Free rad­i­cals Lara Feigel

Have cou­ples in their 30s sold out, choos­ing monogamy over sex­ual ex­per­i­men­ta­tion – and can artists and writ­ers sug­gest a dif­fer­ent way?

The Guardian - Review - - Arts Essay -

In 1919 the Ger­man Dada artist Raoul Haus­mann dis­missed mar­riage as “the pro­jec­tion of rape into law”. It’s a state­ment that rel­ishes its own vi­o­lence: he is lim­ber­ing up to fight mar­riage to the death. A strange mix­ture of dandy, wild man, provo­ca­teur and so­cial en­gi­neer, Haus­mann be­lieved that the so­cial­ist rev­o­lu­tion the Dadaists sought couldn’t be at­tained with­out a cor­re­spond­ing sex­ual rev­o­lu­tion. And he lived as he preached. He was mar­ried, but was also in a four-year re­la­tion­ship with fel­low artist Han­nah Höch.

Haus­mann and Höch form one of the cou­ples in the Bar­bican’s Mod­ern Cou­ples ex­hi­bi­tion, which shows the free­wheel­ing ex­per­i­men­ta­tion of in­ter­war art to be in­sep­a­ra­ble from even more ex­trav­a­gant ex­per­i­ments in sex­u­al­ity and cou­ple­dom. The ex­hi­bi­tion in­cludes sev­eral of the partly whim­si­cal, partly grim col­lages Höch made at this time. Bob­bing her hair and smok­ing in pub­lic, Höch was a self-styled “new woman” who shared Haus­mann’s car­ni­va­lesque con­tempt for bour­geois moral­ity. Her Bour­geois Wed­ding Cou­ple (Quar­rel) pho­tomon­tage from 1919 satirises the mar­ried pair as un­gainly chil­dren. The bride teeters on the boots of a grown-up woman, but she has the body of a man­nequin and the face of an over­grown baby whose tantrum is ob­served by her child­like spouse.

How­ever, the al­ter­na­tive to bour­geois mar­riage wasn’t ob­vi­ously promis­cu­ity for Höch in the way it was for Haus­mann. Years later, she de­scribed be­ing “dis­ap­pointed, crushed, de­stroyed” by the dou­ble stan­dards of the Dadaist men, who wanted to free women while re­main­ing ob­du­rately pa­tri­ar­chal. At the time, she wrote a short story about an artist called Got­thold Heav­en­lyk­ing­dom who un­der­goes a spir­i­tual cri­sis when his wife asks him to do the dishes. She also made The Fa­ther, de­pict­ing Haus­mann as a male mother (Haus­mann’s own face looms over fe­male legs) hold­ing a small baby who’s about to be hit in the eye by a boxer. The por­trait is partly a com­ment on Haus­mann’s dou­ble stan­dards. Though he urged Höch to have his child, it was clear he wouldn’t be hold­ing the baby or pro­tect­ing his new prog­eny from harm.

Höch went on to have a re­la­tion­ship with a woman, the Dutch writer Til Brug­man. She wanted to pro­vide “a model of how two women can form a sin­gle rich and bal­anced life”. Their nine years to­gether were a lot more peace­ful than the years with Haus­mann. Was her new re­la­tion­ship hap­pier be­cause of the gen­der equal­ity? Or be­cause she was no longer ex­per­i­ment­ing with free love? Is it pos­si­ble to live out Haus­mann’s vi­sion of sex­ual free­dom and be happy?

Ques­tions of this kind are in­vited by the Bar­bican ex­hi­bi­tion, which gives vis­ual form to a kind of sex­ual mu­si­cal chairs. The sur­re­al­ists lived out their com­mit­ment to the pri­macy of de­sire by tak­ing new sex­ual part­ners with ease. We find Max Ernst cou­pled with Dorothy Tan­ning and Leonora Car­ring­ton here, Valen­tine Pen­rose with Roland Pen­rose and Alice Ra­hon, Lee Miller with Man Ray and Roland Pen­rose. Mean­while the Rus­sian con­struc­tivists put for­ward a vi­sion of rev­o­lu­tion very like Haus­mann’s in which women as well as the pro­le­tariat were to be freed of their chains and mar­riage was to be con­signed to the scrapheap of his­tory. The ex­hi­bi­tion in­cludes a room on Lilya and Osip Brik, who lived in a 15-year mé­nage à trois with the poet Vladimir Mayakovsky, un­til he killed him­self in 1930.

The wall and cat­a­logue texts re­main stud­iedly neu­tral about this death and the many other sui­cides they re­port. Were these the costs of ex­per­i­ment? The Bar­bican show doesn’t quite de­cide how we should sit­u­ate our­selves: are we voyeurs from a nos­tal­gic but dis­ap­prov­ing fu­ture, or par­tic­i­pants in a con­tin­ual present? Have we moved on from this era or failed to live up to it? And does a vi­sion fail just be­cause it ends?

I have won­dered through­out my 30s if my gen­er­a­tion has sold out, count­ing my­self among its ranks. Around me, ev­ery­one has seemed to be get­ting mar­ried with the ex­pec­ta­tion of monogamy; we’ve de­vel­oped the no­tion of “cheat­ing” in place of the no­tion of free­dom; even the gay cou­ples I know seem to as­pire to some­thing very like a tra­di­tional mar­riage. The women I grew up ad­mir­ing – Vir­ginia Woolf, Si­mone de Beau­voir, Doris Less­ing – chose not to live in this way. They ex­pected love to be some­thing more rad­i­cal. Mag­gie Nel­son writes about the ta­per­ing off of risk in The Arg­onauts , her bril­liant, pas­sion­ate yet coldly an­a­lyt­i­cal ac­count of the process that led to moth­er­ing a child with the trans­gen­der artist Harry Dodge. She de­scribes the nos­tal­gia for an ear­lier era of ho­mo­sex­ual life that leads some gay men to seek erotic ad­ven­tures in coun­tries where ho­mo­sex­u­al­ity is banned. They’re look­ing for the thrill of dan­ger.

The sur­re­al­ists lived out their com­mit­ment to the pri­macy of de­sire by tak­ing new sex­ual part­ners with ease

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