Steamy, Sensual, Scandalous - 6 Love stories that shaped the art world.
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“Despite all the troubles of our world, in my heart I have never given up on the love in which I was brought up or on man's hope in love. In life, just as in the artist's palette there is but one single color that gives meaning to life and art - the color of love ” - Marc Chagall
Walk into any store this week, and you might assume that love is all about teddy bears, balloons, pink greeting cards, and stale chocolate.
In February, love abounds, romance is romanticized and I thought you might be curious to see what love looks like in the art world.
Love affairs can be an art form when two creative spirits become romantically entangled. Art history is saturated with great love stories of artists who inspired each other, formed intensive partnerships in love and their art, and propelled each other and the world around them.
In honor of Valentine’s Day, I wanted to share six of the complicated, messy, and inspiring stories of famous artists’ love affairs—and how they shaped masterpieces of art history.
Marc and Bella Chagall
Marc Chagall was a well-known painter from Vitebsk, Russia who often depicted his wife, Bella, in his paintings. They fell for each other in 1909 in Saint Petersburg. Bella Rosenfeld was the 19-year-old daughter of a wealthy Russian jeweler. Marc Chagall, seven years her senior, was a painter still attending art school. They both said it was love at first sight.
Rosenfeld, who was to become a talented writer, described how Chagall looked on their first encounter: “When you did catch a glimpse of his eyes, they were as blue as if they’d fallen straight out of the sky. They were strange eyes … Long, almond-shaped … And each seemed to sail along by itself, like a little boat.”
Marc’s paintings depicted the crazy feeling of falling head over heels. The paintings usually show him and Bella flying together or floating away, which is meant to symbolize the joy and passion of new love. It’s as if the love they shared was stronger than gravity itself.
n 1911, Chagall left for Paris to study art from the leading artists of his day, leaving Rosenfeld in Russia. However, he didn’t speak French and the beginnings were very tough., He stayed in Paris until 1914 when he couldn’t last any longer without his fiancée, who was still in Vitebsk. “He thought about her day and night”, writes Baal-Teshuva, the artist’s biographer.
The next challenge was to convince Rosenfeld’s parents that he would be a suitable husband for their daughter. He had to demonstrate that despite being just a painter from a poor family he would be able to support her. They married in 1915 and Rosenfeld quickly became Chagall’s primary muse who featured on his canvases for the rest of his life.
In 1916 they had a daughter, Ida, however, that didn’t stop Rosenfeld from acting as her husband’s manager. After the end of WWI, they moved to France where Chagall could spread his painterly wings.
The years passed and WWII broke out. With the help of their daughter, the couple escaped to the United States. Yet, suddenly, Rosenfeld died of a viral infection that went untreated due to the wartime shortage of medicine. The grieving Chagall stopped all work for many months.
When he began creating again, his first pictures were concerned with preserving Rosenfeld’s memory. Moreover, he kept her notebook which he decorated with illustrations for the next 20 years! He filled the blank pages with movingly colorful portraits of them together.
Marina Abramović and Ulay
Marina Abramović and Ulay met in Amsterdam in 1976. Their meeting immediately sparked an intense and long-lasting connection between the two, both as lovers and as artistic partners. Referring to one another as “the other” and “parts of a two-headed body,” their synchronized creativity resulted in over a decade of collaborations that explored themes of ego and artistic identity. The couple even shares the same birthday.
In 1988, after ten years together, Abramović and Ulay decided to mark the end of their romantic journey with an art project called The Lovers: The Great Wall Walk, in which both artists walked from separate ends of the Great Wall of China, meeting in the middle to say goodbye. It took a whopping 90 days for both Abramović and Ulay to meet in the center of the wall, and they didn’t see each other again till 2010. Why the couple broke up is unknown, but how they broke up is at least very poetic and somewhat hopeful.
In 2010, after more than 20 years of not speaking to each other, Ulay surprised Abramović in an emotional reunion during her performance “The Artist is Present” at the MoMA in New York City. “The Artist is Present” was a solo version of a shared couple's art piece they had done together for many years. Abramović would sit for hours on end, looking visitors sitting opposite her in the eye without pause. Even though Abramović’s goal was not to move during the meetings, when Ulay sat down opposite her, she started crying and they held hands before he left to let the next participant take part.
