Exhibition Review: Virginia Woolf

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The view of Godrevy Lighthouse (which inspired To the Lighthouse) from the hotel.

Last weekend I went all the way to St Ives in Cornwall with some friends for a fabulous time visiting the Virginia Woolf exhibition currently on at Tate St Ives. It’s the perfect place to explore Woolf’s ideas, landscape and feminist consciousness; St Ives is well known as an artists’ place, with its light and landscape which has inspired so many; and Woolf wrote so fondly of the inspiration and happiness provided by her early summers spent at Talland House (which we sought out, of course). A Londoner by birth, Woolf writes Cornwall into several of her novels, including Jacob’s Room, To the Lighthouse and The Waves. She wrote that

‘I went for a walk in Regent’s Park yesterday morning, and it suddenly struck me how absurd it was to stay in London, with Cornwall going on all the time,’ she records of her sudden train journey from London to Cornwall in 1909. I have been walking along the sands and sitting in the sun… I am so drugged with fresh air that I can’t write…As for the beauty of this place it surpasses every other season.

As someone who frequently feels the urge to hop on the Penzance train instead of going home at the end of a long day, I understand completely. For Woolf, Cornwall offered a kind of freedom from the social life and claustrophobia of London (which, equally, she

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Talland House

thrived on), and this and so much more is reflected in the exhibition. Woolf’s life and work are situated in a web of cultural forms, from art to bookbinding, home furnishings to sculpture, and of course she had close ties to the women’s suffrage movement and wrote passionately about women’s creativity and education. This exhibition, then, in the year in which we mark 100 years of women’s suffrage, is particularly significant, and all the more so because it only features women’s work. Over the last decade attention has repeatedly been drawn to studies about the under-representation of women artists, and this has been repeatedly ignored, but here is an exhibition that makes a wonderful attempt to redress the balance.

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(c) artcornwall.org

The show offers, consequently, an insight into the changing landscape of women’s lives over the last 100 years. Many of these insights are internal: there are some of Vanessa Bell’s wonderful still lives, which seem to echo Woolf’s novels is so many ways, as well as furnishing fabrics, ceramics and portraits. From Gwen John’s uncompromising stare in her self-portrait to Laura Knight’s The Dark Pool (one of my favourite paintings, but which does not appear in the catalogue, sadly), to photographs of Dora Carrington as a ‘living sculpture’, unconventional creative women are celebrated throughout. There are several wonderful ‘windowsill’ paintings, by Bell, Knight, Wilhelmina Barnes-Graham and others, which transform a woman’s point of view from a domestic centre by looking outwards. Some are almost mocking in their refusal of domestic life (such as Knight’s Cactus, complete with dead flies), and they indicate both the necessity of a ‘room of one’s own’ along with a denial of ‘traditional’ feminine values.

Woolf argued that, as women, we must ‘think back through our mothers’, indicating the need for a strong female tradition in art and literature to rival that of the male tradition. The exhibition offers a way to do this. Judy Chicago’s setting for Woolf from her famous work The Dinner Party (1978) offers a feminist approach to thinking about female creativity and sexuality, while other exhibits such as Claude Cahun’s fascinating photographic self-portraits explore multiple selves and aspects of gender which seem to echo Woolf’s Orlando. Gluck’s marvellous landscapes, meanwhile, so low and with so much sky, position the woman in the landscape itself. The many contradictions of social, personal and cultural constructions of womanhood are explored in their glorious, confusing multiplicity: women both is and isn’t a part of ‘nature’, for example; womanhood means many things and both is and isn’t an ‘essence’. Women are not necessarily mothers, or nurturing, but what we learn is that women are creative, and perhaps all the more so when this is against the odds. Perhaps women’s work looks different when it is not displayed alongside often larger and showier masculine artworks (although some of these are larger and showier, too!) but in some ways I left feeling that gender is perhaps less important to art than I thought: there are some wonderful works here, demonstrating female excellence in a range of media, and though the public and private faces of womanhood are central to many of them, they are not the only thing that matters.

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Gluck, Before the races, St Buryan, Cornwall (1924, private collection)

 

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Exhibition review: ‘Beyond Ophelia’

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Curator Hannah Squire

Wightwick Manor in Wolverhampton is hosting an exhibition devoted to the art and poetry of Elizabeth Siddall, and, shockingly, it’s only the second exhibition to focus exclusively on Siddall. I’ve been writing about Siddall for a while now (my book My Ladys Soul: The Poetry of Elizabeth Siddall will be published in June) and while her face is familiar to many, her work less so, particularly her poetry, though her life exerts a great fascination. This exhibition makes a good attempt at redressing the balance, then: although information about Siddall’s life and Pre-Raphaelite connections is there, the focus is on her as an artist and poet. And Wightwick is the perfect place for it: they hold the second-largest collection of Siddall’s works (the first being the Ashmolean).

