Barbican’s Modern Couples explores art, intimacy and the avant-garde

‘Some women fight and others do not,’ observes Joan Didion in her The White Album. ‘Like so many guerrillas in the wars between sexes, Georgia O’Keeffe seems to have been equipped early with an immutable sense of who she was and a fairly clear understanding that she would be required to prove it,’ the American author writes of the great American painter. Much like the handful of female artists struggling within a very male modern art world, O’Keeffe refused to be considered a ‘woman painter’. She was brave and famously outspoken, writing of her flower series which she felt were sentimentalised by the male gaze, ‘I made you take time to look at what I saw, and when you took time to really notice my flowers you hung all your associations with flowers on my flower and you write about my flower as if I think and see what you think and see – and I don’t.’

Georgia O’Keeffe’s romance with the photographer and gallery owner Alfred Stieglitz, who she met in 1918 and later married, is amongst the forty art couples featured in a rich and engaging exhibition opened at the Barbican in London. Modern Couples: Art, Intimacy and the Avant-garde is the story of modern art in the first half of the 20th century told through relationships. The Barbican refuses to portray the woman as victim here – purposely avoiding the tired artist-as-muse narrative. Instead Modern Couples highlights how the union of two – or in some cases three as friends and lovers, straight, bi and gay – can create exciting artistic dialogues.

‘Its new take on modern art history, focusing on collaboration and mutual influence in intimate relationships, could not be timelier,’ says Jane Alison, the Barbican’s head of visual arts. ‘The show offers visitors a deeply personal and revealing insight into the transformative impact artists’ had on each other. Ultimately it is an exhibition about modern art and modern love.’

Organised by Centre Pompidou-Metz in collaboration with Barbican, it forms part of the gallery’s  The Art of Change, a year-long series exploring the relationship between art, society and politics. Modern Couples offers an insight to the life and work of an incredibly rich collection of painters, sculptors, photographers, architects, designers, writers, musicians and performers, shown alongside personal photographs, love letters, gifts and rare archival material. This is not your usual crowd-pleasing, instagramable exhibition. There is so much to take in, and so much to learn in the brilliant béton brut Barbican.

Amongst the legendary duos here are Camille Claudel and Auguste Rodin, Barbara Hepworth and Ben Nicholson, Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, Dora Maar and Pablo Picasso, the brilliant Lee Miller and Man Ray, Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville-West. Then there are some surprising unions, for instance Federico García Lorca and Salvador Dalí, or Emilie Flöge and Gustav Klimt. Seen as a muse in the past, Flöge was a talented fashion designer who ran her own couture house in Vienna, and happened to be Klimt’s partner. Both shared a euphoric sense of a new world of art outside the confines of academic tradition and a love of textiles and ornamentation, which clearly fed into both their practices. The photographs they took of each other are fun and full of life.

Others such as Lucia Moholy and László Moholy-Nagy are a union as much about love as shared ideology that helped alter the creative landscape. One particular highlight is Leonora Carrington’s exceptional portrait of Max Ernst, taken in 1937, a coded double portrait (pictured here). At the intersection of design and art, we get to see the Omega workshop created by Vanessa Bell, Roger Fry and Duncan Grant in 1913; there are Aino Aalto and Alvar Aalto and their Artek design company in Helsinki opened in 1935; and Eileen Gray and Jean Badovici’s modernist villa, E1027, in the south of France – featured here with original furniture pieces.

Modern Couples includes intimate relationships in all their forms – obsessional, conventional, mythic, platonic, fleeting, life-long – to reveal the way in which creative individuals came together. They often transgressed the constraints of their time, reshaping art, redefining gender stereotypes and forging news ways of living and loving. Crucially, the exhibition challenges the idea that the history of art is a single line of solitary, predominantly masculine geniuses.

This is a fascinating portrait of creative relationships, an engaging study of connections and conversations, of the brave and brilliant, daring and dynamic female and male artists, designers, writers of the early part of the last century. To quote the curators, it is a tale of ‘modern art and modern love, the seductive power of art …’. On until January and not to be missed.

Nargess Banks

All images are for press publication only and are subject to copyright. See individual descriptions for detail. #moderncouples

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Learning from the Eameses

‘Is design an expression of art?’ we hear a voice ask Charles Eames to which he replies ‘design is the expression of purpose’. The video completes The World of Charles and Ray Eames, a brilliant look into the life and work of Charles (1907-1978) and Ray (1912-1988) Eames, two of the most celebrated designers of the last century.

