11 Modern Artist Couples Who Shaped the History of 20th Century Art

August 4, 2018

The history of modernism is interwoven with various myths which very often rotate around the male proponents of the same. The continued efforts to reexamine art production of the first decades of the twentieth century from the gender perspective resulted in an increasing number of exhibitions focused on the role of female artists and their contributions. Due to the fact that best ideas often come through a dialog and collaboration, it is important to follow the activity of modern artist couples since we can learn much more about modern art just by focusing on their interaction.

However, that particular part of history is marked by radical changes in society and the way art circles nurtured innovations, experiments and modern way of thinking. In general, governed by the paradigm that art is life and vice versa, the proponents of the avant-garde movements weren’t just interested in bold artistic experiments, but they embraced radical behavior, manners, and lifestyles as well. They indulged in smoking, alcohol, drugs, freed sexual activity depending on their preferences. Related to that is the fact that women's emancipation spread rapidly after WW I and was somehow promoted with an image of a flapper girl.

Therefore, the alternative models of relationships liberated from marital dogma were quite new and were embraced by the pioneers of modern art. Looking from a contemporary perspective, we are dealing with a phenomenon of artist couples which can tell us much about the circumstances of the production through a prism of intimate or personal and collective experiences.

The current exhibition Modern Couples at Centre Pompidou-Metz tends to unravel the development of aesthetic forms, of challenges and exchange between the protagonists of modern art. These artist couples questioned the very notion of modernity by posing new models of emotional and professional cooperation. As a matter of fact, through four segments titled Rhythm and Freedom, A Shared Space, Love Reinvented and Nature Illuminated, it tells a complex narrative about the currents and development of modern art by specifically focusing on artist couples and the role of women artists.

In parallel with icons like Kahlo and Rivera or Maar and Picasso, the showcase explores dense relationships between English artistic couples such as Eileen Agar and Paul Nash, Barbara Hepworth and Ben Nicholson, and the Bloomsbury Group, formed by artists whose moral and creative freedoms were particularly influential (members include Virginia and Leonard Woolf, Clive and Vanessa Bell, Roger Fry, and Duncan Grant, amongst others).

Modern Couples is on display at Centre Pompidou-Metz until 20 August, to be hosted by The Barbican in London, coinciding with the 100th anniversary of suffrage for women.

Editors’ Tip: Couples Modernes 1900 – 1950

The Modern Couples (Couples Modernes) exhibition explores more than forty essential or incidental encounters between artist couples, from 1900 to 1950.The exhibition aims to shine an essential light on the development of aesthetic forms, of the thoughts and mores of the protagonists of modern art. It is the very notion of modernity that is questioned through the prism of this organic cell, multifaceted and creative, formed by the artist couple, which, for some of them, in these times of political upheaval and identities marked by two wars, provided an expanse of freedom, the protective matrix of a “cointelligence of opposites” which Marcel Duchamp sought to cultivate.

Featured image: Left: Anonymous - Jean Arp with navel-monocle, c 1926. Stiftung Arp e.V., Berlin/Rolandswerth / Right: Nic Aluf - Sophie Tauber-Arp avec tête Dada, Zurich, 1920. Stiftung Arp e.V., Berlin/Rolandswerth. All images courtesy Centre Pompidou-Metz.

Aleksander Rodchenko and Varvara Stepanova

Aleksander Rodchenko and Varvara Stepanova met in 1910 at an art school, and in 1916 they moved to Moscow where they joined the very core of Russian avant-garde circle in the year prior to October revolution. They shared artistic and political beliefs and collaborated on several projects; among the most important ones was the LEF journal.

In their flat, these two artists conducted an extraordinary production – from paintings, textile and graphic design to photographs. In 1921, Rodchenko and Stepanova introduced the theory of productivist art together with several other artists such as Lioubov Popova, and Alexandra Exter, based on rationalism, reproducibility, and utility.