Though Ulay later sued Abramović for having breached a contract regarding their couple's artwork, they have made up and are close friends once again.
Georgia O’Keeffe & Alfred Stieglitz
Alfred Stieglitz met Georgia O’Keeffe when he was already married and at the top of his game. Twenty years her senior, Steiglitz, the photographer and gallerist was more than just a partner for the younger artist — he also served as her mentor. The two met when Stieglitz first encountered O’Keeffe’s work through a friend. They began writing to each other and Steiglitz offered to sponsor a visit to New York. He hosted O’Keeffe, a then-unknown painter, in her first group show at his Gallery 291 in May 1916. A year later, O’Keeffe had her first solo show at the gallery.
Alfred Stieglitz's significance lies as much in his work as an art dealer, exhibition organizer, publisher, and editor as it does in his career as a photographer. He founded an exhibition gallery called 291 which was the first of its kind to place paintings and photographs on the same aesthetic plane. It exhibited Stieglitz's work alongside the art of other American and European modernists.
Over the years, O’Keeffe collaborated with Stieglitz on some three hundred portrait studies. In its physical scope, primal sensuality, and psychological power, Stieglitz’s serial portrait of O’Keeffe has no equal in American art. Forty-five of the total 329 photographs depict O'Keeffe in the nude. In many of the photographs, Stieglitz crops her body, leaving just a naked torso or fetishized body parts. This series was O'Keeffe's unveiling to the public. She became famous for three reasons: her art, her husband's photographs of her, and his insistence that she was the painter of womanhood.
They were together for 30 years, and they had a decisive influence on one another. Throughout their time together, there was a creative call and response between the two artists, who often portrayed the same landscapes or buildings in their work. In 1923, Stieglitz photographed the sun shining through the clouds, with O’Keeffe nowhere to be seen — but he named the image “Portrait of Georgia No. 3.” The following year, she countered with her own sky-inspired work, “A Celebration” — a dreamy oil painting of clouds on canvas, which is thought to be a romantic tribute to their relationship.
O’Keeffe’s talents eventually led her to New Mexico, and the couple’s relationship consisted of little more than love letters sent back and forth until his death. In the summer of 1929, when O’Keeffe traveled to New Mexico and Stieglitz remained in New York, he wrote to her three, four, or five times a day, letters up to 40 pages in length. Stieglitz suffered a fatal stroke in the summer of 1946, while O'Keeffe was away on one of her long sojourns to the Southwest.
In 1949, three years after Stieglitz's death, O'Keeffe moved permanently to New Mexico. Georgia O’Keeffe died in Santa Fe on March 6, 1986, at the age of 98.
Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera
Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera first met when Kahlo approached Rivera as an art student, seeking advice on her career. Though he was already married, the two fell in love and got married in 1929 when Kahlo was just 22 and Rivera, 43. Theirs was a typical case of “I can’t live with you, but I can’t live without you.” Their relationship was filled with infidelities, heated arguments, and impossible tempers.
While separated from Diego following his affair with her sister, Frida had a short affair with the Japanese-American sculptor Isamu Noguchi. The two highly politically and socially conscious artists remained friends until Kahlo's death. Frida remarried Diego the very next year.
“I suffered two grave accidents in my life,” Kahlo once remarked. “One was the trolley, and the other was Diego. Diego was by far the worst.”
