi authorities for possession of a Socialist pamphlet and thrown into a concentration camp. A campaign by western writers managed to get him freed and he immediately emigrated to Britain, then moved on to America where he settled in 1939.

Before this happened, in 1937, in Austria, Broch had delivered a radio lecture about Virgil. Over the following years he enormously expanded and elaborated this text to become his other great masterpiece, Der Tod des Vergil or The Death of Virgil. This big novel was first published in June 1945 in both the original German and English translation simultaneously. Symbolically, it appeared in the month after the Second World War in Europe finally came to an end, with the complete destruction of Nazi Germany. A crushing end to all illusions about Germany politics, history and culture.

Schematics

Broch’s imagination is schematic: the three novels which make up The Sleepwalkers trilogy each centre on a character who a) come from successive generations and are in some sense emblematic of them; and who b) are each of a distinct and categorisable type. The same urge to structure the material is immediately evident in The Death, which is divided into four equal parts, portentously titled:

  • Water – The Arrival
  • Fire – The Descent
  • Earth – The Expectation
  • Air – The Homecoming

Despite these universal-sounding categories the ‘action’ of novel in fact only ‘describes’ the last 18 hours of the Roman poet Virgil’s life in the port of southern Italian port of Brundisium. The year is 19 BC. Virgil had travelled to Greece, according to this novel hoping to a) escape the fevers of Rome b) finally complete the long poem which has been dogging him, and c) be free to pursue his first love, philosophy.

But he was foiled in this ambition when the princeps or proto-emperor, Augustus, returning from the East, stopped off in Athens, called on Virgil and invited/ordered him to accompany him back to Italy. Hence Virgil’s regret at the start of the novel at giving in to Augustus’s insistence and abandoning his hopes of finally being rid or ‘art and poetry’ and devoting his life to meditation and study.

Anyway, on this return journey Augustus, Virgil and others of the party fell ill. Augustus fully recovered, but the novel opens with Virgil lying in a hammock that’s been rigged up in one of the ships, feeling very unwell indeed. Starting from this moment the long novel portrays the last 18 hours of his life.

The central theme or subject of the novel is Virgil’s wish to burn the manuscript of his epic poem, The Aeneid, a wish which is decisively thwarted by his master and ‘friend’, Augustus.

Modernist?

Blurbs about the novel claims it uses well-established modernist techniques, mixing poetry and prose with different styles and registers to convey the consciousness of a sick man drifting in and out of reality and hallucination but I didn’t find this to really be the case.

When I think of modernism I think of the combination of fragmented interiority matched by collage used in The Waste Land, or the highly collaged text of Berlin Alexanderplatz or the tremendous stylistic variety of Ulysses. There’s none of that here: the text is fluent and continuous. There’s no collage effect, no newspaper headlines or scraps of popular song or advertising jingles. Instead the text is continuous and smooth and highly poetic in style.

Modernism is also usually associated with the accelerated rhythms of the western city, as in the examples above or in John dos Passos’s huge novel, USA (1930 to 1936). Quite obviously a novel set nearly 2,000 years, before anything like the modern city had been imagined, could not use, quote or riff off any aspects of the twentieth century urban experience. So in that respect, also, the novel is not modernist.

What is modernist about it, maybe, is a secondary characteristic, which may sound trivial but is the inordinate length of Broch’s sentences. These can be huge and very often contain multiple clauses designed to convey the simultaneous perception of external sense impressions with bursts of interior thought, memory, opinion and so on – all captured in one sentence.

The Jean Starr Untermeyer translation

The 1945 translation into English was done by Jean Starr Untermeyer. I have owned the 1983 Oxford University Press paperback edition of this translation (with an introduction by Bernard Levin) since the mid-1980s and never got round to reading it till now. This edition contains a longer-than-usual 4-page translator’s note by Jean Starr Untermeyer who, we learn, devoted five years of her life to translating this novel. We also realise, within a few sentences, that her English is non-standard i.e. a bit quirky and idiomatic. On the whole I think that is a good thing because it continually reminds you of the novel’s non-English nature.

