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Books: Dangerous (artistic) liaisons examined

A poet married to a painter reviews a survey of creative partnerships including Ernst and Carrington, Pollock and Krasner, Rodin and Claudel, and more

Not all the "others" in this series of thirteen studies of creative partnerships are women, for not all the couples are heterosexual, but there is no major woman artist who is helped and stimulated by a minor male, though there could have been such an item if Virginia Woolf had been paired with Leonard Woolf instead of with Vita Sackville-West. But the few years of the lesbian relationship may well have been the more liberating and fruitful; it resulted in "Orlando", at any rate. Some of these essays make depressing reading, sometimes because unjustified claims are made for the eclipsed partner. I do not find it easy to take Leonora Carrington's works as seriously as Max Ernst's, though she had interesting ideas and the influence between them was in both directions; and to read about Lee Krasner and Jackson Pollock is an occasion for hand-wringing. Pollock's friends, or toadies, attempted to magnify their "great man" by diminishing his woman. And Kay Sage was obviously thought, by the Breton party, to have bought her way into the company of the Surrealists, and perhaps she had. Love, in such beleaguered unions as Tanguy and Sage, or Pollock and Krasner, must have involved considerable suffering.

The most tragic story is the earliest, of the gifted sculptor Camille Claudel. She worked in Rodin's studio, often on his major commissions, and became his mistress. In her insistence on breaking away and being accepted on her own merits, she became so paranoid, reclusive and eccentric that her brother Paul thought it fit that she should be incarcerated for the last thirty years of her life, though she did no one any harm. If only she could, as a girl, have travelled freely about Europe and studied the tradition for herself instead of having it filtered down to her by an older and already famous man, she might have learned to formalise her sensitive and emotional works. She should also have been influenced by her contemporaries, and taken part in the revival of direct carving, and not have been in thrall to the parent generation.

There are, though, happier partnerships in this selection. Robert and Sonia Delaunay were equals, and Sonia shines out of the text as triumphantly creative and fulfilled. Vanessa Bell managed not to sacrifice life to art, or art to life, and nor did she cause Duncan Grant to sacrifice homosexuality to conventional marriage. Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo were not equals as artists, but they were equal as people, and the Schwartz-Barts come across as one of the most beautiful partnerships.

André Schwartz-Bart was the young Jewish author of "The Last of the Just", which was all I knew of him until I read Ronnie Scharman's essay; and his wife, Simone, is a black woman from Guadaloupe. Both of them are servants of their art and servants of truth, devoted to restoring to life the tragic histories of their people. It is a popular belief that art is about the expression of the personality, showing it off, but the artist should disappear into the art, like Shakespeare or the great Romanesque sculptors. Nevertheless, it is of value to acknowledge and encourage those that live and work in the shade.

Eds. Whitney Chadwick and Isabella de Courtivron "Significant others: creativity and intimate partnership" (Thames and Hudson, London, 1993) 256 pp. 76 b/w ills. £14.95

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Ernst and Carrington, Pollock and Krasner, Rodin and Claudel ...'