2018 is proving to be a year for celebrating women’s achievements, often against all odds, given that it is 100 years since women were able to vote (though this was not on equal terms until 1928). The Manders, who built Wightwick and collected Pre-Raphaelite 28276572_10154975470041315_6622862564304738970_nand Arts and Crafts works with which to furnish it, were also keen suffragists, and one room of the house is currently set up for a Suffragette meeting. Siddall’s achievements as an artist, limited by her early death and all too often viewed as dependent on her more famous husband, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, are appropriately celebrated, then. Wightwick’s collection of 12 works by Siddall are on display in the beautiful Daisy Room, framed for the first time, along with other works no longer in the collection but loaned for the exhibition. This offers a genuinely unique opportunity to consider Siddall’s work as a body (though of course there are many other works), but there is plenty here to give you a feel for her skill as an artist, with her expressive and evocative pencil drawings, 28279682_10154975470241315_2380485743337476893_nand two small and beautiful oils, St Agnes’ Eve and The Haunted Wood (above).

I’m delighted to see that the exhibition also includes some of Siddall’s poetry. A few of her poems are beautifully printed and hung on the walls alongside her artworks, and I hope that this will encourage visitors to explore her under-appreciated poetry. It’s a particular pleasure that some lines appear on the walls above the wallpaper, drawing the eye. Her work as an artist and poet, in the complex gendered environment of the nineteenth-century cultural sphere, is outlined in exhibition boards, and visitors are encouraged to see Siddall as a creator of serious art in her own right – something which, despite three decades of serious critical work on her art, and less sustained but still significant work on her poetry, is still overlooked. Both the art and the poetry demonstrates Siddall’s engagement with her cultural milieu: her illustrations for poems and ballads, and the influence of these works and forms on her own writing, bear out her deep consideration – and transformation – of other works of art.

This is a small exhibition, but it is beautiful, and the room with its fireplace and gorgeous wallpaper feels intimate and cosy. It is open from March 1st until December 24th, 2018, so there is no excuse not to go and see it! Siddall is so often remembered as the model for Millais’s Ophelia, and it is encouraging to see this exhibition encouraging us to go ‘beyond Ophelia’.

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Exhibition Review: Stanhope Forbes

Stanhope Alexander Forbes (1857-1947) is usually referred to as the ‘Father of the Newlyn School’ of artists, and is indelibly associated with the group of Cornish artists despite being born in Ireland; his move to Newlyn coincided with his first major success, and his paintings reflect the differing realities of life on the Cornish coast. It’s appropriate, then, that the Penlee Gallery in Penzance is holding a major exhibition of Forbes’ work which includes almost all of his best paintings (on until September 9th).

91c6c4ee0a448b5f333e7b32b6a78a2aForbes studied in France where he learned the ‘plein air’ style, and recorded life there while he studied, and some of these early French paintings are on display here (The Convent, 1882, reminded me in its effects of open air of The Pretty Baa Lambs by Ford Madox Brown). His move to Cornwall in 1884 was primarily a search for subjects, and he certainly found it; his works have atmosphere and local colour in bucketloads, and the appeal to tourists ever since is clear, but there is something more genuine, and less chocolate-box, about his work than simply a postcard painting. He celebrates local festivals, bands playing, people celebrating – but he also shows us the heartbreak and the sheer hard work of life on the coast. A Fish Sale on a Cornish Beach (1885, above) was one of his first Cornish paintings, and one which taught him the challenges of painting outside, as light and people moved and weather made things difficult. This is one of his most famous works, and demonstrates that he is not sentimentalising the topic, I think, though it’s clear he had an eye for the market (and the Royal Academy). Regatta Day, Penzance (c1890, below) shows a cheerier scene which captures both the period and the idiosyncrasies of the local population, but in these two paintings as in the others it’s clear that he is watching the local community as an outsider with privileged access, rather than as part of it, which is perhaps the lot of a painter, maintaining detachment and distance.

Forbes, Stanhope Alexander, 1857-1947; Penzance Regatta Day

Other works, such as The Quarry Team (1894) are even stronger on social realism, depicting the toughness of life in Cornish industries, and rather gloomily, too. (This painting was slashed by suffragettes, incidentally, but despite careful looking there’s no sign of it! I’m interested to speculate whether this was random or if they chose this work for a particular reason).

The exhibition contains a number of photographs of the artist at work in his studio or Forbes, Stanhope Alexander, 1857-1947; Chadding on Mount's Baypainting outside, and also fishing, with other artists, etc, suggesting he was a jolly outdoors sort of chap of the type that the late nineteenth century bred so well (I’ve no idea if this is true, though). There are some more idyllic scenes among those on display: Chadding in Mounts Bay (1902) is a more cheerful, sentimentalised and more Edwardian scene (right), in which the sun shines, the sea is blue and the children are rosy-cheeked and cheerful(ish). Gala Day (1907) is slightly less so, because despite its emphasis on the local and the patriotic, there are figures on the fringes – an elderly woman straightening a child’s sleeve, women chatting and pointing – which makes the work feel real, almost photographic in composition if not in style.

Many of the paintings are linked to a specific location, and some of those have hardly changed – Mousehole Harbour (1910), for example, is still distinctly recognisable – but in many ways Forbes’ paintings preserve a moment in a world now lost. Times change, though, and in many ways his later paintings update these earlier idylls: the children of Relubbus Bridge (1930) are updated versions of the earlier cherubs that went chadding in Mount’s Bay. Yet there is change, in people, in dress and in subjects chosen; Forbes lived a long life and demonstrates his understanding of a changing way of life on the coast. The interwar years have less working men and more scenery, less sentiment and also less local colour in the form of festivals and ceremonies.