Untermeyer makes a number of good points about the difficulty of translating German into English. An obvious one is German’s tendency to create new words by combining individual nouns into new compound nouns. A second aspect of German style is that it can often have a concrete practical meaning but also a ghostly metaphysical implication. This doesn’t happen in English which has traditionally been a much more pragmatic down-to-earth language.

Long sentences

The biggest issue, though, is sentence length. Good German prose style has for centuries allowed of long sentences which build up a succession of subordinate clauses before being rounded out or capped by a final main verb.

English is the extreme opposite. English prefers short sentences. Hemingway stands as the patron saint of the prose style taught in all creative courses for the past 40 years which recommends the dropping of subordinate clauses, the striking out of all unnecessary adjectives, the injunction to keep sentences short and unadorned, a process Untermeyer colourfully refers to as ‘exfoliation’.

As Untermeyer points out, Henry James’s use of long, multi-clause sentences was very much against the general trend of 20th century English prose (as was the extravagant prose style developed by William Faulkner a generation or so later, contrary to the Hemingway Imperative).

Untermeyer says that English prose works by placing its thoughts in sequence and separately expressed in short, clear sentences; German prose more often works by seeking to express multiple levels of meaning ‘at one stroke’ i.e. in each sentence.

But Broch not only came from this very different tradition of conceiving and writing prose, but he pushed that tradition to extremes. Untermeyer reckons some of the sentences in the middle of the book might be the longest sentences ever written in literature. (I’m not so sure. Samuel Beckett wrote some very long sentences in Malone Dies and The Unnameable.)

Thought-groups

Broch’s sentences are long, very long, but they don’t have the deliberately confusing repetitiveness, the incantatory repetitiveness of Beckett. They are clearly trying to capture something and Untermeyer explains in her note that the aim can be summed up by one maxim: ‘one thought – one moment – one sentence’.

Each sentence is trying to capture what she calls one ‘thought-group’, the flickering and often disparate impressions and sensations which occur to all of us, all the time, continually, in each changing second of perception and thought. The difference between you and me and Hermann Broch is that Broch spent a lifetime trying to develop a prose style which adequately captures the complexity of each fleeting moment of consciousness.

In English we do have a tradition of hazy impressionistic prose maybe best represented by the shimmering surfaces of Walter Pater’s aesthetic novel, Marius the Epicurean (also about ancient Rome). And a related tradition of deliberate over-writing in order to create an indulgently sensual effect, maybe associated with Oscar Wilde and sometimes dismissively called ‘purple prose’.

Broch’s intention is different from both of those because he is trying to be precise. His sentences are so very long only because he is trying to capture everything that his subject felt in that moment. The superficial comparison in English is with James Joyce’s Ulysses but Joyce wove an intricate web of symbolic and sound associations, at the same time as he steadily dismantled the English language, in order to make his text approximate the shimmering a-logical process of consciousness. Broch goes nowhere near that far. His sentences may be epic in length, but they are always made up of discrete clauses each of which is perfectly practical and logical and understandable in its own right.

And from Pater to Joyce, the English style of long sentences has tended to choose sensual and lugubrious subject matter, from the lilies and roses of Wilde’s prose to the astonishing sensuality of Ulysses. Broch, by contrast, uses his long sentences to cover a much wider range of subject matter, much of it modern, unpleasant and absolutely not soft and sensual.

In the warehouse district

One example will go a long way to demonstrating what I’m describing. Early in the novel the little fleet carrying the emperor and Virgil docks at Brundisium. Virgil is then carried off the ship and carried in a litter by slaves to the emperor’s mansion in the city, led by a young man with a torch who leads them among the warehouses of Brundisium. Here is one sentence from the passage describing this journey.