Diego Rivera was truly a larger-than-life figure who spent significant periods of his career in Europe and the U.S., in addition to his native Mexico. Rivera was among the leading members and founders of the Mexican Muralist movement. His style was informed as much by European modern masters as Mexico's pre-Columbian heritage, and executed in the technique of Italian fresco painting,
Rivera handled major themes appropriate to the scale of his chosen art form: social inequality; the relationship of nature, industry, and technology; and the history and fate of Mexico. Rivera believed an artist was a craftsman at the service of the community, who, as such, needed to employ an easily accessible visual language. This concept greatly influenced American public art, helping give rise to governmental initiatives such as Franklin Roosevelt's Federal Art Project of the Works Progress Administration,
In 1931, two years after they wed for the first time, Kahlo painted what appears to be a traditional wedding portrait. Titled "Frida and Diego Rivera" and now in the collection of San Francisco’s Museum of Modern Art. The image was created during their stay in San Francisco, where Rivera had been hired to paint a mural for the city’s stock market. Albert Bender, one of Rivera’s first American patrons, commissioned the painting from Kahlo. But even just two years in, their marriage was in turmoil. Rivera was involved in an intense affair with the American tennis star Helen Wills. In this painting Rivera holds a palette and paintbrushes, symbolic of his artistic mastery, Kahlo hints at their estrangement. Rivera’s body turns away from hers; their hands only slightly touch. She also alludes to the differences in their stature through dress: she is pictured in traditional Mexican attire, wearing a traditional red shawl known as the rebozo and jade Aztec beads while Rivera wears an American-style suit—a mark of his ease, comfort, and success amid worldwide acclaim. Kahlo limits her role to his wife by presenting herself slightly to his left, out of frame and without her artistic tools.
In a drawing made the following year called Frida and the Miscarriage, the artist does hold her palette, as though the experience of losing a fetus and not being able to create a baby shifts her determination wholly to the creation of art.
Despite being lauded as Mexico’s greatest living artist, Rivera always viewed his wife as more talented than himself. Between the years of 1940-1956, Frida often had to wear supportive back corsets to help her spinal problems, she also had an infectious skin condition, along with syphilis. She had a complicated operation to try to straighten her spine, but it failed and from 1950 onwards, she was often confined to a wheelchair.
Diego and Frida’s relationship lasted until Kahlo died in 1954, an event that her partner described as the most tragic moment of his life. Widowed and already sick with cancer, Rivera married for the third time in 1955 to Emma Hurtado, his art dealer and rights holder since 1946. Following a trip to the Soviet Union made in the hope of curing his cancer, Rivera died in Mexico in 1957 at age seventy. His wish to have his ashes mingled with those of Kahlo was not honored, and he was buried in the Rotunda of Famous Men of Mexico.
Joseph and Anni Albers
Joseph was the son of a working-class painter and decorator; Anni was a rich girl from Berlin. On her arrival at the Bauhaus in 1922, Anni (Anneliese Elsa Friedman Fleischmann) would meet Josef: 11 years her senior and at that point recently appointed junior master. Josef joined the Bauhaus in 1920, at the age of 32. He had already worked as a teacher in his hometown of Bottrop, and at the Royal School of Art in Berlin, and studied printmaking at the School of Arts and Crafts in Essen. He was also already exploring the glasswork for which he would become famous, receiving his first commission in 1918 for a stained-glass window at a church in Essen. Anni's plans at the Bauhaus went the way of many female students, pushed away from skills such as woodwork, sculpture, and painting, which Walter Gropius termed "heavier crafts", and towards its most "feminine" discipline: weaving. They married in 1925.
Menaced by the Nazis, in 1933 the Bauhaus closed its doors. The Albers had spent more than a decade teaching there, he as Meister of the foundation course, she as head of the weaving workshop. Desperate to leave Germany – Anni’s family were Jewish – they were offered jobs in a place neither had heard of: poring over an atlas, the pair had searched in vain for North Carolina in maps of the Philippines. The Bauhaus had been the world’s most renowned design school. The school they were to teach at had 30 students, was six months old, in the back of beyond, and completely unknown. It had no art department. It was called Black Mountain College.
While Black Mountain College existed for only twenty-three years, it left an indelible mark on the American art scene. Although Black Mountain's focus was not the training of professional artists, the emphasis placed on the centrality of art to everyday life, and its integrative and collaborative approach to art-making, attracted creative students and faculty in every media, from painting and literature to dance and architecture. Some of the most influential American artists of the twentieth century can be counted among its students and faculty, and the school's communal ethos was essential to the development of American arts and counterculture in the second half of the twentieth century.
