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Does Bad Romance Lead to Great Art?

A London exhibition looks at the art that came out of the twentieth century’s most tumultuous relationships. But is it only within the context of romantic unrest that the best art can be made? It was a Friday evening in 1914 and the American novelist and playwright Natalie Clifford Barney was throwing a garden party in Paris. Throughout the decades, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Truman Capote, and Marcel Proust would all drop by, but Barney’s salons were particularly known as gathering places for lesbian and bisexual women. That night, the painter Romaine Brooks had, true to character, shown up alone. An American born in Rome, Brooks was already becoming known for her uniquely dark and somber portraits of women. That Friday—and over the course of many Friday salons—in the cool of Barney’s garden, she and Brooks fell in love and would remain so for the rest of their lives. However, their disagreements, which became famous in their circle, often exploded in their art—to great creative success. Brooks was a loner—she disliked parties and much of the social jockeying on which Barney thrived. Barney, on the other hand, adored social energy and refused to have a monogamous relationship. She dated a string of other women, including Élisabeth de Gramont (a descendant of Henry IV of France) as well as the socialites Janine Lahovary and Dolly Wilde (niece of Oscar), which put pressure on her relationship with Brooks.

NATALIE CLIFFORD BARNEY (LEFT) AND ROMAINE BROOKS (RIGHT)

But the challenges of their relationship were also at the core of their many artistic breakthroughs. When Brooks met the Italian heiress and socialite Luisa Casati at one of Barney’s parties, she channeled her jealousy into a lustful, hypersexualized, and remarkably original portrait in which Brooks depicts Casati exposing herself in a black cape, her hair and nipples a fiery red. In an earlier portrait of Ida Rubinstein, an heiress and Russian ballerina, Brooks allowed the other side of her relationship with Barney to shine through: Brooks depicted Rubinstein looking off into the distance while remaining unbowed by the winds and clouds around her—a stoic strength seemingly derived from the lasting love and respect she had for Barney. Not all romantic turmoil translates into genius, but for nearly all artists, affairs of the heart leave a mark on their oeuvre. “Modern Couples: Art, Intimacy, and the Avant-garde,” an exhibition that I saw at the Centre Pompidou-Metz outside Paris (opening soon at the Barbican in London) explores how more than forty artistic couples—from Jean Arp and Sophie Taeuber-Arp to Camille Claudel and Auguste Rodin to Brooks and Barney—aided or destroyed their partner’s creativity. The show does not answer the question of whether some of these artists would have been better off without their partners, or whether their partners were crucial to their work. It does, however, imply that it is only in especially difficult and fraught relationships that exceptional creativity is channeled. In the case of Brooks and Barney, their relationship was difficult, often desperately so, but it ultimately served to benefit both of their careers. For a couple like Pablo Picasso and Dora Maar, it would seem that one member of the relationship benefited disproportionately—perhaps many of the women in these relationships would have been better off without their man. (There is, of course, a vital difference between a partner who is a fellow artist and a partner who is a muse: a muse is rarely an equal.) Most interesting is the question of whether great art derives primarily from romantic collaboration or domination—that is, in romantic ease or unease—because it is most often the latter that receives our focus and our mythologizing. Read the rest of this essay at The Paris Review. Cover image: “The Wounded Deer,” Frida Kahlo, 1946
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