Again the odours changed; one could smell the whole produce of the country, one could smell the huge masses of comestibles that were stored here, stored for barter within the empire but destined, either here or there after much buying and selling, to be slagged through these human bodies and their serpentine intestines, one could smell the dry sweetness of the grain, stacks of which reared up in front of the darkened silos waiting to be shoveled within, one could smell the dusty dryness of the corn-sacks, the barley-sacks, the wheat-sacks, the spelt-sacks, one could smell the sourish mellowness of the oil-tuns, the oil-jugs, the oil-casks and also the biting acridity of the wine stores that stretched along the docks one could smell the carpenter shops, the mass of oak timber, the wood of which never dies, piled somewhere in the darkness, one could smell its bark no less than the pliant resistance of its marrow, one could smell the hewn blocks in which the axe still clove, as it was left behind by the workman at the end of his labour, and besides the smell of the new well-planed deck-boards, the shavings and sawdust one could smell the weariness of the battered, greenish-white slimy mouldering barnacled old ship lumber that waited in great heaps to be burned. (Pages 24 to 25)

What does this excerpt tell us? It demonstrates both a) Broch’s ability to handle a long sentence with multiple clauses and b) the complete absence of modernist tricks such as collage, quotation etc.

And there is none of the shimmering incoherence of, say, Virginia Woolf’s internal monologues. Instead it is quite clear and comprehensible and even logical. What stands out is the repetition, and the way it’s really more like a list than a wandering thought.

I’ve mentioned that Broch is a systematic thinker and many of these long sentences don’t really meander, they work through all the aspects of a thought or, in Untermeyer’s phrase, thought-group. We are in the warehouse district, a place saturated in the stinks of the goods stored there. And so Broch enumerates them, not in the English style, in a series of short, discrete sentences, but in one super-sentence which tries to capture the totality of the sense impression all together, as it were, capturing one moment of super-saturated perception.

Pigs and slaves

Far from the shimmering impressionism of the English tradition, The Death of Virgil is also capable of being quite hard, almost brutal. Thus the opening passages contain quite stunning descriptions of being on deck of an ancient Roman galley on a very calm sea as it is rowed at twilight into the harbour of Brundisium just as a thousand lamps are lit in the town and reflected like stars on the black water. So far, so aesthetic.

But Broch mingles this soft stuff with over a page harshly criticising the aristocratic guests on the ship whose only interest on the entire journey has been stuffing their faces like pigs. At these moments the narrative is more like Breughel than Baudelaire.

He also devotes a page to a nauseated imagining of the life of the galley slaves, chained below decks, condemned to eternal toil, barely human, a frank admission of the slave society the entire narrative is set among. The theme is repeated a bit later as Virgil watches the slaves carrying goods from the ship once it’s docked and being casually whipped by their bored overseers.

And there’s another theme as well. When the imperial ship docks, it is greeted by roars of approval from the crowd who have gathered to greet their emperor. Suddenly Broch switches to a more socio-political mode, meditating on the terrible evil to be found in the crowds which seek to suppress their individual isolation by excessive adulation of The One – an obvious critique of Nazism.

From far off came the raging, the raging noise of the crowd frantic to see, the raging uproar of the feast, the seething of sheer creatureliness, hellish, stolid, inevitable, tempting, lewd and irresistible, clamorous and yet satiated, blind and staring, the uproar of the trampling herd that in the shadowless phantom-light of brands and torches dove on towards the evil abyss of nothingness… (p.47)

German brutalism

These passages also epitomise what I think of as ‘the German quality’ in literature, which is a tendency to have overgassy metaphysical speculation cheek-by-jowl with a pig-like brutality, qualities I found in the other so-called masterpiece of German Modernism.

