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

Nadja by André Breton (1928)

What was so extraordinary about what was happening in those eyes? What was it they reflected – some obscure distress and at the same time some luminous pride? (p.65)

Reading Ruth Brandon’s group biography of the Surrealists, Surrealist Lives, prompted me to track down this, the most famous work by the group’s domineering leader, the writer, poet and critic André Breton. It is, according to the blurb, ‘the most important and influential work to emerge from Surrealism’.

It is also a huge disappointment. After only a few pages I wanted it to hurry up and finish and was relieved to realise that since it includes quite a few illustrations (44 in fact) this mercifully reduces the length of this tedious book – only 150 or so pages in the Penguin paperback edition – to under 110 pages of text.

It is not shocking or revolutionary or subversive. Nadja is characterised by:

  • a contorted prose style which makes it hard to understand
  • an inability to gather its thoughts into a coherent order
  • the crushing triviality and irrelevance of its examples
  • a dismaying heartlessness towards the young woman at its centre
  • Breton’s astonishingly humourless self-absorption

Part one

Nadja is in three parts. Part one jumps straight in with the most important subject in the world – Breton himself – in its opening sentence:

Who am I?

The answer relies on a French proverb which is not quoted in full or explained in a note, so we never learn what it is exactly, but which apparently involves the word ‘haunt’.

This linguistic accident gives rise to a long disquisition on how the ghost of dead selves ‘haunt’ the current self, about how the ‘self’ can’t be defined by existing social or psychological categories and so on. Breton here rewords ideas about identity that had been discussed by the poet Arthur Rimbaud 60 years earlier (‘je est un autre’, as Rimbaud famously wrote) and far more systematically by Sigmund Freud a generation earlier – in fact much better, by lots of other writers.

Breton’s style is dry and airless, without any colour or (as mentioned) humour, convoluted and contorted, evincing a kind of academic self-importance. To say that Breton is a man who gives himself airs is an understatement.

Such reflections lead me to the conclusion that criticism, abjuring, it is true, its dearest prerogatives but aiming, on the whole, at a goal less futile than the automatic adjustment of ideas, should confine itself to scholarly incursions upon the very realm supposedly barred to it, and which, separate from the work, is a realm where the author’s personality, victimised by the petty events of daily life, expresses itself quite freely and often in so distinctive a manner. (p.13)

It’s all like that. It’s like reading concrete. It’s like drowning in a giant vat of glue. He means the artist’s personality is more important than the work – pretty much the opposite to the current point of view.

Part one moves on to a list of works which have moved Breton, with a predictable jog-trot through the accepted canon of proto-Surrealist writers – Arthur Rimbaud, the Marquis de Sade, Lautreamont.

It seamlessly moves on to discussing places in Paris, particular streets or statues or shop signs, which have strangely moved the author, along with (to him) odd coincidences, like being able to predict where shops with particular names will be along a street, or bumping into someone at a theatre and later receiving a letter from them without realising it was the same person (Paul Eluard). The banality is stupefying.

Only very slowly does it become clear that this section is meant to be about what Surrealists called ‘petrifying coincidences’. Apparently (and it’s only by reading the introduction to the book and the Wikipedia article about it that you can really understand this) the notion of ‘significant coincidences’ was a key element in early Surrealism (along with ‘automatic writing’ and the importance of dreams).

For the Surrealists they were all strategies or techniques for evading the mind’s rational ‘bourgeois’ constraints and tapping directly into our unconscious, into the true and deepest sources of human creativity.

Here’s an example of such a ‘petrifying coincidence’. On one of his dates with Nadja, she and Breton walk from the Place Dauphine to a bar called ‘the Dauphine’ and Breton points out that, when he and friends play the game of comparing each other to animals, more often than not he is compared to a dolphin (‘dauphin’ in French)! Wow, eh!

It would be easier to understand what Breton was on about if he explained it lucidly – if there were some sentences early in Part One describing what he’s trying to do (list spooky places and strange coincidences designed to help you appreciate the non-rational Surrealist worldview) – or if he could write simple clear declarative sentences. But he can’t.

Have you ever had a conversation with someone who has a really bad stutter? Quite quickly you find yourself willing them to just spit it out; you can see what they’re driving at and you just want to help them get over their crippling debility, which is obviously causing them agonies of frustration.

