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?
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