For Valentine’s Day, Revisit Art History’s Greatest and Messiest Love Affairs

Artists are messy, and they love love affairs. Sometimes, these relationships transcend circumstance to become singularly mythic.

Ulay and Marina Abramovic reunite at MoMA, 22 years after their breakup. WILL RAGOZZINO/Patrick McMullan via Getty Images

Ah, Valentine’s Day — the origins are a bit murky, but every account of the day’s beginnings is indisputably romantic. Perhaps Saint Valentine kicked off the tradition by continuing to officiate marriages secretly, despite the wishes of the despotic Emperor Claudius II. Perhaps a Pagan Festival, during which women placed their names in a giant urn for eligible men to to choose from, kicked off the practice. No matter what the resolute truth is, Valentine’s Day has evolved into a celebration of love established: happy couples post pictures of themselves embracing, while those without romantic partners pause to appreciate the abundance of love in their lives, outside the realm of normatively-established terms of companionship.

Artists tend to be either incredibly good or incredibly bad at exalting love. Art history is littered with stories of abusive, larger-than-life painters and sculptors who wielded their power and influence cruelly; who used and disposed of the women in their lives and passed it off as creative freedom. For every one of these monsters, though, there are ten times more stories of deep affection and companionship that reverberate throughout the years and which can bolster the spirit of even the most lovesick individual.

Take Marina Abramović and since-departed Ulay, two German performance artists who, during the height of their relationship, pushed themselves perhaps as far creatively as any two artists could. Traveling together in a van, they pushed their bodies and limits to the brink in pursuit of total interpersonal immersion. Even their breakup was epic beyond imagining: starting at opposite ends of the Great Wall of China, they met in the middle and ended things. It was balanced, it was larger-than-life, it was heartbreaking.

Further back in time, consider the union of Filippo Lippi, a 15th-century painter and monk, and Lucrezia Buti, a nun and the daughter of a prominent silk merchant. The two produced a child as a result of a passionate sexual affair, and though Buti may not technically be considered an artist, I’d argue that love affairs themselves are artistic productions: singular creations never again to be replicated or reproduced with quite the same patterns or contours. Plus, violating one’s religious restrictions will never not be hot.

Lucian Freud and Lady Caroline Blackwood in 1953. ullstein bild/ullstein bild via Getty Images

Lucien Freud was a painter of revolting flesh with an insatiable sexual appetite, and it’s well-documented that he was a dominating presence in the lives of partners like Celia Paul, a portraitist and artist who’s written extensively about her time with Freud. But for sheer style alone, we’ll here mention the partnership of Freud and Lady Caroline Blackwood, a brilliant novelist and muse who inspired some of Freud’s most luminescent works during their short marriage. Blackwood’s eyes were blue, enormous and peerless; in photographs and paintings, it seemed as though she was scanning her surroundings, drinking in everything. Love can be as brief as it is generative.

A picture of Diego Rivera and painter Frida Kahlo in Mexico City on October 25, 2019. OMAR TORRES/AFP via Getty Images

Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera overcame every possible obstacle (affairs, quarrels, a divorce) to remain together and feed off one another’s creativity for a quarter of a century. Kahlo’s portraits of the couple were alternatively stoic and surrealistic, as though she sought to preserve the solidity of their union as well as its existential persistence. Rivera, in turn, passionately captured his wife’s sensuality and conviction.

If artists across the centuries understand one thing universally, it’s that love is atemporal and ephemeral; real and an illusion; inspiring and destructive. Whether it saves you or ruins your life, love in all its forms is always worth the effort. And hey, you might just get a great painting out of it. For Valentine’s Day, Revisit Art History’s Greatest and Messiest Love Affairs