Reading Breton is like that. He has got something to say but he seems cripplingly unable to express it. And instead of the fluency he so sorely lacks, his prose displays a kind of roughshod, domineering quality, a determination to make himself heard, no matter how incoherent what he’s saying actually is.

I must insist, lastly, that such accidents of thought not be reduced to their unjust proportions as faits-divers, random episodes, so that when I say, for instance, that the statue of Etienne Dolet on its plinth in the Place Maubert in Paris has always fascinated me and induced unbearable discomfort, it will not immediately be supposed that I am merely ready for psychoanalysis, a method I respect and whose present aims I consider nothing less than the expulsion of man from himself, and of which I expect other exploits than those of a bouncer. (p.24)

What?

The pope of Surrealism

Breton became known as the ‘pope’ of Surrealism for the iron control he exercised over the movement. He regularly staged trials and inquisitions into members who had in any way strayed from what he defined as the True Faith, which in practice meant dropping writers, poets or artists if they disagreed with him (which almost all the other Surrealists did at one stage or another).

This self-centred self-importance is on ample display in this book in the casual self-importance:

  • I must insist…
  • Which leads me to my own experience…
  • Nantes: perhaps, with Paris, the only city in France where I feel that something worth while can happen to me…
  • I have always, beyond belief, hoped to meet, at night and in a woods, a beautiful naked woman or rather, since such a wish once expressed means nothing, I regret, beyond belief, not having met her…
  • Meanwhile, you can be sure of meeting me in Paris, of not spending more than three days without seeing me pass, toward the end of the afternoon, along the Boulevard Bonne-Nouvelle between the Matin printing office and the Boulevard Strasbourg. I don’t know why it should be precisely here that my feet take me…

Paradoxically, the technique of recording every dream, every strange coincidence, every funny feeling you have about a statue or a narrow alley somewhere in Paris, it all runs the risk of seeming very inconsequential.

For example, Breton informs us that his favourite film is called The Grip of the Octopus, giving us several scenes from it which haunt his imagination. Then by far the longest section of Part One (six pages) is devoted to retelling the entire plot of a play he once saw, a thriller which leads up to the discovery of a child’s corpse in a cupboard, which was accompanied by a piercing scream which riveted him to his seat.

It is unbelievably self-absorbed, trivial and boring.

Similarly, we learn that reading Rimbaud in 1915 gave Breton an ‘extremely deep and vivid emotion’. That one day, years later, he was walking in the countryside in the rain when a strange woman fell into step beside him and asked if she could recite a Rimbaud poem to him. And then again, just recently, that he was at the Saint-Ouen flea market when he came across a copy of Rimbaud’s poems amidst the bric-a-brac, which had some hand-written poems among the pages. The book, and the poems, turn out to belong to the stall-keeper, a pretty young woman. That’s it.

It’s only towards the end of this first part that Breton explains (in his convoluted way) that he has been trying to give us examples of what the Surrealists called ‘petrifying coincidences’ and explains a little about the non-rational world he thinks they open up for us.

I imagine he intended all these trivial anecdotes to form a dazzling insight into his and the Surreal worldview. But instead they seem thumpingly banal and ineffectual. If this is it, if this is the basis of the entire Surrealist movement in art and literature – some places give you a spooky feeling, some coincidences are a bit eerie – then you can see why so very little of Surrealist literature has survived or been translated into English.

It seems crushingly boring.

Part two – Nadja

Having got this ham-fisted and disappointing insight into the worldview of Surrealism out of the way, Part Two of the book is finally about the woman of the title. On page 63 Breton finally meets ‘Nadja’, bumping into her in the street. She’s an attractive young woman, who immediately engages him in intense conversation – about her work (about work in general, and ‘Freedom’), about her lover who jilted her, about her family. He is entranced by her candour.

If Part One has done anything it has shown how Breton melodramatises quite humdrum events and feelings into Great Insights Into the Unconscious.

So it’s prepared us for the fact that Breton now reacts to every tremble and hesitation from this strange young woman as if it physically touches his oh-so-precious sensibility.

