EXHIBITION: Friendship  

Two separate exhibitions this autumn have similar themes. Graham Hooper visited both and gives us his insight into the friendship and relationships, as presented through art.

One academic year ends, another begins. Older colleagues retire and new staff fill their roles. Students leave school for college and leave college for work or another course. This cycle of beginning and end can feel disorientating and tinged with sadness in equal measure, but what satisfies and consoles us even is the quality of what are often lasting relationships. It is the people, those individual personalities, that we share time with, that help us through hard times and alongside whom we enjoy common celebrations.

So it is pertinent that this autumn a mixed show of work from some of the Twentieth Century’s most renown and significant artistic pairings is gathered together at London’s Barbican gallery (Modern Couples: Art, Intimacy and the Avant-garde – 10 October 2018 to 27 January 2019). As if to chime in harmony the National Portrait Gallery has its own display of similarly themed works on show (Picturing Friendship – 30 June 2018 – 13 May 2019, Room 16, Floor 2).

The shows buddy-up by both concentrating on relationships that have formed as a result of mutual goals, and over time spent in each other’s company. But the Barbican’s efforts have been spent on researching and then explaining with care the labours of these often deeply symbiotic and intertwined couples as they bear out creatively. Picasso and his lover and muse Dora Maar are one example, whilst at the other end of the spectrum, fiery and almost combative in their rivalry, there are Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera. These lives and productivity are documented through a rich mix of art work and historic artifacts (love letters, photographs, diaries and the like) that fill out the frame and enliven our understanding and respect for the intense communities of which they appear to have so often been a part. It’s impressive to see such a range too, spanning time and geography. I was familiar with the Bloomsbury Group of writers and artists (represented here by the likes of Duncan Grant, Vanessa Bell and Roger Fry) but much less so by numerous others that have been ignored or at least rather overlooked in the history of modern art.

Meanwhile the National Portrait Gallery’s room brings together paintings and photographs from as recent as 2002 and as far back as 1554, focusing much more specifically on friendship. Interestingly, certainly the more recent pairings depicted centre on celebrity, and cover a variety of fields; there are comedy duos, musicians, sportsmen and women, artists and actors. Being well-known as they are, and as such recognisable in the public consciousness, one hones in on the relationships as inferred in their facial expression and body posture. Looking most specifically at the photographs too, some candid, others posed (and shot by similarly high-profile individuals such as Terry O’Neill), it becomes fascinating to ‘read’ the images for indications of mood or attitude of those depicted.

So, in the Barbican’s show, whilst we do not see portraits of Barbara Hepworth or Ben Nicholson we may well have some knowledge of the St. Ives school of painters of the post-war generation. Instead we see two pieces, made just three years apart, that demonstrate remarkable crossovers in form and style. Nicholson’s ‘Relief’ of 1934 (made of cardboard) is paired with Hepworth’s ‘Conoid, Sphere and Hollow III’ from 1937, in marble. It is unfortunate and anyway unfair and inaccurate, judging by the dates of these works alone, to assume that as one predates the other, and that Nicholson’s comes first, that he had influenced her. What I think is important here is to recognise a consistency and coherence in their shared sensibility. Living in the same place, at the same time, meeting and talking regularly, and crucially too, open to the same inspirational forces of the day, and obviously the power of the Cornish landscape, or the dominant artistic styles from Europe. The influence of Jean Arp and Naum Gabo (European modernist sculptors) are clear: a blurring of the lines between two- and three-dimensions, the narrow and specific colour schemes, the use of line and curve to delineate forms. What is of note in these two works is the fact that Nicholson has chosen to reflect something of St. Ives’ topography – his piece is very suggestive of the sun setting and rising over the rooftops of the small Cornish fishing village with the sea’s horizon behind – and that he has chosen to do so using such humble materials as cardboard. Hepworth has chosen marble, a medium much closer to the stone she will have found on the beaches, alongside pebbles and shells, which we know fed powerfully into her subject matter for their shapes as much as their associations. But here again, the harder geometries of those European artists is very evident. So, the relationships between these figures is rich, sophisticated and complex, as all relationships are ultimately. Hepworth and Nicholson were married between 1938 and 1951, so these two pieces represent a particular time in their personal lives, before their relationship was formalized, and in their lives as artists. They had visited the studios of Arp, Picasso and Constantin Brancusi in 1933 during a trip to France.

The St. Ives ‘School’, as it is termed, is a loose term in some regards. The members themselves, if members is even a useful term, seem never to have regarded themselves as part of a group. But there are widely recognised commonalties between them all and being such a tightly-knit community geographically it is hard to imagine how such a collection of such highly creative and productive individuals could fail to pollinate each other’s imaginations. But St. Ives, as I have said, is not the only place to have housed such an artistic well-spring, and other cities, especially in the North, predominantly industrial as well, have encouraged and supported similar hotbeds of creativity. But St. Ives, being as it is relatively small and at the time rather unassuming, feels all the more special for it. I think too it is interesting and useful to feel how the physicality of the location, its unique light or landscape, can impact on an artists work, as we see here in these pieces.

There are two photographs in the National gallery’s exhibition of artists, which provide quite striking contrasts, after all the similarities of Hepworth and Nicholson. One is a photograph of the London painters (Frank Auerbach, Lucien Freud and David Hockney) at a dinner party, a very intimate setting indeed. So, rather than see them working in their studios or even their paintings themselves, we seem them sitting together socially, conversing late into the night over food and drinks, as we imagine artists do. Two figures on the near side of the table, in silhouette and with their backs to us (are they the hosts?) provide visual bookends to the artists, who are back lit in warm light from a golden light by the wall. Curtains either side offer a sense of theatricality to this scene, as if we are backstage and privy to an after-show party. Oh, to be sat there and to listen in to their conversations. Were they in-depth, heated society gossip or inane and argumentative? Who knows. They certainly had some stories to tell between them. But to think, and now know thanks to this documentary evidence, that they met, makes sense and helps us to better understand the inter-relationships between them. Whilst I wouldn’t want to suggest that all artists as tortured, isolated souls in desperate need of positive and mutual affirmation it is probably fair to say that like-minded individuals (I’ll say personalities here actually) seek out others with which to connect.

The other photograph of artists that strikes us is one of three young women artists taken in 1996, and very much at the start of their careers (rather than in their latter years as with Freud, Hockney and Auerbach). Tracey Emin, infamous for her bed, dances with fellow artists Gillian Wearing. Only two years before this picture was taken Wearing had come to public attention with her performance “Dancing In Peckham”, where she grooves to ‘silent’ music in a shopping centre, seemingly without any response from passers-by! But dancing is better when it’s with friends. Even when the weather is grey and cold, as it can be even in the summer by the sea, there is something about being with friends that ignores the world beyond the social sphere. You are free, you are safe, you are welcome and valued. Other pictures in this small collection re-affirm these ideas of mutual support, shared affection, camaraderie… a picture of David Bowie and Elizabeth Taylor enjoying a hug is as unusual (what a unexpected couple!) as it is everyday for its gesture.

Find a friend, take them to an art gallery, look at some wonderful pictures and remember that, as time passes and situations change, friendship is an anchor providing stability and reassurance, as commemorated in these shows, when everything else around us can seem in constant flux.

London’s Barbican Gallery: Modern Couples: Art, Intimacy and the Avant-garde – 10 October 2018 to 27 January 2019

National Portrait Gallery: Picturing Friendship – 30 June 2018 – 13 May 2019, Room 16, Floor 2


IMAGE ABOVE: 23. A. Rodchenko and V. Stepanova descending from the airplane, 1926, Rodchenko and Stepanova Archives, Moscow