BOOK REVIEW / They met book for book and bed for bed: Significant Others Whitney Chadwick and Isabelle de Courtivron Thames & Hudson, pounds 14.95

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The Independent Online
THIS book asks an odd question: do cohabiting artists prosper? The answer, generally, is no, but every now and again, yes.

Thirteen couples have been identified and subjected to examination on this question, and although many of the essays are dogged by impenetrable jargon of the 'redefinition of gender-bound parameters' type, one or two stand out.

One of the worst is an offering by Johnathan Katz about Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg. When couples such as Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald or Sartre and De Beauvoir are omitted, it is hard to understand why these two even earned a place here, but we are told that they made huge fortunes with their post-Abstract Impressionistic 'junk art', so perhaps that explains it. They seem never even to have acknowledged that they lived together, but Katz is sure, largely because in an unguarded interview Rauschenberg says that they split up because of social embarrassment.

Anyway, before they met, Rauschenberg was busy creating art by putting sheets of paper on the ground for people to walk on and painting flat white squares. In fact, he got other people to paint them, with rollers, so that they should be 'without autographic or gestural content'. Once he had met Johns, they developed a shared interest in torches and light bulbs, so that was nice.

The next problem to surface concerns intelligibility about surnames. The Stephens sisters are here referred to by their married surnames, but as each of them married men in similar fields, Woolf and Bell are much less useful as handles than Virginia and Vanessa. In this book their husbands are, however, curiously irrelevant, as the two articles about them link Woolf to Sackville-West and Bell to Grant, despite both relationships having been relatively, or at least sexually, fleeting.

Rodin and Camille Claudel prove more interesting. In the photograph of them they look remarkably similar, a strange offshoot of the whole book. Who will write about the strong attraction people have for mirror-image types? The sculptures produced by these two, who were lovers for 10 years, clearly fed on each other in a productive way. The Perseus and Medusa theme comes through Anne Higonnet's essay as a strong symbol of the female threat presented to a macho man by a mistress who gives as good as she gets. It culminated in Camille Claudel's magnificent work in which the head of Medusa is a self-portrait.

Then there is Henry Miller, who had a great passion for Anais Nin. The pair of them had a great many great passions, in fact, and the piece about them is the earthiest. When its author, Noel Riley Fitch, talks about them pollinating each other's intellectual and artistic capacities, birds and bees seem innocent in comparison with their antics: 'she met him book for book, bed for bed (word for womb)'. Their partnership produced vast quantities of erotica, including 40 volumes of her diary, in which she records making love to Miller, her analyst, her astrologer and her - otherwise rather shadowy - husband, all in the same day.

There are interesting moments in the essays on Jackson 'Jack the Dripper' Pollock and Lee Krasner, Lillian Hellmann and Dashiel Hammett and the Delaunays, though the message, that woman always comes off worst, is hammered home terribly heavily. There is a furious piece about Andre Malraux and his much-maligned wife, Clara, and a touching one about the Mexicans Frida Kahlo and her 'frog-toad' husband, Diego Rivera. There is a strange one about Leonora Carrington and Max Ernst, whose shared aesthetic hippophilia resulted in a combination-painting of a wild horse and the Loplop bird.

But, to end with the best, there is an inspired and inspiring essay by Anne Wagner on Andre and Simone Schwarz-

Bart. He is a Polish-Jewish survivor, she a descendant of slaves from Guadeloupe. Together, a microcosmic United Nations, they write about common humanity and shared love. In the competitive welter of the other ambitious occupants of these pages, theirs really is a story worth reading.

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