The claim about metaphysical bloat is merely repeating the claim of Walter Laqueur, who knew more about Weimar literature than I ever will and found it present in much of that literature. The comment about piggishness is based on my reading of:

  • Berlin Alexanderplatz, which starts as the protagonist, Franz Biberkopf, is released from prison where he’d been serving a sentence for murdering his girlfriend, Ida, and one of the first things he does is go round and rape his dead girlfriend’s sister, Minna. There’s the scene where the scumbag Reinhold drunkenly smashes his girlfriend, Trude’s, face to a pulp or when Franz beats his girlfriend Mieze black and blue etc.
  • The surprising crudity of much Kafka, the protagonists of The Trial and The Castle jumping on their female companions without warning, and the visceral brutality of stories like The Hunger Artist or In The Penal Colony.
  • The crudity of Herman Hesse’s novels, such as The Steppenwolf, in which the ‘hero’, Harry Haller, murders the woman who took pity on him and loved him, Hermine.
  • The Man Without Qualities by Robert Musil which I was enjoying very much for its urbane and humorous tone until – sigh – being German, it had to introduce a psychopath, Moosbrugger, who is on trial for murdering a prostitute and chopping her up into pieces, a process which the author describes in gratuitous detail.
  • In Broch’s own novels, Esch, the piggish ‘hero’ of The Anarchist rapes the innkeeper he subsequently shacks up with, and thinks well of himself because he doesn’t beat her up too much, too often.
  • Wilhelm Huguenau, the smooth-talking psychopathic ‘hero’ of The Realist, murders Esch and then rapes his wife.
  • Bertolt Brecht made a point of dispensing with bourgeois conventions in order to emphasise the brutal reality of the ‘class struggle: ‘Erst kommt das Fressen, dann kommt die Moral.’

Phenomenology

I’ll quote from my own review of The Romantic:

Aged 40 Broch gave up management of the textile factory he had inherited from his father and enrolled in the University of Vienna to study mathematics, philosophy and psychology. I wonder what kind of philosophy Broch studied because this focus on trying to describe the actual processes of consciousness – the flavour of different thoughts, and the ways different types of thought arise and pass and sink in our minds – reminds me that Phenomenology was a Germanic school of philosophy from the early part of the century, initially associated with Vienna. According to Wikipedia:

In its most basic form, phenomenology attempts to create conditions for the objective study of topics usually regarded as subjective: consciousness and the content of conscious experiences such as judgements, perceptions, and emotions. Although phenomenology seeks to be scientific, it does not attempt to study consciousness from the perspective of clinical psychology or neurology. Instead, it seeks through systematic reflection to determine the essential properties and structures of experience.

‘Through systematic reflection to determine the essential properties and structures of experience.’ That’s not a bad summary of what Broch does in The Sleepwalker novels and does again here. The obvious difference is that whereas The Sleepwalker novels have plots and numerous characters who interact in a multitude of scenes, in The Death of Virgil Broch found a perfect subject – a deeply sensitive, highly articulate poet – to host/inspire/articulate an enormous number of these phenomenological speculations, long passages which not only describe Virgil’s sensations and thoughts, but analyse, ponder and reflect on the nature of thought itself.

Thus the first part of the passage through the warehouses, which I’ve quoted, amounts to a catalogue of sense impressions. But the smells of country produce awaken a yearning in him for the peace he knew back when he was growing up on his parents’ farm, but not some peace described in the English purple prose tradition – instead a highly theoretical and metaphysical notion of ‘peace’, as representing longing for a full integration of the self, a longing-yearning which haunts Virgil but which he is fated never to achieve.

Here’s an excerpt from that scene. To understand it you need to know that the roaring greeting of the mob in Brundisium town square had led Virgil to pretty negative thoughts about humanity in all its crudity. And so, in this sentence, the two themes –yearning, and the mob – are blended.

