General Meeting

Speaker: Isabel Vermote
Isabel Vermote
Isabel Vermote
CHÂTEAU SAINTE-ANNE Rue Du Vieux Moulin 103 1160 Bruxelles

The history of art is filled with passionate, unusual, and at times  stormy, love affairs between creative spirits. Frida Kahlo & Diego  Rivera, Rodin & Claudel, Georgia O’Keeffe & Alfred Stieglitz are  couples who became notorious in art history. We will discuss  those we well as some lesser known relationships of the 20th and  21st century where work, love and creativity are closely related.  

Isabel Vermote is Historian and Art Historian. She studied at the universities of Namur, Leuven and Brussels. She currently works for the Education Department of the Royal Museum of Fine Arts of Belgium and is also a lecturer at Bozar, ING, Belfius and for some private collectors. 

Note: Content and images not intended for copyright infringement.




A Review
Notorious Couples in Art History
A review by Larisa Doctorow
Mary Cassat

United by Passion and by Art. Relations between couples are never simple and often are stormy despite the mutual attraction. Tension can reach a very high level when both partners are ‘creative’. This was the topic of the ISG monthly lecture delivered by Isabel Vermote, who is an art historian. She studied at the Universities of Namur, Leuven, and Brussels. Currently she works for the Education Department of the Royal Museum of Fine Arts of Belgium, ING, Bozar and other organizations.

Among the most famous couples in the physical and visual arts are Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, August Rodin and Camille Claudel, Georgia O’Keeffe, and Alfred Stieglitz. But they are not unique, and Isabel discussed other lesser-known relationships of the 20th and 21st centuries whose love and creativity were closely interwoven. Certainly, we know about other couples who left their mark in art history, but more likely women were muses inspiring male artists to create outstanding works of art. Such was the case of Dali and Gala.

It was also the case of the French painter Edgar Degas who was famous for his ballet paintings and drawings. In 1863, he met Estelle Musson Balflour who was from New Orleans and came to Paris with her daughter. She married Degas’ brother. Degas visited his brother in New Mary Cassatt Orleans and during his stay in the city made several portraits of her. Also, in America Degas met Mary Cassatt, who was a professional painter. They got together but never married. 23 June 2021 Page 3 of 18

Georgia O’Keeffe & Alfred Stieglitz

However, the subject of our lecture was the unique situation when two artists become one, when  their aspirations, visions and philosophy coincide. In some cases, two artists united by passion  work together. Their works resemble each other, and it is impossible to say who has done one  or another piece like with Camille Claudel and August Rodin. However, jealousy and envy  intervened, and their union was destroyed, leading to a tragic end for one partner, in this case  for Camille Claudel.  

Another case of close cooperation between two artists was the American couple Alfred Stieglitz and Georgia O’Keeffe. On the screen, we were shown a beautiful photo – a snapshot of Paris, which looks like a painting, moody, melancholic, black, and white. The photographer was Alfred Stieglitz, a well- known American living in New York.

At one time a friend showed him two paintings of flowers by Georgia O’Keeffe. Something deeply touched him, and they started to correspond before meeting each other. At that time, he was 55 and she 24. All together they exchanged 55 000 letters. At times Alfred Stiglitz sent Georgia O’Keeffe & Alfred Stieglitz ISG Newsletter July 2021 23 June 2021 Page 5 of 18 three letters a day to Georgia. They married in 1924 and he made 300 portraits of her. Though she was a landscape painter and he a photographer, artistically they were close. With time, she got more independent and wanted to free herself from Stieglitz’ influence.

In 1939, she moved to New Mexico. The new landscape, new flowers and plants fascinated her, gave her new energy and inspiration. She frequently depicted Jimson Weed, her favourite flower. A painting with this flower was later sold for 44 million dollars, becoming the most expensive painting by a female artist. They continued their correspondence and when Alfred Stieglitz died, she took care of his legacy. Once she said, “Interest is the most important thing in life. Happiness is temporary, but interest continues.”

Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera

Diego Rivera (1886-1957) and Frida Kahlo (1907-1954) were both Mexican artists. Their stormy relationship has been the subject of movies and books. Frida was the daughter of a German who moved to Mexico. At the age of six, she came down with polio. Later a tram accident left her crippled. At the age of 15, she met Diego Rivera and they married. Frida said: “There have been two great accidents in my life. One was the train the other was Diego. Diego was by far the worst.”