She carried her head high, unlike everyone else on the sidewalk. And she looked so delicate she scarcely seemed to touch the ground as she walked. (p.64)

I met lots of young women like this at parties in my 20s and 30s, fey, sensitive and spiritual souls, bruised by the hard world, treated badly by beastly men, cramped by horrible jobs – women who are too good for this world, women quick to tell you how spiritual they are, how much they care about the environment, how they only live for their cats.

She is so pure, so free of any earthly tie, and cares so little, but so marvellously, for life! (p.90)

Breton presents his idealised portrait of a hauntingly sensitive young woman as being somehow new, when it struck me as being incredibly old, really really ancient, a timeworn Romantic cliché. 115 years earlier Lord Byron had written:

She walks in beauty, like the night
Of cloudless climes and starry skies;
And all that’s best of dark and bright
Meet in her aspect and her eyes

and this story of a sensitive poet falling under the spell of a delicate young woman struck me as the opposite of innovative, new or interesting.

I’ve recently read descriptions of the Futurist Marinetti in 1912 yelling through a megaphone at tourists in Venice to burn the gondolas – that was funny and original.

I’ve been reading about the madcap provocations of Tristan Tzara and the Dadaists in Zurich, dressing up in cardboard costumes and reciting poetry to the beat of a bass drum.

I keep reading about Marcel Duchamp exhibiting his famous urinal in 1917. All these are still startling, new and entertaining.

André Breton sitting in a café in Paris listening to a slightly unhinged young lady telling him about her boyfriend problems…. well… it just seemed incredibly dull and ordinary. And sentimental, Christ! he sounds like a puppyish teenager scribbling in his diary.

She told me her name, the one she had chosen for herself: ‘Nadja, because in Russian it’s the beginning of the world hope, and because it’s only the beginning.’ (p.66)

As you might well imagine it turns out that Nadja’s health is delicate – exactly like any number of beautiful poor young women in 19th century novels or Romantic operas. Nadja loves her mother (‘I love mother. I wouldn’t hurt her for anything in the world’). And – surprise – she’s no good with money.

In other words, Nadja comes across as more stupefyingly dull and clichéd than words can convey. And yet the stolid humourless Breton seems to be endlessly moved by her tedious vapourings.

  • More moved than I care to show…
  • I am deeply moved…
  • This is one of the compliments that has moved me most in my life…

I couldn’t really believe the tone of fatuous self-importance which dominates the text and, for me, was epitomised when, towards the end of their first chat, strolling through the streets:

About to leave her, I want to ask one question which sums up all the rest, a question which only I could ever ask, probably, but which has at least once found a reply worthy of it: ‘Who are you?’ (p.71)

I have read and reread this, but Breton really seems to think that asking a stranger who he’s just met who she is, is a mark of genius, is ‘a question which only I could ever ask’.

Of course, he means it in a more poetic sense than you or I could ever mean it, because he is a POET. He is driving at a deeper enquiry into her soul and identity than just her name (which she’s already given us) and I suppose is referencing the ‘discussion’, if you can call it that, of identity with which he opened the book.

And she answers as only the sensitive young woman in a POET’s life could ever answer:

I am the soul in limbo. (p.71)

This is sentimental horseshit, and I am staggered at its sub-Romantic, pimply, teenage clichédness. Who would ever have predicted that ‘the most important and influential work to emerge from Surrealism’ would be so tiresomely ‘sensitive’ and boring.

The novels of Jean-Paul Sartre are infinitely more weird and disorienting than this. Nadja feels like the work of an immensely boring, utterly normal person trying to force himself into being interesting and sensitive and spooky – and the best he can come up with is ‘odd coincidences’ and an encounter with a slightly bonkers young woman. Really?

The encounters start as a diary of a sequence of days in October, going into detail about their meetings, conversations and wanderings round Paris over the course of a week or two.

Without any explanation the narrative then breaks into scattered memories of Nadja’s increasingly disconnected sayings, random phrases, fears of underground passages and of people watching her. It includes a series of pictures she scribbled on the back of postcards and scraps of paper which Breton takes as signs of uncanny genius, but which look like exactly the kind of pictures you or I might scribble on the back of scraps of paper in bored moments.

And then, suddenly, the narration pulls right away from Nadja. With sudden detachment Breton reports that he was told, ‘several months ago’, that Nadja was found raving in the hallway of her hotel and sent to a sanatorium.