It was himself he found everywhere and if he had to retain everything and was enabled to return all, if he succeeded in laying hold on the world-multiplicity to which he was pledged, to which he was driven, given over to it in a daydream, belonging to it without effort, effortlessly possessing it, this was so because the mutiplicity had been his from the very beginning; indeed before all espial, before all hearkening, before all sensibility, it had been his own because recollection and retention are never other than the innate self, self-remembered, and the self-remembered time when he must have drunk the wine, fingered the wood, tasted the oil, even before oil, wine or wood existed, when he must have recognised the unknown, because the profusion of faces or non-faces, together with their ardour, their greed, their carnality, their covetous coldness, with their animal-physical being, but also with their immense nocturnal yearning, because taken all together, whether he had ever seen them or not, whether they had ever lived or not, were all embodied in him from his primordial origins as the chaotic primal humus of his very existence, as his own carnality, his own ardour, his own greed, his own facelessness, but also his own yearning: and even had this yearning changed in the course of his earthly wanderings, turned to knowledge, so much so that having become more and more painful it could scarcely now be called yearning, or even a yearning for yearning, and if all this transformation had been predestined by fate from the beginning in the form of expulsion or seclusion, the first bearing evil, the second bringing salvation, but both scarcely endurable for a human creature, the yearning still remained, inborn, imperishable, imperishably the primal humus of being, the groundwork of cognition and recognition which nourishes memory and to which memory returns, a refuge from fortune and misfortune, a refuge from the unbearable; almost physical this last yearning, which always and forever vibrated in every effort to attain the deeps of memory, however ripe with knowledge that memory might be. (pages 25 to 26)

Here we have some choice examples of the German tendency to make up new compound nouns to describe elusive philosophical or psychological categories: ‘world-multiplicity’, ‘self-remembered’, ‘animal-physical’.

And the use of repetition is pretty obvious – I’ve singled out the words ‘yearning’ and ‘memory’. It isn’t really repetition for the sake of either euphony (purely for the sound), or to drive home a point (as in, say, Cicero’s legal speeches). It is more that, with each repetition, the meaning of the word changes. Broch is examining the concepts behind these key words from different angles. Each repetition sheds new light, or maybe gives the word additional connotations. It is a cumulative effect.

An obvious question is: does this kind of thing actually shed light, does it help us to understand the human mind any better? Well, not in a strictly factual sense, but in the way that literature forces us to have different thoughts, sensations, expands the possibilities of cognition, vocabulary and expression, then, maybe, yes. And the epic length of Broch’s sentences are indicative of his attempt to really stretch the possibilities of perception, or perception-through-language, in his readers.

Then again, it isn’t an actual lecture, it’s not a scholarly paper appearing in a journal of psychology; it’s embedded in a work of literature so a better question is: how does it work within the text?

Any answer has to take account of the fact that this is only one of literally hundreds of other passages like it. No doubt critics and scholars have tabulated and analysed Broch’s use of key words and concepts and traced them back to works of psychology, philosophy or phenomenology he may have read. For the average reader the repetition of words and phrases and the notions they convey has more of a musical effect, like the appearance, disappearance, then reappearance of themes and motifs, building up a complex network of echoes and repetitions, many of which are not noticeable on a first reading. I ended up reading passages 2 or 3 times and getting new things from them at every reading.

Last but not least: do you like it? I found The Death of Virgil difficult to read not because of the clever meanings or subtle psychology but because a lifetime of reading prose from the Hemingway Century, compounded by a career working on public-facing websites, has indoctrinated my mind into preferring short, precise sentences. So I found it an effort to concentrate fully on every clause of these monster sentences – that, the sheer effort of concentrating of every element in these long sentences, holding all the clauses in your mind as they echo and modify each other – that’s what I found difficult.

But short answer: Yes, I did enjoy it. Very much. And it grows and adds new resonances with every rereading. It’s a slow read because I kept picking it up after putting it aside to make lunch, water the garden, feed the cats etc, found I’d forgotten where I was (because so many of the pages are solid blocks of text without any paragraph breaks) and so ended up rereading pages which I’d read once and not even realising it, but when I did, deliberately rereading it with a whole new pleasure, hearing aspects of the text, its meanings and implications and lush style, which I’d missed first time around.

Lyricism

Because The Death of Virgil is highly lyrical. Untermeyer says the entire text is in effect a poem because of its sustained lyricism. It certainly overflows with lyrical passages of deliberate sensuality.