With its timeless modernist aesthetic and utopian vision, London’s Barbican Centre is a perfect set for a discourse on the Eameses. For over four decades, the Eames Office, the ‘laboratory’ as it was often referred to, in sunny California produced an array of pioneering and experimental work.

Here architecture, furniture, graphic and product design, painting, drawing, film, sculpture, photography, multi-media installation and exhibitions were explored. New models for education were envisaged at the Eames Office not just for the US and the western world, but India and beyond.

For many Charles and Ray Eames are associated with their iconic furniture. Yet for them, ‘design was not simply a professional skill, it was a life skill – more than that, it was an essential attribute of life itself,’ says Eames Demetrios, director of the Eames Office.

The couple thus moved fluidly between the mass-production of objects for everyday use and the transmission of ideas through exhibition, film or installation. Much like the European Bauhaus contemporaries (many of whom had moved to the US after the war) their concern were to connect art, science and technology, to educate society, and to utilise good design as way of improving life.

It really is fascinating navigating these rooms, browsing through endless documents and videos, listening to ideas on the future, how to integrate craft and technology, embrace the coming global ‘information age’. Some of the concerns and ideas expressed here remain valid today.

Charles and Ray established their studio against the backdrop of the Second World War. One of their first mass-produced products was an emergency transport splint in moulded plywood and shaped to the human form. The project helped the team to find ways to mass-produce the moulded-plywood furniture Charles and his friend, the designer Eero Saarinen had been experimenting with the previous year, and it enabled the couple to open the Eames Office on 901 Washington Boulevard, Venice, and Los Angeles, California, where it remained throughout its history.

We particularly like these notes, featured in the accompanying catalogue, and drafted by Charles in January 1949 to advice students. They describe the workings of the Eames Office beautifully:

Make a list of books
Develop a curiosity
Look at things as though for the first time
Think of things in relation to each other
Always think of the next larger thing
Avoid the ‘pat’ answer – the formula
Avoid the preconceived idea
Study well objects made past recent and ancient but never without the technological and social conditions responsible
Prepare yourself to search out the true need – physical, psychological
Prepare yourself to intelligently fill that need
The art is not something you apply to your world
The art is the way you do your work, a result of your attitude towards it

Charles and Ray Eames collaborated and associated with the leading artistic figures of the 20th century and their immediate circle included Buckminster Fuller, Alexander Girard, George Nelson, Isamu Noguchi, Eero Saarinen, Saul Steinberg, and Billy Wilder. And the 380 works displayed in the concrete halls of the Barbican are a legacy of post-war modernism.

The exhibition addresses the Eameses impact on concepts of modern living – the couple’s editorial eye and mastery of form and material yielded some of the most iconic designs of all time, not least their own home completed in 1949. Here modernist furniture live with old battered books, paintings, oriental rugs, antiques and effigies. This is a home that is as much about aesthetics as creating a warm, loving, liveable environment to encourage productivity, growth, pioneering thought.

The Eameses were forever challenging themselves to improve on their work. And they seemed to be having so much fun! Archive photographs depict this handsome couple smiling, laughing, interacting with their team at the Eames Office. This was a partnership in life, work and ideology… and it is hugely inspiring.

This is the first major UK exhibition of the work of Charles and Ray Eames in over 15 years, and it is not to be missed.

Nargess Banks

The World of Charles and Ray Eames will be at the Barbican Art Gallery until 14 February 2016.

The accompanying catalogue is edited by Catherine Ince and Lotte Johnson and published by the Barbican and Thames & Hudson.

#worldofeames

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Political art: Imagined Futures

With contemporary art so deeply involved with the self, drunk on the vanity of the image, and so intertwined with the world of money, glitz and glamour, it is refreshing to come across an exhibition that is not afraid to be political.

Hrair Sarkissian is involved with big explosive narratives. The Syrian born artist’s work is social theatre; at once part of a rich panorama of contemporary Arab art that, not surprisingly, has politics at its core.

Born in Damascus in 1973 of Armenian heritage, Sarkissian uses photography to re-evaluate larger historical, religious and socio-political narratives that address his mixed background.