In 1928, he made a big fresco entitled ‘The Arsenal’ where he depicted the participants of the future ‘Revolution for all’. It included Frida. He was a well- known Mexican artist with commissions in his country, in the United States. His monumental frescoes decorate public buildings in Mexico. Simultaneously he made small paintings and portraits. Her paintings of 1929 resemble his paintings, meaning that artistically they were close. Later she was more concentrated on her physical and emotional pain, which became subjects of her works.

Frida had a difficult life. To her physical sufferings emotional ones were added, caused by Diego’s infidelity. Finally, they got divorced. She cut her hair, and instead of bright Mexican dresses put herself in a man’s suit and took a lover.

Frida never stopped painting, never stopped depicting the details of her turbulent life on the canvas. On the screen, we saw her small painting of 1944 she presented herself in a new light. Later she and Diego remarried. From 1934 to 1939 they lived in a house consisting of two parts, one for her and the other was for him. Frida often wore Mexican dresses. In 1998 the French designer Jean Paul Gautier had a fashion show inspired by her dresses.

Frida died at the age of 46 in 1954. Isabel showed us her last paining ‘Enjoy your life’, depicting full ripe watermelons. A few days after she died, Diego made several paintings of watermelons resembling her last painting, signalling that Frida remained on his mind.

Gilbert and George

The British couple of openly gay painters and sculptors Gilbert Prousch and George Passmore belong to our time. Both are in their mid-eighties, still active and continuing to challenge the world. They got together in 1969 during studies in the London College of Art. As they said, “It was love at first sight.” The same year they wrote a ‘Manifesto’ with ten commandments which they try to follow. They live in East London in a big old house, never travel, eat in restaurants, walk daily around their area. Their huge paintings and sculptures are created in this house. They see their house as a microcosm. They refer to art as anti-elitist and say, “Art is for all”.

Isabel showed us on the screen their sculpture entitled “George the Cunt and Gilbert the Shit” made in 1969 and published on the cover of a magazine, which is now part of the Tate collection. Their life and work challenge the rules of society, like Dali’s, like Magritte’s. They made singing sculptures, dancing sculptures. They are in every painting always wearing suits and ties. The pair regard themselves as ‘Living Sculptures’ and their life as a performance.

They exhibit frequently and have had several shows in Brussels, including one in the PBA.

Abramovic and Ulay

Another couple: Marina Abramovic (1946- ) and Ulay (1943-2020). They were among the first who started doing live performances. They stayed together for 33 years after meeting in Holland. 23 June 2021 Page 6 of 18 ISG Newsletter July 2021 Marina Abramovic & Ulay He was German, she is Serbian. In this case, two people became one artist and together they have created 40 books depicting their performances. Some were very risky, reaching the extreme degree of human endurance. One of them ‘Relation in Time’ from 1975 shows them sitting with their hair attached to each other back-to-back. The photo ’Rest Energy’ of 1980 shows Marina facing Ulay. She is holding a bow, he an arrow. They stayed like that for 4 minutes and 12 seconds. Later she admitted that she never was so scared in her life. In 1988, their relationship was coming to an end, and they decided to conclude it by their last performance together walking along the Chinese Wall of 5,000 kilometres. They started walking from two different ends, from the Gobi Desert and the Yellow Sea. They met in the middle. Each one walked 2,500 kilometres for 90 days. The photo of this achievement is named ‘The Lovers’. That was the end of their relations.

In 2010, Marina had her own performance in New York’s MoMA entitled ‘The Artist is Present’. For 736 hours, she was ready to challenge anyone from the audience inviting them to sit at the table in front of her and stare at her.

The last couple described in the lecture were the two British artists Timothy Noble (1966-) and Susan Webster (1967-) who make sculptures from trash. Their works have a message reminding us of what damage we are doing to our planet and how to take care of it. Their works have been shown in art galleries and put the start to another artistic trend: how to create art objects from wasted Timothy Noble & Susan Webster things like pieces of furniture, trash, dead animals, empty cans of paint. Once the London Tate was full of them.

Note: This was the first ISG lecture “in person” at the Château following the lifting of Covid restrictions. Hurrah!

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