Just the two of us — the couples who put the art in partnership
To celebrate Valentine’s Day, here’s our heartfelt tribute to 10 artistic couples from the 16th century to the present day
Christo and Jeanne-Claude
Christo Vladimirov Javacheff and Jeanne-Claude Denat de Guillebon were both born on 13 June 1935, but separated by the 2,000 miles of land and sea between Bulgaria and Morocco. They met in Paris 23 years later, when Christo, a portraitist who had fled the communist regime of his home country, painted Jeanne-Claude’s mother. At the time Jeanne-Claude was engaged, but when they realised they had been born within an hour of each other they considered it fate.
Together they experimented with wrapping bottles and cans, before scaling up their ambitions to the coastline of Australia, the Pont Neuf and the Reichstag. They never flew on the same plane so that in the event of an accident the other could carry on with their work. After Jeanne-Claude died in 2009, Christo continued to realise their grand plans until his own death in 2020.
Auguste Rodin and Camille Claudel
In 1882, aged 42, Rodin met the 19-year-old sculptor Camille Claudel. Impressed by her precocity, he took her on as a studio assistant, entrusting her with complex tasks such as the hands and feet of his monumental figures — notably those in The Gates of Hell. Alongside her studio work, Claudel sought recognition as an independent artist, accepting commissions and exhibiting busts and portraits at the Salon. ‘I showed her where she would find gold,’ Rodin once said of Claudel’s talent, ‘but the gold she found is all hers.’
The two began a passionate and turbulent affair during which they influenced each other’s styles, with their works serving as declarations, criticisms or echoes of one another. Both enjoyed critical success, too: Claudel’s La valse and Rodin’s Eternel Printemps and Baiser are among the celebrated works that date from the peak of these years of passion and shared creation.
Claudel, however, met a tragic fate. They parted ways because of Rodin’s refusal to leave his long-time partner, Rose Beuret, and Claudel descended into madness. In 1913 she was committed to an asylum, where she remained until her death in 1943.
‘It is terrible to be so abandoned,’ she wrote in 1915. ‘I can’t help but succumb to the grief that overwhelms me.’ After her death, Claudel and her work slipped into relative obscurity, only emerging from her lover’s shadow in the late 20th century.
Man Ray and Lee Miller
Lee Miller was already a successful model when she moved to Paris in 1929 to work as an apprentice to the visionary photographer Man Ray. She had called upon him unannounced in a bar on the city’s Left Bank. ‘My name is Lee Miller and I’m your new student,’ she told him. When he replied that he was leaving for a vacation in Biarritz the next day, she shot back: ‘So am I.’
Miller went on to become Man Ray’s lover, assistant and muse. She took several of the photographs credited to him and rediscovered solarisation, a technique that gave photographs a ghostly look and would become Man Ray’s trademark. They parted ways on bad terms in 1932, and Man Ray spent the next two years tirelessly painting Miller’s lips. They eventually reconciled: Miller pushed a frail Man Ray in his wheelchair around one of his final exhibitions.
Gilbert & George
‘We want an art that is in your face: aggressive,’ Gilbert Prousch told critic Jonathan Jones in 2017. ‘We are confrontational. Freedom of speech, we call it. To say what we want.’
For more than 50 years, the dapper-suited artist duo Gilbert & George (Prousch and George Passmore) have addressed contemporary issues ranging from sex and religion to corruption and violence, in work spanning performance, film, sculpture and photomontage. Described by Jones as ‘visceral documents of a changing Britain’, their grotesque, glossy artworks reveal disconcerting truths about the human condition.
They met as students in 1967 at Saint Martin’s School of Art, forging ‘an extraordinary friendship’ from the outset. Shortly after graduating, they rose to prominence with Singing Sculpture, a performance piece in which they walked the streets of London with their faces painted bronze, singing Underneath the Arches.
Since then, they have lived and worked together in the city’s East End, shaping their lives into one curated work of art. Of their professional and personal partnership they have said: ‘It’s not a collaboration… We are two people, but one artist.’
Bharti Kher and Subodh Gupta
When Bharti Kher travelled to India in 1993, she was only intending to stay for six months. Born to Indian parents in 1969, she had a middle-class upbringing in London before studying art at Middlesex Polytechnic, then at Newcastle.
Just two weeks into her trip, however, she met her future husband, fellow conceptual artist Subodh Gupta — and she has remained in India ever since. The couple’s backgrounds are very different — Gupta had an impoverished upbringing in rural Bihar — but in their art they both draw on items and rituals that make up daily life in India.
Kher is known for her use of the bindi in her multidisciplinary, transformative work; while Gutpta is famous for incorporating the everyday objects and materials he grew up with into imposing sculptures such as Very Hungry God (2006), a giant skull made from aluminium kitchen utensils, which was displayed outside Palazzo Grassi at the 2007 Venice Biennale.
Now two of the best-known artists in India, Kher and Gupta live and work in Gurgaon, outside Delhi, with their two children. But recognition didn’t come overnight, Kher has said: ‘The first 10 or 15 years were very hard. But because we had each other, we really could support each other.’
