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11 wild romances that changed the course of the twentieth-century art history

A muse, a lover, and a rival. For artists who are in love, these three roles are often played by one person. No one can be sure what will happen if the creative spirit gets entangled with a love affair muddled as it is. When two kindred beings come together, it can sometimes result in long-lasting happiness of both. However, their union is rather likely to go up in flames of family drama, jealousy, and infidelity. Let us have a closer look at the eleven most breath-taking and history-making romances in the 20th century’s world of art.

Gala and Salvador Dalí

Against all the odds. When Gala and Salvador Dalí met in 1929, there seemed to be quite serious obstacles in the way of their relationship: she was ten years older than him, had a husband, the poet Paul Éluard, and a daughter from him. None of these could stop 25-year-old Dalí. The Russian émigrée captivated him completely. Later, he wrote, ‘She was destined to be my Gradiva, the one who moves forward, my victory, my wife.' However, for Dalí's father, this romance was something scandalising — enough to cut off all contact with his son and stop giving him money when the lovers got married in 1934. Their marriage, though, as if to put naysayers to shame, lasted till Gala died in 1982.
Salvador Dali. The Madonna Of Port Lligat

Salvador Dalí. The first version of The Madonna of Port Lligat. 1949. The Haggerty Museum of Art, Milwaukee

Muse and manager. The love that united them was far from conventional. Gala believed that Dalí was a genius, and he saw her as the source of all his creative inspiration and energy. For him, she was both a muse and a model, and was glorified as the Virgin Mary in his canvas The Madonna of Port Lligat (1949). She did not mind being number two in public, yet her husband’s success was largely due to her management of his sales, exhibitions, and finances.

Unorthodox agreements. Dalí made no secret of his phobia of sexual relationship. The problem was tackled by means of open marriage. The artist, not occasionally, encouraged his wife to find other sexual partners for herself. As the years went by, though, the situation only grew tense. The more time and money Gala spent on her lovers, the more Dalí was afraid of breaking up. At times, things even got so bad that there were acts of mutual violence. For decades, the painter lived bearing a grudge against his wife, but still, when she died at eighty-seven, he was utterly devastated. The rest of his life he spent in self-isolation.

Mikhail Larionov and Natalia Concharova

Open your eyes. They were born in 1881, their birthdays being a month apart — Mikhail Larionov's on 3 June, Natalia Goncharova's on 3 July. They went to the same School of Painting, Sculpture, and Architecture in Moscow. It was there that they met — to fall in love with each other. He was the first to realise that she was a painter by vocation, not a sculptor — ‘Yours is an eye for colour, but you are too preoccupied with form. Open your eyes to see your own eyes!'

Late marriage. There was everything. There were scandalous escapades, arrests of Goncharova and her paintings for pornography, Larionov’s expulsion from the School of Painting, Sculpture, and Architecture, Avant-Garde
Avant-garde is how modern art critics refer the general trend of new artistic directions that arose in world art at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries. A very thin line separates it from the concept of “modernism”. Read more
societies, friends with future-oriented minds always seeking innovations in art. The couple were only driven by practical reasons: they both wanted their common legacy, all their works, collection, and papers, to be preserved and returned to their motherland.
  • Natalia Concharova. Self-Portrait. 1907. The State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow
  • Mikhail Larionov. Self-Portrait in a Turban. 1907. The State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow
Two and two. On taking their residence in Paris, each of the two artists started their own relationship. However, they kept their family hearth unruined, and remained faithful to each other in their artistic union. They had respect for each other’s independence, kept seeing and talking to each other, and in their correspondence, they never forgot to give their regards to each other’s partners. Sometimes, the artists had holiday trips all four together, with their ‘dear friends', sometimes they were only two.

The tried and trusted Shurochka. Alexandra Tomilina (Shurochka), Larionov’s dear one, helped the married couple till Goncharova’s death in 1962. The following year, Larionov married her, and made her the heiress to his and Goncharova’s archive. He entrusted Shurochka to have their entire legacy taken back to the USSR.

Marina Abramović and Ulay

Extreme intimacy. Abramović, a performance artist from Yugoslavia, and Uwe Laysiepen (Ulay) from Germany met in Amsterdam in 1976. They immediately started working together, and formed a collective named The Other. The pair referred to themselves a "two-headed body" and claimed to feel as close as twins.