Featured images: Aleksander Rodchenko - Rodchenko and Stepanova - Wandering Musicians, 1922. Richard Saltoun Gallery © Estate of the Artist © Courtesy of Richard Saltoun Gallery; Varvara Stepanova - Autoportrait, 1920. Oil on canvas, 71 x 52,5 cm. State Museum of Fine Arts A.S Pushkin, Moscow

Anni and Josef Albers

In 1922 at the iconic Bauhaus school in Weimar Josef Albers and Annelise Fleischmann met. It was a melting pot of new approaches to art and life, and while Josef was engaged with stained-glass workshop, Anni opted for the textile workshop where she managed to explore the domains of patterns and materials in order to produce unique work of art.

This artist couple never collaborated directly, though their research showed mutual interests in color, abstraction, geometric compositions, and repetition. In 1933, the school was closed by the Nazis, so Anni and Josef Albers fled to America where they continued their experimentations at the Black Mountain College, yet another important meeting spot for radical artistic practices. In-between the years 1935 and 1941, they had traveled to South America and were dazzled with pre-Columbian art and architecture, so their continues research on the abstract expanded.

Featured images: Anonymous - Josef and Anni Albers at Black Mountain College, circa 1935. The Josef & Anni Albers Foundation © Albers Foundation/Art Resource, NY; Anni Albers – Memo, 1958. The Joseph H. Hirshhorn Bequest, 1981. Photography by Cathy Carver. Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington, D.C. © Adagp, Paris 2018; Josef Albers – Affectionate (Homage to the Square), 1954. Oil on canvas, 81 x 81 cm. Collection Centre Pompidou, Paris. Musee national d’art moderne - Centre de creation industrielle © Centre Pompidou,MNAM-CCI/ Bertrand Prevost /Dist. RMN-GP © The Josef and Anni Albers Foundation © Adagp, Paris 2018.

Barbara Hepworth and Ben Nicholson

Barbara Hepworth and Ben Nicholson shared her studio in London from 1932 although they were both married. In order to get fully acquainted with the latest tendencies, this artist couple traveled to Paris where they met artists like Picasso, Brancusi, Jean Arp and Sophie Taeuber-Arp, who inspired them to broaden their artistic vision and embrace collaborative work.

Obsessed by formal aspects of the pictorial surface, Hepworth and Nicholson were engaged in abstraction, which was deeply embedded in spiritual wanderings such as the Christian Science and its doctrine of the dematerialization of the world. They even swap their respective media, so Nicholson sometimes produced sculptures, while Hepworth did painting.

Featured images: Barbara Hepworth - Conoid, Sphere and Hollow III, 1937. Barbara Hepworth © Bowness. Photo © Government Art Collection; Ben Nicholson - Relief, 1934 © Kettle's Yard, University of Cambridge. © Adagp, Paris 2018

Eileen Agar and Paul Nash

Eileen Agar, then in a relationship with the poet Joseph Bard, met Paul Nash, himself married to Margaret Nash, in a coastal town of Swanage in southern England in 1935. They were both affiliated with the surrealist movement and were expressing themselves through various media. Agar wanted to stop the relationship in the first year, but Nash was against it, so they continued spending time together until his death in 1946.

Found object and photography were Surrealist features transferred to Agar by Nash. Their collaboration is most apparent in the works made as a result of their mutual walks on the beach. She produced beautiful photographic compositions by combining minerals, plants, and animals to create a new entity, while Nash was more poetic and introspective, sparked by Agar's free spirit and curiosity.

Featured images: Paul Nash – Swanage, 1936. Collage with graphite, watercolor and photographs, black and white on paper 40 x 58.1 centimeters © Tate, London 2018; Eileen Agar – Rocks in Ploumanach Juillet, 1936. Negative, 6,4 x 6 cm – Modern print © Tate, London 2018

Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera

Much is written about this particular artist couple, yet their collaboration is perhaps the most iconic of them all.