Carl Larsson and Karin Bergöö
The painter Carl Larsson met his future wife, the artist and designer Karin Bergöö, in 1882 in Grez-sur-Loing, a town 40 miles outside Paris, where he was a central figure in a Scandinavian artists’ colony.
Upon returning to their native Sweden, Karin channelled her creativity into design, remodelling their rural cottage in a new style that fused elements of Arts and Crafts with japonisme. Carl captured her radical interiors in his watercolours, and in 1909 they were published as a book that sold 40,000 copies in just three months. The house, which has left an indelible imprint on Scandinavian design, is still run by the descendants of their eight children.
Caravaggio and Mario Minniti
In the early 1590s, newly arrived in Rome, the young Sicilian painter Mario Minniti apprenticed with Caravaggio. The two became friends and collaborators, some say lovers, with Minniti serving as a model for many of Caravaggio’s pioneering early works, including Boy with a Basket of Fruit (1593-5), now housed in Rome’s Borghese Gallery, and the 1596 painting Lute Player, below right, now in the State Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg.
Their collaborative years were short-lived, however: Minniti fled Rome for Sicily in around 1606 after his reputed involvement in the street brawl that resulted in the death of the young pimp Ranuccio Tomassoni at Caravaggio’s hands. Though his work has been criticised for lacking variety, his embrace of the Baroque style and use of chiaroscuro, a technique learned as an apprentice in Rome, has earned him the nickname ‘the Sicilian Caravaggio’.
Claude Cahun and Marcel Moore
When 15-year-old Lucy Schwob first met 17-year-old Suzanne Malherbe in Nantes in 1909, it was, said Schwob, a ‘thunderbolt encounter’. The pair’s artistic collaboration, later carried out under the gender-neutral pseudonyms Claude Cahun (Schwob) and Marcel Moore (Malherbe), would endure for more than 40 years. In fact, eight years after that first encounter, Malherbe’s widowed mother married Schwob’s divorced father, and the lovers also became step-sisters.
After 17 years in Paris, where they mixed in Surrealist circles, Cahun and Moore moved to the small island of Jersey, which would become the only part of Britain to be occupied by German forces during the Second World War. While both women produced poetry, Moore also worked as an illustrator, and collaborated with Cahun on her pioneering photographic self-portraits.
Both women were sentenced to death in 1944 for disseminating demoralising propaganda among German troops. The liberation of the island by Allied forces saved them, but Cahun’s health suffered during her imprisonment, and she died in 1954. Much of her art had been destroyed by the Germans. Moore committed suicide in 1972, and was buried in the same grave as her partner.
Jennifer Allora and Guillermo Calzadilla
Jennifer Allora and Guillermo Calzadilla have been working together since 1995, when they met as art students in Florence. Originally from Philadelphia and Havana, they are now based in Puerto Rico, where they live with their daughter. Their practice is research-based and politically engaged, creating provocative juxtapositions in conceptual works that combine sculpture with performance and other media.
One favourite subject is music and war, which they explored in their 2008 piece Stop, Repair, Prepare: Variations on Ode to Joy for a Prepared Piano, No.1, now in the collection of New York’s MoMA.
Another is sport and the military: in Track and Field, part of the exhibition with which they represented the US at the Venice Biennale in 2011, an Olympic athlete ran on the treadmill of an upturned tank.
Their latest work, Specters of Noon, uses the ancient notion of acedia — a state of torpor that ‘besieged the soul at noon’ — to explore current human indifference to the wider world, in seven sculptural works conceived specifically for the Menil Collection in Houston.
According to an interview in the The New York Times, the couple arrive at their outlandish concepts by ‘throwing out ideas and free-associating’. However, Allora admits that there is a downside to having two minds working on a project: they argue a lot.
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Jean Arp and Sophie Taeuber-Arp
In November 1915, Jean Arp took part in an exhibition at Zürich’s Galerie Tanner that he later described as ‘the greatest event of my life’.
The French-German poet and artist had left Munich for Switzerland following the outbreak of war. At the Tanner he met Sophie Taeuber, a Swiss multidisciplinary artist and fellow adherent of Dada who performed at both the Cabaret Voltaire and Galerie Dada — dancing to poetry by Hugo Ball in a shamanic mask by Marcel Janco.
The couple married in 1922, and worked together for more than two decades. Sophie helped Jean to produce his Dadaist collages, known as Papiers dechirés; and Jean collaborated with Sophie and De Stijl artist Theo van Doesburg on the interior of Strasbourg’s Café Aubette.
When Sophie died accidentally of carbon monoxide poisoning in 1943, Jean was devastated. He wrote poems for her (‘You were resonant with a world of light’) and created collages that incorporated her work.
Today, the artists have a museum named after them in Rolandseck, Germany, and are considered among the most important exponents of the 20th-century avant-garde. The upcoming Sophie Taeuber-Arp retrospective at the Kunstmuseum Basel, Tate Modern and MoMA should enhance her reputation yet further.