Couples as art: Tom Hine reviews Woodmere Valentine's show

Roger Anliker's "Fortune Teller and Harlequin" from the Woodmere Art Museum's show about couples in art. (Collection of Dale and Lisa Roberts)

Something I predict we’ll be hearing this week is Lorenz Hart’s lyric for "My Funny Valentine." Acknowledging a lover's “figure less than Greek” and “mouth a little weak,” the singer proclaims: “You’re my favorite work of art.”

That particular line has always seemed a little off to me, because I don’t think most of us think about the other person in the couple of which we are part in such aesthetic terms. Sexy, perhaps, or interesting or surprising, or someone you can’t get along without, perhaps. But work of art? Not so much.

In one of the most haunting works on display in the Woodmere Art Museum’s new show, “A More Perfect Union? Power, Sex, and Race in the Representation of Couples,” an artist appears to be conjuring up a dream lover. In Roger Anliker’s Fortune Teller and Harlequin, a handsome young man in a clown costume stands with a bejeweled, sexually ambiguous but apparently male figure in Gypsy fortune-teller’s regalia.

A label explains that Anliker (1924-2013) painted the harlequin figure repeatedly, as an idealized version of himself. His face is heartbreakingly open, innocent, and soft. The fortune-teller’s face is more emphatic, painted with heavier shadow and more reflectivity. But it is also, one soon realizes, not real. There is no spark or yearning behind the eyes. It is nothing but a doll, an illusion, a work of art.

Anliker’s pointillist technique was delicate and obsessive. He labored  on some of his works, including this one, for more than a decade. The result is a gorgeous artifact that suggests a sad story of a thwarted quest for beauty and love -- a couple that could never be.

The Woodmere’s show is rarely the cultural studies slog that its subtitle implies, but it is no mere valentine bonbon, either. It surveys 225 years of image-making, mostly in Philadelphia, and offers many visions of what couples can be -- and who can be couples. 

Some works, such as Womb of Creation (1951) by William Newport Goodell, take a cosmic view. Its male and female bodies make a circle in the heavens, with a baby at the center. It is science-infused spirituality that seems now to be a perfect expression of Baby Boom America. Other works show Adam and Eve, the first couple, and remind us that couples are people who like getting into trouble together.

Woodmere’s show takes its title from a phrase in the preamble to the U.S. Constitution, and the earliest couple shown -- John Randall and Deborah Knapp Randall -- was painted by Charles Willson Peale in 1789, only two years after that phrase was written. As for many other couples in the show, the paintings are a celebration of their success and prominence. But the reason we look is that they feel real. We think we can guess what she saw in him and what he saw in her -- a game we all play when looking at couples.

Violet Oakley’s 1935 portrait of Edith Emerson, who was Woodmere’s director for more than three decades, and Emerson’s undated portrait of Oakley let us see how two members of a couple looked to each other. The twist here is that unlike the Randalls and other matched portraits on display, Emerson and Oakley are not presented as a pair. They were long known and accepted as a couple by people who knew them, but their relationship was not something to be acknowledged and hung on the wall.

The label for Emerson’s painting of Oakley argues that the picture is full of matched candlesticks and plates that suggest that she is part of a pair. But these indications needed to be coded so that those who knew of their relationship would understand and the rest would not be offended.

Nowadays, of course, there is hardly any kind of coupling too shocking to be recognized. Still, I must confess I involuntarily cringed a bit when I encountered the Dufala brothers’ So Dirty, So Clean (2017), which consists of a bar of soap atop of which a heart is outlined in pubic hair from one of the artists. Perhaps his wife would find it a sweet Valentine's gesture, but it is a bit more of the artist than I want.

The show is, to a large extent, a celebration of our society’s increasing recognition and acceptance of different kinds of couples. This applies, of course, to same-sex couples, who are here in abundance, but also to interracial couples, who, for most of the period this show covers, were definitely outside  the mainstream.

A very moving undated drawing by Ellen Powell Tiberino shows the African American artist, frail with cancer, embracing her big, fleshy, hairy husband, the Italian American artist Joseph Tiberino. It is not so much about race as about sustenance. Morning Ritual (2016) by Mickayel Thurin is a bright, sunny painting of the artist, an African American woman, at the bathroom mirror brushing her teeth, while her bald, pink husband stands behind. It is about the quiet satisfactions of the everyday -- and if you are part of a long-term couple, there are a lot of days.

For much of the centuries-long history the show covers, wives were treated as their husband’s property. The show acknowledges this, but its heart is not in how people oppress their partners, but rather in how each member of a couple can empower the other. Together, they can do what neither could alone.

For me, the work that sums it up is a wonderful double portrait from about 1809, by an unknown artist, of Captain and Mrs. Samuel Pile. He owned and commanded his own merchant vessel. The two are shown aboard the ship, probably in the Canary Islands, with a volcano looming in the background. I hadn’t known that captain’s wives went to sea, but Mrs. Pile, with her alert, practical-minded face, seems to be in her element. They look like a great couple, out in the ocean, both in the same boat.

A More Perfect Union? Power, Sex and Race in the Representation of Couples, through May 21 at the Woodmere Art Museum, 9201 Germantown Ave, $7-$10 (free Sundays, children and students always free), 215-247-0476 or woodmereartmuseum.org