Through the open arched windows well above the city’s roofs a cool breeze was blowing, a cool remembrance of land and sea, seafast, landfast, swept through the chamber, the candles, blown down obliquely, burned on the many-branched, flower-wreathed candelabrum in the centre of the room, the wall-fountain let a fragile, fan-shaped veil of water purl coolly over its marble steps, the bed under the mosquito netting was made up and on the table beside it food and drink had been set out. (p.41)

Maybe you could posit a spectrum of the content, with pure lyricism at one end, pure abstraction at the other, and a mix in the middle. So the excerpt above is what you could call entry-level lyricism in the sense that it is concerned solely with sense impressions, sense data, describing the ‘real’ world. Here’s a passage which contains hints of the metaphysical:

Yet in the night’s breath all was mingled, the brawling of the feast and the stillness of the mountains and the glittering of the sea as well, the once and the now and again the once, one merging into the other, merged into one another… (p.42)

And here is the full-on visionary-metaphysical:

Oh, human perception not yet become knowledge, no longer instinct, rising from the humus of existence, from the seed of sentience, rising out of the wisdom of the mothers, ascending into the deadly clarity of utter-light, of utter-life, ascending to the burning knowledge of the father, ascending to cool heights, oh human knowledge, unrooted, eternally in motion, neither in the depths nor on the heights but hovering forever over the starry threshold between night and day, a sigh and a breath in the interrealm of starry dusk, hovering between the life of the night-held herds, and the death of light-flooded identification with Apollo, between silence and the word, the word that always returns into silence. (p.48)

By now I hope you can see how Virgil’s mind is in almost permanently visionary mode. In his last hours he is entirely concerned with huge abstract ideas of human nature and destiny and personal intimations about being and consciousness and awareness, all mixed into a great, prolonged swirl. Every conversation, every new event, stirs a new aspect of this endless flow of thoughts, triggers a new long rhapsody. The novel as rhapsody, where rhapsody is defined as ‘an effusively enthusiastic or ecstatic expression of feeling’.

Plot summary

Part one, ‘Water – The Arrival’, is just 53 pages long. The third person narrator records Virgil’s thoughts about the sea journey, his swinish companions, his regret at being forced to leave Athens, notifies us that he is very ill, all as the fleet of 6 ships pulls into the harbour of Brundisium as night falls.

The emperor’s ship navigates among the many other ships in the harbour, ties up and slaves start to unload it, while Virgil is carried ashore in a litter borne by 4 slaves.

A huge crowd has turned out to greet Augustus in the central square, roaring approval. Virgil is carried through them, overcome with disgust at humanity, led by a youth who has appeared out of nowhere carrying a torch.

This youth leads the slaves bearing Virgil’s litter through the smelly warehouse quarter and then into a very dirty narrow back passage, reeking of poverty, as raddled women hang out their windows yelling abuse at the rich guy in the litter. This is a sort of vision of hell and goes on for some pages, Virgil repeatedly calling it Misery Street.

They finally emerge into a plaza, also thronged, and make their way through the surging crowd to the gates to the emperor’s palazzo. Here they are let through by the guard and handled by an efficient major-domo who escorts them to their room.

The mysterious torch-bearing boy is unaccountably still with Virgil and when the major-domo tells him to leave, Virgil, on an impulse, says the boy is his ‘scribe’ and can stay. When he asks how long the boy slave will stay with him, the boy gives the portentous reply ‘forever’, which triggers a characteristic response in Virgil:

 Everlasting night, domain in which the mother rules, the child fast asleep in immutability, lulled by darkness, from dark to dark, oh sweet permanence of ‘forever’. (p.44)

The slaves depart. Virgil is alone in the bedroom he’s been allotted, perceiving the night sky, the plash of the fountain in the gardens outside, overcome with swirling thoughts about peace and youth and sense impressions and memory, as he lies on the bed and tries to sleep. End of part one.


Credit

The Death of Virgil by Hermann Broch was published by Pantheon Books in 1945. References are to the 1983 Oxford University Press paperback edition.

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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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