Marcel Duchamp made tiny sculptures from moulded casts of his lover Maria Martins’ body – the curvature under one of her breasts, indentations from around her thighs. With her permission, even after she left him, he often carried around these intimate sculptures in his pockets, the indented negative spaces of where she no longer was. I went around the Barbican Modern Couples exhibit alone and in many ways, felt this negative space. The exhibit is not only about the famous muses of 20th century artists, but the symbiosis of a relationship as a functioning platform for the growth of intellect and inspiration.

A significant portion of this exhibition is comprised of artistic couples photographing one another, often naked, often in sexual acts. You feel like a voyeuristic observer and a third party, even in the most otherworldly photos. There is an image of George Tooker, Jared French and Monroe Wheeler all standing naked around a twisted tree on a sterile beach, one of them in a toga, that appears like a scene from a deserted post-apocalyptic
wasteland, and screams loneliness though they are together. There is another of a penis stuck through a gap into an alien world, blue and gray craters surrounding it, leaving you wondering about the transport of sexual conquest, the disembodied journeys of parts of the body to other planes. Dora Maar photographed Picasso posing like a minotaur, or in great chambers of tormented fantasies.

But even with all of these surreal photographs, some of those I liked most were from Natalie Clifford Barney. Once writing ‘I am a lesbian. One need not hide it, nor boast of it, though being other than normal is a perilous advantage,’ Barney opened up a salon in a pavilion with classical Doric columns and called it ‘The Temple of Friendship’, dedicating it to lesbian solidarity. There with Romaine Brooks, the portrait painter she loved, Romaine would paint portraits of the guests, and there is a simplistic set of photos of Romaine waking taken by Barney. This was accompanied with many early 20th century amateur intimate photographs of women, by other women, made only for the sake of a small moment of perfect expression. This exhibition shows that trying to capture someone’s essence for a photograph, to be held only by the photographer is one of the most erotic acts one could perform.

There is a subsection within the exhibit called ‘mad love’ about some of the most obsessive, twisted artistic passions. Leonora Carrington painted Max Ernst as the Bird Superior, twisting him halfway between human and creature, with the shadow of herself as the Bride of the Wind behind, and the ‘mad love’ section showed all sorts of distorted images of loves drawn through wringers of pain. The exhibit as a whole showed everything from modern Scandinavian printing artists to authors like Virginia Woolf and her lover Vita Sackville-West. This exhibit doesn’t treat one artist in a partnership as greater or lesser than the other, even though usually one is recognised in traditional history to be far more famous. It is a landmark of representation for those people usually just think of as props for more well-known partners who eclipse them. Every relationship is made up of halves, or is completely blurred to comprise one entity.

This exhibit sets a standard for a philosophy of love, wherein thinkers are each other’s perpetual inspiration, and even if they do not last forever, they last as long as those great streams of thought keep developing. The romances in the exhibit are all puzzles to be figured out, regarding how these influences fit together, especially when the couple works on a collaborative piece. Much art can be considered a beautiful testament to a single emotive moment, but so rarely is the cause of that emotive made so clear, nor is the call-and response of the artist’s emotions (demonstrated through a couple’s collaborative body of work) so clear. The entire time I walked through the exhibit I was sending excited messages to my friend, eager to talk immediately about the little snippets of stories I’d seen.

It is very hard to walk through the pieces without picking up a few little unforgettable details, and little bits of inspiration that the artistically-minded will potentially want to carry forward into their own relationships. It was easily one of the most meticulously researched exhibits I saw in 2018, with huge amounts of information available in every room, and I couldn’t recommend it enough. Although maybe don’t go alone – it might leave you wondering if you’ll ever have anyone to lounge around perpetually creating art and debating expressionism with.