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A shared passion: The creative couples exploding the myth of solitary genius

Posted on 11 Aug 2018

Artists and writers are sometimes portrayed as solitary figures, and artistic couples have often been overlooked. 'Significant Others' explores the curious dynamics of thirteen great partnerships.

© Tate Gallery Archive (Vanessa Bell Photograph Collection) Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant, Asheham, ca.1913-14

Ever since Giorgio Vasari wrote his heroising biographies of the Renaissance masters in the mid-16th century, the myth of the artist as solitary genius has prevailed, gaining momentum in the 19th century when an increasing number of impoverished artists struggled in their Paris garrets. If artists are solitary, then they are also men, a set of assumptions that automatically places those around them – usually women – in subordinate roles, as muse, or domestic support, their own creative efforts easily dismissed as second-rate, derivative or even downright delusional.

Though the painter Robert Delaunay enjoyed a mutually enriching creative relationship with his wife Sonia, her work, over the years, has received only patchy recognition and was completely ignored by the American collector Solomon R. Guggenheim, who though an enthusiastic collector of Robert’s paintings, consistently overlooked Sonia’s work on his visits to their studio.

Sonia and Robert Delaunay in front of his painting, Propeller, 1923.

While Sonia achieved commercial success in her lifetime, her work has typically been defined as craft, a designation that limits her embroidery, dress design, curtains and lampshades to the domestic and feminine, a realm separate, and secondary to the male preserve of high art. Such a separation did not exist within Robert and Sonia’s relationship with each other however, and Whitney Chadwick, writing in Significant Others, a book that reappraises artistic relationships through a series of case studies, describes the Delaunays’ ‘synergistic creativity’. The relationship between Sonia’s abstract quilt design of 1911 and Robert’s paintings, provides an example, and she writes: ‘The quilt’s rich surface of liberated forms and colors is imprinted in Robert Delaunay’s groundbreaking series of paintings titled Windows, begun in 1912.’ Each pursued their own distinct aims, but there is such exchange and sympathy between their work that they are best understood with reference to each other, something that can only be achieved by putting aside traditional ideas about male and female roles, and the rigid categories applied to different types of creative work.

If traditional gender roles have denied Sonia Delaunay her rightful place in art history, the relationship between Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera offers a yet more striking example of how female creativity can be pushed into a cul-de-sac, not least through the attitudes expressed by women themselves in relation to the value of their work and roles. While Kahlo has achieved posthumous fame, in her lifetime she was less well known, and to an extent she encouraged the view that she was an amateur to Rivera’s professional, her work preoccupied with the personal and the domestic, his with public works on a monumental scale. Having once professed that her ambition was to have Rivera’s child, Kahlo seemed almost to wilfully subjugate herself, Hayden Herrera observing that while painting was undoubtedly the centre of Rivera’s life, ‘the centre of Kahlo’s life was Rivera’. She painted, she said, because she was ‘bored as hell in bed,’ following the road accident that left her needing multiple operations and with lifelong injuries.

Vita Sackville-West, with a photograph of Virginia Woolf on her desk, Sissinghurst Casstle, 1930s Inset, Virginia Woolf, late 1920s.

Women’s creative lives have been constrained by traditional gender roles, but also by the norms that have governed sexuality and family structure. Virginia Woolf’s relationship with her husband, Leonard, is usually given most emphasis and yet Louise DeSalvo describes the relationship between her and Vita Sackville-West as, ‘the most significant and long lasting in each of their lives.’ The importance typically attached to her marriage has endured, suggests DeSalvo, ‘because Virginia and Leonard Woolf corresponded to narrow but acceptable gender roles’. But as their example demonstrates so well, it is only by looking beyond such social constructions that the unique energy existing between creative couples can be understood, and so the achievements of each partner be fully understood.

Words by Florence Hallett.

Significant Others

Creativity and Intimate Partnership Professor Whitney Chadwick, Isabelle de Courtivron