You might have thought this would elicit some kind of concern about her, maybe a visit to the sanatorium, letters to get her released and so on.

But no, instead this news prompts a lengthy diatribe against psychiatry, Breton ranting against the power doctors have to deprive people of their freedom, in which he loses sight of Nadja altogether and instead imagines the fight that he, the Surrealist poet André Breton, would put up in an insane asylum, taking the first opportunity to murder a doctor and being locked up in solitary as a result.

Typically self-absorbed. And typical macho bullshit from bully boy Breton.

Part three

Part Three is short, at just ten pages or so, with a few photographs thrown in. It starts with characteristic self-absorption and bewildering lack of clarity, making it quite difficult to figure out what it’s about.

I envy (in a manner of speaking) any man who has the time to prepare something like a book and who, having reached the end, finds the means to be interested in its fate or in the fate which, after all, it creates for him. (p.147)

So it’s a passage at the end of a book about how difficult he finds it to imagine someone who can end a book.

After struggling to express himself on the subject of how difficult he finds it to express himself, there are a few last scattered memories of Nadja – one particularly hair-raising one where they are driving along and she puts her foot over onto the accelerator pedal, making the car suddenly jerk forward, till he manages to get her to take it off again.

But then, in the last four pages, the entire narrative completely changes tone altogether. Out of the blue it suddenly addresses someone referred to only as ‘You’, a ‘you’ who, apparently, is a bringer of huge emotional turmoil to our confused author, addressed in Breton’s usual rambling manner.

That is the story that I too yielded to the desire to tell you, when I scarcely knew you – you who can no longer remember but who, as if by chance, knowing of the beginning of this book, have intervened so opportunely, so violently, and so effectively, doubtless to remind me that I wanted it to be ‘ajar, like a door’ and that through this door I should probably never see anyone come in but you – come in and go out but you. (p.157)

Confusingly, the entire story of Nadja suddenly seems a thing of the distant past, completely eclipsed by this sudden inexplicable obsession with this mysterious ‘you’.

Since you exist, as you alone know how to exist, it was perhaps not so necessary that this book should exist. I have decided to write it nevertheless, in memory of the conclusion I wanted to give it before knowing you and which your explosion into my life has not rendered vain. (p.158)

This incoherent finale to the book only made any kind of sense when I turned to read the Introduction to this Penguin translation.

The introduction

The introduction to this Penguin edition of Nadja is by Mark Polizzotti who is a biographer of Breton.

To my surprise he quotes some of the tritest, most sentimental passages about Nadja with apparent approval, which at first dismayed me. But then he goes on to give a fascinating account of what actually happened – what Nadja is actually about – which is far more interesting than any of Breton’s bombastic bragging.

Polizzotti explains that ‘Nadja’ was actually Léona-Camile-Ghislaine D., last name unknown to this day, born in 1902, who Breton met in the street in October 1926, and then met again and again obsessively over the period of a month or so. Breton introduced her to his Surrealist colleagues (all impressed by her spooky intensity) and to his long-suffering wife Simone Kahn (intellectual collaborator, sounding board but not, apparently, sexual partner).

Breton the big-talking poet entranced Léona just as much as she beguiled him – it was a short sharp affair which climaxed in a train ride out of town to a rural hotel where they had sex. This physical act Breton, apparently, found unsatisfying, and soon after he began withdrawing himself from her. She continued to try to meet him, bombarding him with letters and drawings – and it’s these increasingly desperate messages which account for the way the middle part of the book morphs from distinct diary entries into a haphazard set of fragmented memories, notes, sayings, and photos of the drawings which she sent Breton.

One day Léona was found raving and hallucinating in the hallway of her cheap hotel, and was reported to the police who called the medics who took her off to an asylum. According to Polizzotti, some of the Surrealists she’d been introduced to visited her there, but Breton didn’t.

Léona was transferred on to another hospital in 1928 (just about the time Nadja was published), where she remained incarcerated until her death from cancer in 1941.

Breton using Léona

It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that Breton, desperate to write something, anything, in the mid-1920s, to assert his control and leadership of the Surrealist movement – desperate to compete with the outrageous pronouncements of the Dada provocateur Tristan Tzara or the fluent lyricism of his friend, Louis Aragon – used his chance encounter with Léona, her intensity, her ‘insights’ and ultimate madness, to create a text notable only for its self-aggrandisement and self-promotion.

