We've all heard stories about artists who sacrificed marriage, family and the ease of the bourgeoisie to dedicate their lives to art. Hackneyed tales of inspired creators who chose love over craft are just as common: Our hero, or heroine, stares past a lovingly poured cup of morning coffee, haunted by that nagging question — "What if?" Surely there must be a way for creative inspiration and amorous association to coexist?
In her new book Artists in Love: From Picasso & Gilot to Christo & Jeanne-Claude — a Century of Creative and Romantic Partnerships, Nashville-based writer and curator Veronica Kavass offers almost 30 profiles of couples creating. Readers are treated to: Pablo Picasso's almost-decade-long relationship with painter and writer Francoise Gilot; the storied, stormy love of Jackson Pollock and Lee Krasner; and the ongoing partnership of Ilya and Emilia Kabakov. Some of Kavass' profiles are filled with sweetness, while others are clearly cautionary tales. Alongside the portrait photographs and art images that make up the other half of this coffee-table-ready volume, Kavass' prose walks a steady line between the scholarly research and analysis of an art historical tome and the sexy, sensational dishing one might expect from a book called Artists in Love.
Artists is arranged chronologically by the year each couple first connected. It begins with painter Wassily Kandinsky and his student, Gabriele Münter. When their flirtation blossomed into a love affair, Kandinsky and Münter were torn by their attraction to one another and their mutual dedication to their individual art practices. Kandinsky was also, inconveniently, married.
This very first profile might confound a reader's expectations of a book titled Artists in Love — Kandinsky was a pioneering giant of abstract painting while Münter was a minor German expressionist known for her colorful landscapes. Such inequalities are not confined to Artists' couple's studios – the book is brimming with jealousy, infidelity and divorce. Kandinsky left his wife for Münter, but never married her, and she was eventually passed over when Kandinsky took a new wife. These threadbare examples of "artists in love" are jarring at first, but who wants to read only about happy people effortlessly making great art? This book is more interesting than that. Without indulging more shock than is necessary, Kavass understands that while a reader might be moved by Jeanne-Claude's confession that her "life began" the day she met her husband and creative partner Christo, we also want to read about how Jackson Pollock's "intoxicated theatrics" found him crossed off his friends' party-guest lists.
Pollock and Krasner make their appearance in Artists along with other well-known creative couples like Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, Alfred Stieglitz and Georgia O'Keeffe, Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg, and Willem and Elaine de Kooning — Hans Namuth's nearly-30-years-apart photographs of the long-lasting de Koonings is one of the book's delights. Kavass' profiles are short — mostly a few pages long — and while her musings on these more familiar matches cover equally familiar ground, they are — of course — indispensable to the book's subject, and they ground Artists' earlier, less-well-known duos in a comfortable context.
According to the book's profile of Sonia and Robert Delaunay, the relationship's balance shifted in favor of the female partner. Kavass writes that Sonia was suspected to be "the brains behind their artistic enterprise," and when her cubist quilts and textile works became a big hit, Robert was overcome with jealousy. However, Sonia always championed their output as being the product of a team of equals.
Josef and Anni Albers met at the Bauhaus school, but it's a photo of the pair at Black Mountain College in North Carolina that gives the book its most endearing portrait. The couple provide one of the best examples of a pair of creative equals — with Josef's impact on abstract painting matched by Anni's becoming arguably the most recognized textile artist of the past century.
Some of Kavass' sections are short and sharp, and others are more buoyant. There's a lot of variety here, and the best approach to the book is to pick and choose from the spectrum of lives and works on display the way one might pass by one painting in a gallery to linger in front of the next.
Poet/artist Hans (Jean) Arp and artist/performer Sophie Taeuber-Arp were, Kavass writes, "the Dada king and queen." Sophie would dance wildly during Hans' recitations, decked out in the outrageous costumes and props she created. The pair referred to their collaborations as "duo-collages," and Kavass writes, "Sophie never ceased to impress Hans with her ability to give a 'direct palpable shape to her inner reality.' " They are my favorite example of the book's pairing of amour and art: The normally prolific Sophie barely made any work during the couple's separation in the early 1920s, and Hans checked himself into a monastery following Sophie's accidental death by a carbon monoxide leak from a faulty oven in 1943. Now that's an artful love.