Significant Others: Creativity and Intimate Partnership

edited by Whitney Chadwick & Isabelle de Courtivron

Thames and Hudson 1994 256 pp.

Copyright © Steven E. Alford


Our cherished view of the artist is an isolated soul who, from the crucible of his or her suffering emerges Art. Yet alongside the urge to create is another, possibly stronger impulse, the desire for an intimate relationship. Isolation and intimacy, individual creation and intimate, shared union-does the presence of a partner enhance or inhibit artistic creation and personal growth? Significant Others: Creativity and Intimate Partnership seeks an answer to this question by examining thirteen famous couples, painters and writers all, whose variegated lives remind us that even among artists, erotic passion obeys no general rules.

Edited by Whitney Chadwick and Isabelle de Courtivron, Significant Others covers the partnership waterfront: heterosexual relationships, May-December romances and marriages, lesbian and gay unions, and interracial couples all are examined, a talented collection of drunks, erotomanes, experimenters, their only common bond being their menage a trois with the unforgiving mistress of Art. How does marriage impact artistic work? Does the "marriage blip" make the aesthetic edifice tremble and crash, or reinforce it more solidly?

The imagined danger in many modern artist couples is that the woman's artistic growth and social presence will be obscured, owing to the male-dominated society we live in. This was certainly the experience of Frida Kahlo, wife of Diego Rivera. Rivera, painter of what Edward Dahlberg called "cafeteria serape murals," found world-wide fame with his socialist representations of workers. It has taken a new generation of feminist scholars to uncover Kahlo's distinctive, body-centered work that reflects on dreams, her own damaged body, and, inevitably, her relation with Rivera.

By contrast, we can see (in the contribution of local celebrity critic Bernard Benstock) how a relationship between a powerful, well-known male artist can actually assist a developing female writer: Dashiell Hammett's relentless perfectionism drove Lillian Hellman to greater artistic achievement than otherwise in their creatively reinforcing, though tempestuous union. Like Clara Malraux, Hellman's relationship with Hammett marked her work long after their erotic union had cooled.

While Hammett and Hellman's struggles were often literally physical, we see in André and Clara Malraux a fascinating literary struggle for control over the story of their relationship. André, proponent of "the ethic of action grounded in the pure space of male pursuits," a man who once said of Clara, "better to be my wife than a second-rate writer," found himself married to a woman who refused to be obscured by his fame, who insisted on his historical and literary importance within their relationship.

Jackson Pollock and Lee Krasner's relationship gives form to the "action widow" stereotype, the painter's widow who makes a career from guarding her husband's work following his death. Jack the Dripper, "freewheeling, handsome, inarticulate, white, Protestant, Western-born," and Krasner, "urban, Eastern, Jewish, the daughter of immigrants, homely capable, good with money, a wily bargainer and strategist, intellectually competent but lacking in 'inner fire'": since Pollock's senseless, drunken death in 1956, the story of their relationship has been configured by conflict between Krasner and Pollock's critics, both of whom have something to gain or lose in just how their story is told. Ultimately, for Anne M. Wagner, their story transcends the individual details to reflect on the act of biography itself.

Virginia Woolf's lesbian affair with Vita Sackville-West, the little known gay relationship between Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg, the interracial union of Simon and André Schwarz-Bart, as well as several of the brightest lights of painterly modernism are also discussed in this useful work. Both contributors and editors had the good sense to refrain from placing these essays into an ideological strait jacket, and instead allow the lives to speak for themselves.