Trust-trying exercises. Together, the young artists invented a series of extremely intimate tests to try physical endurance and emotional trust. In one of their performances, Rest Energy (1980), Abramović was holding a bow, and Ulay its bowstring drawn tight, with an arrow pointed at her heart. Later, she recalled, ‘We actually held an arrow on the weight of our bodies, and the arrow is pointed right into my heart. <…> It was a performance about the complete and total trust.'
Marina Abramović and Ulay. Photo from: Artnet. News/Louisiana Channel
Farewell on the Great Wall of China. Though their romance laid the groundwork for art performances of the future, the ambitions of both artists ultimately drove them apart. While performing Nightsea Crossing, where they sat and looked at each other from across a table between them, Ulay’s nerves gave way. One of the performances Abramović had to continue on her own, facing the empty chair. The pair split up in 1988, in the middle of the Great Wall of China — to meet there, they had walked it all starting from its two opposite ends.

Public reunion. Decades later, in 2010, the two met again during Abramović's MoMA retrospective where she performed The Artist is Present. During the performance (which resembled Nightsea Crossing), Ulay, quite unexpectedly as it seemed, sat down in front of her at the opposite end of the table. The deeply emotional moment brought them both to tears. Still, the discord remained: Ulay sued his former partner and accused her of having not paid him his royalties. In the years that followed, he claimed she was not to be credited as his co-author. However, after 2017, the pair seem to have put their past behind them.

Christo and Jeanne-Claude

Crosspoint Paris. He was born in Gabrovo, Bulgaria, she in Casablanca, Morocco. But it was Paris that brought them together. In October 1958, Christo Javacheff, a refugee who was then living in the City of Light, was commissioned to paint a portrait of Jeanne-Claude's mother. By that time, Jeanne-Claude Denat had been engaged. She did get married later, but in the end, she followed her heart and left her husband before their honeymoon was even over — to be with Christo.

Christo’s project of draping the Arc de Triomphe in Paris (2018). Photo from:é Grossmann

The two Geminians. Both artists were born on the same day, 13 June 1935.

The art of disguising. The married couple’s creative duo got famous due to their large-scale art works made of fabric, which included The Gates in New York City’s Central Park and the epic 24 mile-long Running Fence. Besides, they draped fabric over such iconic architectural landmarks as the Reichstag and the Pont Neuf bridge. The couple insisted that the only purpose of their art was visual impact.

Nota bene. For decades, Christo credited himself as the single maker of the installations they created together. But since 1994, all their co-projects have been retroactively credited to "Christo and Jeanne-Claude."

Christo, Jeanne-Claude, and The Gates in Central Park, New York (2005). Photo by Wolfgang Volz. From:
Also on Artchive: The Retrospective of Triumph: Seven Top Projects by Christo, who is going to wrap the Arc de Triomphe in 2020

Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns

The downtown dreamers. Perhaps, Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg were the "New-Yorkest" of all couples, though actually, they were only together for five years, 1956 to 1961. They had their studios on different floors of the same industrial building in Pearl Street, and lived for some time in Lower Manhattan along with other artists (among them Agnes Martin and Ellsworth Kelly).

Opposites attract. Rauschenberg was sociable and talkative, Johns reserved and a bit detached. Despite these differences, the two united to reduce the dominance of Abstract Expressionism
You can hardly tell the exact day or year of the birth of Expressionism, which is usual for all powerful art movements. You cannot draw a border on the map and indicate the territory where Expressionism took its start and got stronger. Overall, it’s all roughly known. Except for one rock-solid spatiotemporal benchmark: Northern Europe on the eve of the First World War. Expressionism is an avant-garde art movement, a new tragic worldview, and a whole set of significant motifs, symbols, and myths. Moreover, it is a revolutionary reaction both to the shabby, lifeless traditional academic art, and the light, idyllic southern impressionistic “appearance” of the world. Read more
. Rauschenberg’s "combines" and Johns’s series of Flags and Targets offered new possibilities to get away from the egoism and individualism of the aesthetic traditions of their era.
  • Robert Rauschenberg. Retroactive. 1964. Museum of Modern Art, New York City
  • Jasper Johns. Target with Four Faces. 1955. Museum of Modern Art, New York City
The green-eyed monster. Jealousy that interfered with their relationship was not romantic, but professional — thus, perhaps, even more toxic. Legend has it that Leo Castelli, a famous gallery owner, once visited Rauschenberg in his studio to schedule his long-planned solo exhibition. On entering the place, Leo happened on Jasper Johns’s works and decided to display them, whereas Rauschenberg’s exhibition was put off indefinitely. The break-up that followed was painful. The artists did not speak to each other for years after it.
Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns in 1958. Photo from: Artnet. News/Courtesy of Fred W. McDarrah/Getty Images

Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera

Epic proportions. There is hardly a greater and more tempestuous romance in the history of art than Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera's. Kahlo was a student when she met Rivera, who was 20 years older than her and had the reputation of being a titan of Mexican art. The girl’s parents disapproved of her love and scornfully termed the couple "the elephant and the dove," thus directly alluding to the disparity between their sizes.