Frida Kahlo discovered Diego Rivera and saw La Creación (Creation), a monumental fresco he did in a national preparatory school for the University of Mexico where she was studying. They met five years later via photographer Tina Modotti, and shared the same passion for precolonial Mexican and popular art, as well as for the communist ideology; Rivera’s works reflect more allegorical an political approach, while Kahlo’s art was more very personal, emotional and tormented.

Their collaboration was intermittently taking place in a form of cohabitation and mutual support, aside from intense and often violent emotional breakdowns.

Featured images: Nickolas Muray - Frida and Diego with hat, 1939. Throckmorton Fine Art Courtesy Throckmorton Fine Arts; © Nickolas Muray Photo Archives. Photo by Nickolas Muray, © Nickolas Muray Photo Archives; View of Casa-estudio de Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo designed by Juan O'Gorman in San Angel, Mexico © Museo casa estudio Diego Rivera y Frida Kahlo / INBA / secretaria de cultura / México

Georgia O'Keefe and Alfred Stieglitz

Alfred Stieglitz discovered the works of Georgia O’Keeffe in 1916 and was utterly fascinated by the purity of the organic abstractions which penetrated his fancy. At one point, O’Keeffe decided to go back to figurative work, combining realism and spirituality.

Nevertheless, two of them started seeing each other around the 1920s and Stieglitz’s family house on the shore of Lake George was their favorite environment. Their collaboration can be seen more as a fascination since O’Keeffe’s city paintings were a reply to the hundreds of photographs Stieglitz took of her; they were somehow independent, and Stieglitz supported O’Keeffe’s emancipation.

Featured images: Alfred Stiglitz Letter addressed to Georgia O'Keeffe with a photograph of Georgia O'Keeffe and Alfred Stieglitz kissing each other at Lake George 1929. Ink on paper and black and white photography, 27.9 x 21.6cl. Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library; Georgia O'Keeffe - Red, Yellow and Black Streak, 1924. Collection Centre Pompidou, Paris Musee national d’art moderne - Centre de creation industrielle © Centre Pompidou, MNAM-CCI/Philippe Migeat; Alfred Stieglitz - Lake George, between 1922 and 1923. Fonds appartenant a Jean-Leon Gerome et Aime Morot, Paris, musee d'Orsay. Photo © RMN-Grand Palais (musee d'Orsay) / Herve Lewandowski

Jean Arp and Sophie Taeuber-Arp

Jean Arp and Sophie Taeuber met in 1915, in Zurich during his solo exhibition. Arp was instantly fascinated by the extraordinary craftsmanship of Taeuber and her avant-gardism in her choice of geometric constructions.

Most notably, they produced tapestries which reflect both his organic and her reductive approach. Certain tapestries were ascribed to Arp for a long time, yet their design and execution have now been reattributed to both artists or to Sophie. Both were affiliated with the Dadaist movement, so ideas of creative chaos and natural order over artists force prevailed.

Featured images: Left: Anonyme - Jean Arp with navel-monocel, c 1926. Stiftung Arp e.V., Berlin/ Rolandswerth © Adagp, Paris, 2018 / Right: Nic Aluf, Sophie Taeuber-Arp with Dada head, Zurich, 1920. Stiftung Arp e.V., Berlin/ Rolandswerth; Jean Arp and Sophie Taeuber-Arp - Symétrie pathétique, 1916 – 1917. Paris, Centre Pompidou, Musee national d’art modern © Centre Pompidou, MNAM-CCI/Jacqueline Hyde/Dist. RMN-GP © Adagp, Paris, 2018

Max Ernst with Dorothea Tanning and Leonora Carrington

Max Ernst shared his life with rather independent Surrealist artists Leonora Carrington from 1938 until 1940, and then with Dorothea Tanning in Arizona's Sedona desert from 1946 until 1955.

With Carrington, he produced books, while sculptures and paintings produced in Saint-Martin-d’Ardeche were influenced by Tanning. Ernst shared a common passion for legends, magical and esoteric worlds with Carrington, while after the WW II Dorothea Tanning introduced him to Indian cultures - which resulted in the creation of a new creative universe in the heart of the Arizona desert.