At Black Mountain, invariably dressed in white, the Albers would be known as “male and female of the same species” Anni taught weaving and textile design, while Joseph headed the painting program. In 1949, the Museum of Modern Art, New York exhibited Anni Albers' work, making her the first designer to have a solo exhibition there. This show then traveled throughout America, showcasing her weavings to a large audience and cementing her reputation as the leading textile designer in the country.
In 1950, the Albers moved to New Haven, Connecticut, with Josef appointed head of design at Yale University. While lecturing at Yale, Albers began his most famous body of work, the series Homage to the Square, an exercise on the optical effects of color within the confines of a uniform square shape. and in 1963 he published “Interaction of Colour”, based on his theories of an internal logic governing color. These were accompanied by a series of high-profile glass and painted murals.
In America, the Albers found happiness as artists. They traveled extensively, across the USA, Mexico, and Europe. They were the only Bauhaus couple to have careers of equivalent status, the influence between them passing back and forth for 50 years. Both continued to be prolific artists, educators, and authors until their deaths, Josef in 1973 age 88, and Anni in 1994 age 94.
Willem and Elaine De Kooning
Elaine and Willem de Kooning were Abstract Expressionist artists who met in New York in 1938. Willem de Kooning was a Dutch artist who arrived in New York in 1926 as a stowaway on a ship. A friend introduced them, and it was love at first sight. She was outgoing, free-spirited, talented, a femme fatale. He was introverted and gloomy, obsessed with his work.
Willem gave Elaine strict, traditional drawing lessons which she has said provided her with the skills that built her confidence as a portrait painter. Elaine, convinced that Willem was a genius, soon began to promote his career – even if it meant having affairs with prominent art critics such as Harold Rosenberg. Her insistence on an open relationship with her husband and her hard drinking and smoking transgressed societal norms for what it meant to be a wife at the time.
Invited by Joseph Albers, the duo came for Black Mountain College’s Summer Session of 1948, with Willem teaching as a last-minute substitute. Though Elaine did not teach that summer, she was highly involved in the community activities of the college working on a series of paintings titled “Black Mountain Abstractions” and building relationships with others there that summer, including Buckminster Fuller, Josef Albers, John Cage, Merce Cunningham, and Arthur Penn. When Willem returned to New York in the fall, Elaine remained at the college for some time.
Willem De Kooning is best known for his abstract paintings of women. He worked on them over a nearly thirty-year period, starting in the early 1940s. These were made famous not only by a series of photographs taken by Rudy Burckhardt, but also by Thomas B. Hess' article "de Kooning Paints a Picture," in which he described the process of one painting's creation as a voyage that involved hundreds of revisions, several abandonments and restarts, and was only completed minutes before the work was loaded onto the truck to go to the gallery. Though Willem de Kooning was the more famous one of the pair, Elaine had an equally impressive career that is finally getting the attention it deserves, after years in the shadow of Willem de Kooning.
In her portraiture, Elaine de Kooning strove to capture the person's style, that thing which makes him or her immediately recognizable to their friends and acquaintances. From a whirl of gestural brushstrokes, a recognizable countenance emerges. Elaine was commissioned to do a portrait of President John F. Kennedy in 1962, because she represented the new frontier of painting, Abstract Expressionism, and because she was quick.
In 1957, the artists separated after too much drinking and too many affairs. In 1976, they got back together and Elaine took it upon herself to manage Willem’s studio and help him quit drinking (she was sober already).
By the end of the decade, de Kooning's memory began to be severely impaired, and he seemed to be suffering from Alzheimer's-like dementia. After Elaine de Kooning died in 1989, Willem came under the guardianship of his daughter, Lisa, until his death in 1997 at the age of 92.
I hope that love surrounds you this month and every month of the year. Whether you are in a steamy, scandalous, supportive, or sedate collaboration, I wish you the joy of knowing and exploring yourself through the lens of another. Love is generative and hopeful. It inspires every kind of art, music, writing, and performance. I hope that love inspires you to create more of what you would like to see in this world.
My mentorship, guidance, and advice are available to you for creating more love in and for your art in 2024. I am happy to share my insights and my knowledge with you.
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With Light and Delight