Frida Kahlo. Hug the Universe, the earth (Mexico), Me, Diego and Señor Xolotl

Frida Kahlo. The Love Embrace of the Universe, the Earth (Mexico), Myself, Diego, and Señor Xolotl. 1949. Jacques & Natasha Gelman Collection, Mexico City

The art of adultery. Rivera and Kahlo admired each other’s talents. Their relationship was a whirlwind of supporting each other in their art and mutual attraction coupled with infidelity on both parts. Kahlo made no secret of her bisexuality. She had liaisons with women as well as with men (a well-known example of the latter was Leon Trotsky). However, Rivera carried it too far having an affair with Kahlo’s younger sister Cristina, which left the paintress feeling absolutely devastated.

He said, she said. The couple got divorced in 1939. However, passion and admiration resulted in their remarriage. Rivera once called Frida "the most important fact in my life." And she said, referring to the traffic accident that had nearly killed her, "There have been two great accidents in my life. One was the trolley, and the other was Diego. Diego was by far the worst."

Political heat. During the 25 years of their marriage, till 47-year-old Frida died in 1954, the couple was a symbol of Socialist activism in Mexico. Kahlo, whom the French Surrealist André Breton nicknamed "a ribbon around a bomb," pioneered a new, daring form of self-portraiture and was the first Latin American woman who had her painting included in the Louvre collection. As for Rivera, he revived the tradition of Mayan murals, and created a modern visual language, wholly Mexican in origin, to speak of workers' life of his country.
Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo (1952). Photo by Marcel Sternberger. From: Artnet. News/Courtesy of Frida Kahlo Corporation. © Stephan Loewentheil

Françoise Gilot and Pablo Picasso

The restaurant encounter. In May 1943, Pablo Picasso, then 61, met 21-year-old Françoise Gilot who had come with her friends to the Parisian restaurant Le Catalan. The painter was having dinner there in company with Dora Maar, who was then his mistress. Nevertheless, he walked over to Gilot’s table, offered her a bowl of cherries, and invited her to visit him in his studio.

Three is a trend. Gilot became the object of Picasso’s affection when he had not split up yet with Maar, who, in turn, had won his heart when he was still living with his young French mistress Marie-Thérèse Walter. (And 17-year-old Walter drew the artist’s attention in the period when he was on the verge of breaking up with his wife, the Russian ballet dancer Olga Khokhlova.) The young Gilot was ecstatic over the celebrated master, still she conducted herself quite sensibly for the reasons she explained later, "I came onstage with an unavoidably clear vision of three other actresses who had tried to play the same role, all of whom had fallen into the prompter’s box."
  • Françoise Gilot and Pablo Picasso in 1952. Photo by Roger Viollet via Getty Images/Artnet.News
  • Pablo Picasso. Buste De Femme (Françoise Gilot). 1953. Private collection
Decade-long itch. Gilot spent nearly ten years with Picasso. She had two children from him: Claude and Paloma. Throughout that period, she encouraged his sculptural, ceramic, and lithographic experiments, and hardly ever thought of her own artistic ambitions. However, by the fifties, Gilot had grown weary of her role and made up her mind to get rid of her relationship. It was the first time a woman was dumping him, rather than being dumped herself. Infuriated, with his ego deeply wounded, Picasso told Gilot she was "heading straight for the desert," and instructed art dealers not to purchase her art.
Bullet to the head. Gilot married Jonas Salk, a genius, one of those who pioneered developing the polio vaccine. Then, in 1964, she published Life with Picasso, a detailed account of the time spent with the famous artist. The memoir abounded in particulars sometimes not too complimentary to him. As retaliation, Picasso cut off all contact with the two children from her.

Elaine and Willem de Kooning

The stowaway and the student. Born in Holland, Willem de Kooning arrived in the United States illegally, as a stowaway on a British vessel headed for Argentina. In America, he immediately plunged into the world of art. His life changed forever in 1938 after a new student, Elaine Fried by name, enrolled in his drawing class. Willem, though reserved and obsessed with work, was seemingly struck by the charm of the woman who would later become his wife.

Willem de Kooning. Two women
Two women
1952, 47.9×61 cm
The turbulent marriage. Willem and Elaine got married in 1943. They had no honeymoon period: their marriage, from the very start, was shaken by alcoholism, poverty, the ambition of both, and problems that seemed never-ending. And yet, they never stopped admiring each other’s art. Elaine had no doubt about her husband’s success when he was pioneering Abstract Expressionism
You can hardly tell the exact day or year of the birth of Expressionism, which is usual for all powerful art movements. You cannot draw a border on the map and indicate the territory where Expressionism took its start and got stronger. Overall, it’s all roughly known. Except for one rock-solid spatiotemporal benchmark: Northern Europe on the eve of the First World War. Expressionism is an avant-garde art movement, a new tragic worldview, and a whole set of significant motifs, symbols, and myths. Moreover, it is a revolutionary reaction both to the shabby, lifeless traditional academic art, and the light, idyllic southern impressionistic “appearance” of the world. Read more
, and she was developing Figurative Abstraction — her own visual language. Interestingly (no matter how you regard it), the long list of the men Elaine flirted with included many of those who, ultimately, helped her husband’s career — among them the art critic Harold Rosenberg and the curator and art editor Thomas B. Hess.

