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Shared emotion: Dorothea Tanning and Max Ernst with his sculpture, “Capricorn”, in 1947 (©JOHN KATSNESIS)

“Let men busy themselves with all that has to do with great art,” wrote Léon Legrange in the Gazette des Beaux-Arts in 1860. “Let women occupy themselves with those types of art which they have always preferred, such as pastels, portraits, and miniatures . . .” Within a few years, however, and to Legrange’s consternation, everything changed. In Britain the Slade School of Fine Art opened to both men and women in 1871 and the Royal Academy finally allowed women students into the life class in the 1890s; while across the continent art schools and academies relaxed their men-only grip so that by 1910 female art students were accepted on equal terms everywhere except for some provincial schools (although in several, male life models still had to wear some sort of covering around their loins).

One of the results was that women took their place in the wider art world not just as muses, that tired old saw, or as models, but as a creative force in their own right. They met male artists at a younger age in the drawing class, formed alliances as peers, and as well as making their own work, shaped the attitudes of their male partners and entered collaborations with them. They helped turn art from an individual endeavour into a joint one.

This cross-pollination is the theme of Modern Couples: Art, Intimacy and the Avant-garde (October 10-January 27) at the Barbican, which looks at some 40 artist couples from the first half of the 20th century. Some of the pairings are familiar — Ben Nicholson and Barbara Hepworth, Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo — while others are less so, such as Gustav Klimt and the fashion designer Emilie Flöge, Hans Arp and Sophie Taeuber-Arp. The pairings cross the disciplines from painters and sculptors to photographers and designers but seek to show that together the artists amounted to more than the sum of their parts.

Some figures appear more than once: Ben Nicholson was married first to Winifred Nicholson, a painter of still lifes and landscapes, and later to the abstract sculptor Barbara Hepworth. It is perhaps no coincidence that Ben Nicholson’s first abstract sculpture, White Relief, was made in 1933, the year in which his marriage to Winifred ended and when he travelled to France with Hepworth to visit the studios of Arp, Picasso, and Brâncuşi. It was his new lover that drove him to a purer form of Modernism than he had previously essayed. Hepworth herself could have been a double entry in the exhibition, having previously been married to the sculptor John Skeaping. 

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