You don’t have to be a feminist to find this despicable, as despicable as the fact that he had his sexual way with her, then dumped her to return to his wife, letting her go mad and be locked up without once visiting her.

Suzanne

And according to Polizzotti, this was at least in part because Breton had, at just the moment Léona was incarcerated, fallen madly in love with the statuesque mistress of a fellow writer (Emmanuel Berl), one Suzanne Muzard.

After meeting her only a few times, Breton persuaded Suzanne to run off to the South of France with him (from where Breton wrote long letters describing every development in his infatuation to his long-suffering wife, Simone).

But when Suzanne insisted that Breton leave Simone and marry her, Breton didn’t know what to do. Disappointed by his reaction, Suzanne insisted that they return to Paris. Her former lover Berl got back in touch and offered her a secure home and money. What’s a girl to do? She rejoined him and they set off abroad together.

Breton got wind that they were departing from the Gare de Lyon and rushed there to confront her as she left, but she chose money and comfort over passion and love (wise woman).

So it takes all this explaining to get to the point of realising that it is Suzanne who is addressed as ‘you’ in those final pages of Nadja.

Without the long and thorough factual explanation given in Polizzotti’s introduction the reader would have no way of making sense of the way this ‘you’ supersedes Nadja in a firework display of schoolboy gush.

All I know is that this substitution of persons stops with you, because nothing can be substituted for you, and because for me it was for all eternity that this succession of terrible or charming enigmas was to come to an end at your feet. (p.158)

Pathetic.

Failure to communicate

According to Polizzotti, Breton had intended to close Nadja with a final section which would be ‘a long meditation on beauty, a kind of beauty consisting of “jolts and shocks” as represented by Nadja and her unsettling presence’.

You can see how this might have worked – how the uncanny moments and strange insights of Nadja could be associated with the opening section about coincidences and spooky locations, and all drawn together to put forward a sustained case for a new aesthetic, an aesthetic of the irrational, the accidental, the uncanny and the inexplicable.

Unfortunately, Breton found himself simply unable to do it. All he managed was a few last pages about Nadja, into which suddenly erupt a handful of pages of fifth-form gush about Suzanne, and then, abruptly, one page (one page!) which in a half-baked way leads up to the most famous thing in the book, its last sentence:

Beauty will be CONVULSIVE or it will be nothing at all. (p.160)

What a shame, what a real shame that he didn’t have the wit or intelligence to go back over his own text and summarise the findings of a) his general thoughts about coincidence b) the specific case study of Nadja – and produce a systematic and blistering defence of the Surrealist aesthetic.

Instead, the preceding 160 pages amount to a badly organised ragbag of subjective impressions, silly premonitions, pretentious conversations with a fragile young woman, crappy hand-drawn sketches, boring photographs of Paris streets, half-assed gestures towards an aesthetic which in no way build a case.

You could be smart and argue that the text’s very failure to make much sense or mount a coherent argument enacts the Surrealist aesthetic of fragments and the anti-rational, but that’s not very persuasive. There’s a difference between the artful placing of fragments – as done by countless modern artists, collagists and photomontagists, done with wit and style – and this spavined text, which so overtly struggles with Breton’s own lack of style and with his abject inability to write clearly or coherently.

Breton comes across from this book as a humourless, pompous and self-important prig, and this is exactly the impression you get from reading Ruth Brandon’s 450-page long account of the Surrealists. One of the colleagues he expels from the group describes him as a schoolboy bully. Exactly.

And why is he talking about ‘beauty’, like some 18th century connoisseur or some 1880s dandy? In the age of Duchamp’s anti-art, Tsara and Arp and Ball’s Dada, Grosz’s searing satirical paintings, Heartfield’s photomontages or Man Ray’s solarised photographs, it seems almost unbelievably retrograde, reactionary and obtuse to be crapping on about ‘beauty’. Beauty? What has beauty got to do with anything?

In every way Nadja seems to me an extravagantly feeble, badly written, pompous, sentimental, self-centred failure of a piece of steaming, putrid donkey dung.


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