Ahead of her time. Perhaps, Elaine lived ahead of her generation: she absolutely refused to give up her art and keep house instead, and she believed that her career was no less important than her husband’s. Besides, she was style-minded, and though the couple were known to be living on coffee and nothing else, she never failed to keep up with the latest fashions.
Ellen de Kuning. Bullfighting
1960, 49×62.5 cm
Reunited. Although the couple separated in the late fifties, they made up in 1976. Elaine abandoned her lucrative position of a professor to buy a house in Long Island, beside Willem’s. She ended up as a person in charge of his studio.

Yayoi Kusama and Joseph Cornell

Was or was not? Although free love is a language Yayoi Kusama has a command of, she never reveals the details of her romantic life. The Japanese paintress moved to New York City in the late fifties. Soon, she made friends with Donald Judd, who, like her, was then just starting out in his career. He, who would later be called the father of minimalism, spoke favourably of her first solo exhibition in 1951, and even purchased one of her paintings. Then, they rented their apartments and studios on different floors of the same building in 19th Street. Kusama called Judd her "early boyfriend," but they were only destined to remain friends. Her New York life was dominated by intense (though, perhaps, platonic) relationship with Joseph Cornell, an assemblage artist.

Yayoi Kusama and Joseph Cornell in 1970. Photo from: Artnet. News/Courtesy of Yayoi Kusama Studio, Inc.

Odd couple. Kusama was over thirty, when she met Cornell, who was 26 years her senior. They had years of an absolutely singular relationship. She regularly visited her friend at his mother’s place, where he lived and worked. Kusama and Cornell had a deep emotional bond: he would call her countless times a day, write long letters to her, and give her his works to sell when she was short of money.

The disapproving mother. We will hardly ever learn this part of the story, but rumour has it that Cornell’s mother was a bossy woman obsessed with controlling things. She was, reportedly, so angry about her son dating a much younger girl, that once she poured a bucket of water over the two artists, who were kissing in her backyard.

Dorothea Tanning and Max Ernst

Checkmate. Max Ernst and Dorothea Tanning first met when he visited her studio at the request of Peggy Guggenheim, his then wife, who was interested in Dorothea’s Surrealist works. Ernst and Tanning, both chess enthusiasts, sat down to play a few games, and a week later, he moved to live with her.

Two times two. Tanning and Ernst got married in Hollywood, in a double wedding with their friends, the artist Man Ray and the dancer Juliet Browner.

Some figures. Tanning and Ernst’s marriage lasted from 1946 till his death in 1976. He was her one and only husband, she was his third wife, and besides, he had had a long relationship with Leonora Carrington, a Surrealist painter.

  • Dorothea Tanning. Birthday. 1942. Philadelphia Museum of Art
  • Max Ernst. Self-Portrait. 1909. Private collection

Georgia O’Keeffe and Alfred Stieglitz

Modernist American love. The celebrated photographer Alfred Stieglitz and the pioneering American artist Georgia O’Keeffe were married from 1924 till his death in 1946. He was older than her, lived in New York City, and owned the gallery 291, a centre to promote Modernist art.

Messy situation. A womaniser, Stieglitz was fond of young women and supported promising women artists. O’Keeffe and Stieglitz revered each other’s intellect and art, but their marriage was hardly a happy one, as a great deal of it they lived separately.

Alfred Stieglitz and Georgia O’Keeffe. Photo from: Artnet. News/Courtesy of Getty Images
Till his last days, Alfred remained Georgia’s most devoted admirer, although the family life with him was far from the Arabian Nights. It was for him that O’Keefe gave up the idea of having children, because Stieglitz insisted that she was born to paint. He almost worshipped Georgia’s talent — and was jealous of her fame. It all ended up in his taking a young mistress, the photographer’s student Dorothy Norman, who silently adored him. Their affair hit Georgia hard. She found some comfort in constant trips. In 1929, she went to New Mexico to find inspiration and regain her equanimity.
Instead, while making her trip, she found a home.

Love letters. In 2011, O’Keefe and Stieglitz’s correspondence was published. The letters made up a volume titled My Faraway One and revealed all the struggle, respect, and problems within their marriage. However, some details may seem too intimate — like Stieglitz’s many references to their life behind closed doors.

From: Artnet News and other sources