"I put up with what seemed to me a good deal of contradictory nonsense because of what seemed clear and bright and wonderful," said the artist Georgia O'Keefe of her husband Alfred Stieglitz, encapsulating in a sentence the price that the artists and writers in Bullen's fascinating and sympathetic study paid for their unconventional private lives.
The five couples in this book – O'Keefe and Stieglitz; Lou Andreas-Salome and Rainer Maria Rilke; Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir; Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo; Henry Miller and AnaÏs Nin – all enjoyed "open relationships", keen as they were to match the modernity of the times that was reflected in their art, with modernity in their private lives.
As Bullen rightly points out, biographies of these individuals are often inconsistent or even shy away from "the lives they lived in love". And yet, it is in love that "they asserted the uniqueness of their experiences".
It takes a great deal of strength to maintain in private the high standards we show in public. For each of these couples, it meant putting up with other lovers, the failure of marriages, the fear of isolation (as Rilke writes to Salome, who is never "his", yet to whom he feels forever bound: "You alone know who I am. Only you can help me."). Yet the connection to their artistic partner is indissoluble: Kahlo writes that it is only "Diego ... who holds me back" from killing herself when severe pain became too much. They suffered not just for their art, but for their love and their integrity.