Featured images: Dorothea Tanning - Un tableau très heureux, 1947. Oil on canvas, 91,1 x 122cm. Collection Centre Pompidou, Paris. Musee national d’art moderne - Centre de creation industrielle © Centre Pompidou © The Estate of Dorothea Tanning © Adagp, Paris; Dorothea Tanning and Max Ernst with his sculpture Capricorn, 1947. Photograph by John Kasnetsis © John Kasnetsis © Adagp, Paris, 2018; Max Ernst - Attirement of the Bride (La Toilette de la mariee), 1940. Oil on canvas,129.6 x 96.3 cm. Peggy Guggenheim Collection, Venice. Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, New York © ADAGP, Paris 2018. Photograph by David Heald

Natalia Goncharova and Mikhail Larionov

In 1900, Natalia Goncharova and Mikhail Larionov met at the Moscow School of Painting, Sculpture, and Architecture, and Larionov managed to persuade Goncharova to abandon sculpture and devote herself to painting. Soon afterwards, they started the Rayist movement by officially signing the manifesto in 1913. It brought a freshness into the local art scene and became extremely relevant for all the upcoming artists, and led by the ideas of independence and originality by questioning the depiction of objects and the very notion of reality.

The painting went beyond the limits of the surface and was inhabited by geometrical bodies and faces. The artist couple believed that art can revolutionize life, so aside from painting, Goncharova and Larionov embraced radical performances and spread the ideas of Rayism in their friends' avant-garde publications.

Featured images: Mikhail F. Larionov - Portrait of Natalia Gontcharova 1907 © Collection of Vladimir Tsarenkov, London © Adagp, Paris, 2018; Natalia Gontcharova – La lampe electrique, 1913. Oil on canvas, 105 x 81,5x7,5 cm. Collection Centre Pompidou, Paris, Musee national d’art moderne - Centre de creation industrielle © Centre Pompidou,MNAM-CCI/ Philippe Migeat/Dist. RMN-GP © Adagp, Paris 2018

Pablo Picasso and Dora Maar

In the mid-1930s Dora Maar was quite active within the Surrealist circle and was producing peculiar compositions on the verge of absurd. During that period she made one of the iconic surrealist photographs titled Le Simulateur (the Pretender).

In 1935m she met Pablo Picasso, and the artistic couple became eager to produce hybrid works favoring experiment, constantly seeking for new results. Dora gradually abandoned photography, became Dali’s muse, and even after their love ended, the icon of modernism continued to paint a number of her portraits.

Featured images: Dora Maar - Pablo Picasso, Paris, studio at 29, rue d'Astorg, Winter 1935-1936 Photo © Pompidou Center, MNAM-CCI, Dist. RMNGrand Palace / image Center Pompidou, MNAM-CCI © Adagp, Paris, 2018; Pablo Picasso - Portrait de femme, 1938. Oil on canvas, 98 x 77,5 cm. Centre Pompidou, Musee national d’art modern © Centre Pompidou, MNAMCCI/ Georges Meguerditchian © Succession Picasso 2017

Raoul Hausmann and Hannah Hoch

Hannah Höch met Dadist thinker Raoul Hausmann in 1915, and during the holiday three years later the two of them invented the photomontage technique which is one of the main characteristics of the Dada movement.

This came as a reaction on the horrors of WW I and so Hannah Höch embraced the technique and produced extraordinary photomontages for many decades. She was employed in a publishing house which popularised illustrated magazines, which helped her a lot to explore the technique. She embraced fully the feminist perspective and was supported by Hausmann who insisted on her presence at the famous International Dada Fair in Berlin in 1920.

Featured images: Left: Robert Sennecke - Untitled (Hannah Hoch and Raoul Hausmann at the First International Dada Fair Berlin, Dr Otto Burchard’s art cabinet), 1920. Berlinische Galerie, Berlin / Right: Hannah Hoch - Für ein Fest gemacht, 1936. Institut furAuslandsbeziehungen, Stuttgart © Adagp, Paris, 2018

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