For instance in Homesick (2014) Sarkissian destroys a scaled replica of his family home in Damascus – on one screen an 11-minute time-lapsed silent video presents the demolition of the model. We are not informed of the cause. All the viewer is shown is the slow, theatrical collapse of the building.

Simultaneously, an eight-minute video shows the artist wielding a sledgehammer – the lens focusing on his face and torso. Once more the target of his blows is not presented. It is immaterial.

The building represents the space where the artist belongs, a container for his memories and his family’s collective identities. Sarkissian contemplates the consequences of what it means to expect the worst. He examines what it could mean to fast-forward the present, acknowledge loss and begin reshaping a collapsed history, before the event.

In Front Line (2007) Sarkissian draws on his Armenian identity to contemplate the predicament of a people and place with an unknown political destiny through a series of previously unseen photographs.

We see the war-torn enclave between Armenia and Azerbaijan, the self-proclaimed independent Republic of Nagorno-Karabakh. Throughout the centuries the claims over this territory have shifted, the borders have been remapped, yet the repression of the region’s indigenous Armenians has persisted. Over a million of its Azeri and Armenian inhabitants remain displaced even today.

The photographs depict 12 deserted landscapes and 17 portraits of those who fought during the 1988-1994 war. The images are haunting and raise questions about the reality of war and the contradictions inherent within struggles for national independence.

Hrair Sarkissian – Imagined Futures is at The Mosaic Rooms in London until 25 April 2015.

 Nargess Shahmanesh Banks

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Staying Power: Photographs of black British experience

The V&A in London is displaying over fifty recently acquired photographs exploring the experiences of black people in Britain in the latter half of the 20th century, enhanced by excerpts from oral histories gathered by Black Cultural Archives.

Over the last seven years the museum has been acquiring photographs by black photographers and those which document the lives of black people in Britain, a previously under-represented area in the V&A’s photographs collection.

In the collection are 118 works by 17 artists ranging from Yinka Shonibare’s large-scale series Diary of a Victorian Dandy (1998), to studies of elaborate headties worn by Nigerian women by J.D. Okhai Ojeikere, to black and white street photography of 1970s London by Al Vandenberg.

Staying Power showcases a variety of photographic responses to black British experience. On display are intimate portrayals of British-Caribbean life in London in the 1960s-70s by Neil Kenlock, Armet Francis, Dennis Morris and Charlie Phillips. Music, style and fashion are documented in Raphael Albert’s depictions of the black beauty pageants he organised from the 1960s to the 1980s to help celebrate the growing black community in Britain and Norman ‘Normski’ Anderson’s colourful depictions of vibrant youth culture of the 1980s and ‘90s.

Staying Power: Photographs of black British experience 1950s-90s, is at the V&A, London until 24 May 2015  

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Constructing Worlds: Architectural Photography

Should architecture photography look beyond documenting the built environment? This is the question raised by Constructing Worlds: Photography and Architecture in the Modern Age, the latest exhibition at London’s Barbican Art Gallery. Here the curators have set out to explore the power of photography to reveal wider truths about our society. And it is an interesting glimpse into our world.

The Barbican Centre, itself a utopian statement and so much more than just a set of concrete blocks, is the perfect venue for this kind of show. This is an inspired exhibition featuring over 250 works – some rarely seen and many shown in the UK for the first time – by eighteen leading photographers from the 1930s to now, who, the exhibitors believe, have changed the way we view architecture and think about the world in which we live.

Highlights include Berenice Abbott’s photographs charting the birth of the skyscraper in New York; Lucien Hervé’s subtle evocations of modernity as found in Chandigarh by Le Corbusier; the luxury lifestyle of Julius Shulman’s images of California’s residences; the moving nature of Daniel Libeskind’s Jewish Museum as seen by London based photographer Hélène Binet; the recent dramatic growth of Chinese urbanisation recorded by Nadav Kander; and the devastating effects of war in Afghanistan as expressed in the poignant images of Simon Norfolk.

‘Photography and architecture have a long and shared history and yet amazingly this is the first major exhibition in London to throw light on this relationship,’ says Jane Alison, head of visual arts at the Barbican. It is an exhibition, she says, not only for anyone interested in how we understand architecture but equally the dramatic global shifts in society in the post-war period.

Constructing Worlds: Photography and Architecture in the Modern Age is at the Barbican Art Gallery from 25 September 2014 – 11 January 2015

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