Lightin Up TimeThe colours of the paintings are often the colours of the sea; apart from some interiors, blues and greys (glas is the Cornish word for whatever colour the sea is) predominate, some muted and some vivid, but usually with a touch of brightness somewhere in the painting. The exhibition is carefully hung to emphasise this, I think; gallery 3 is darker, with many indoor or night paintings. The light effects in darkness here are masterly, seen in Lighting Up Time (1902), for example (left). The Steel Workers (1915) depicts a much more modern industry and seems uncharacteristic of his previous topics, though logically it’s another relevant industry to depict, and the painting demonstrates similar techniques with spots of light highlighting different parts of the painting. The Letter (1898, below) provides a major contrast, though: this is high Victorian melodrama, featuring dramatic lighting for a scene in which a presumably tragic letter has arrived, and the mother of the family opens it in the doorway watched by her family, the postman and, for full sentimental effect, the dog.

Letter

I’ve seen a lot of Stanhope Forbes’ work over the years, but this exhibition still managed to surprise me with the breadth and depth of his work; there is no substitute for seeing a wide range of an artist’s work on display together, and this demonstrated to me how much Forbes chose his subjects to suit his audience as well as his own style, and how well that style works in a coastal setting. The exhibition is set up to consider continuities in his work from the earlier to the final paintings rather than to examine his development as an artist, but it is, of course, possible to see both with careful attention.

An Adventure in Moominland

MoominsA while ago now, we went to see Adventures in Moominland at the Soutbbank Centre at the weekend, and I can safely say I’ve never been to an exhibition like it before, and also that it’s the most my five-year-old has ever enjoyed an exhibition (and he does like visiting art galleries anyway). I’ve always been fond of the Moomins: from when I first got them out of the school library when I was about 8, I’ve always felt they were admirable creatures: they’re cute and appealing, but also sensible. They deal with life well, enjoying the world around them and building strong relationships – but in a fun way. I love how Moominmama is always in the kitchen, with her handbag and an apron, but is quite happy to just go off on an adventure at the drop of a hat – we should all be a bit more like that. The loner philosopher Snufkin is my favourite, I think, though. So it’s been a delight to introduce my son to the books, and since the exhibition offered a chance to go into Moominland, how could we resist?!

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No photos are allowed inside, so I can only describe it, but the exhibition is set up as a imagesjourney into Moominland. You begin in a tent, where the Moomins camp out, and there is a tour guide (who refers to the children as ‘My young adventurers’) and also a voice-over with more discussion of the author, Tove Jansson’s life, beautifully done by Sandi Toksvig. You travel through magic forests with “real” snow on the ground, tropical gardens with sand, haze and plants, where the Hemulen collects his botanical samples, the boathouse (which doubles up as Jansson’s studio), and many other scenes, and end up in Moominhouse, where the Moomins are asleep, snoring, in the next room. There’s two interlinking narratives here; the guide presents one suitable for children, and while the children are tampere-art-museum-moominvalley-collection-photo-jari-kuusenaho-2-copy-1001x1024exploring there is also the voiceover which gives more information for adults. I didn’t know much about Jansson’s life but it was fascinating: how she developed the characters of the Moomin family and their friends, how she worked contemporary events during WW2 into her stories, etc. There are not just scenes, of course, but also many, many original drawings by Jansson, and they really are wonderful; the detail (and, often, menace) in them really makes them works of art in their own right. They are in protective cases that appear as suitcases, set in walls, or otherwise presented so that they are at child level but safe from small fingers! It’s an innovative and informative way of exhibiting Jansson’s work which draws on her life and her work, and has equal appeal to adults and children. It was meant to close in April but has been extended until August, giving more people a chance to see it.

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Exhibition review: Vanessa Bell

a-conversationI first encountered Vanessa Bell’s work when I was a student at the Courtauld, where I saw A Conversation and Arum Lilies, and fell in love with them. In fact, I haven’t seen that much more of her work since, so went to Dulwich Picture Gallery‘s new exhibition of Bell’s work as soon as I could. Bell is primarily known today as part of the Bloomsbury group – sister to the more famous Virginia (Woolf), muse and lover to several men including Duncan Grant – and only incidentally a painter in her own right. Critics speculate that in fact history might have treated her more favourably had she not been associated with such a notorious group.

This exhibition contains only works by Bell, and the explicit aim is to refocus on her as an artist – and one who is deeply engaged with Continental art, who is ‘one of the leading artists of her day’, according to the exhibition notes, who has an irresistible ‘energy and forthrightness’ in her work as well as her life. The first room, ‘Among Friends’, does slightly undermine this concept, though, since the portraits are familiar Bloomsbury faces, including herself and Woolf, Lytton Strachey, Duncan Grant and others. However, I particularly appreciated The Red Dress, a Madonna-esque portrait of her mother based on a photograph by Julia Margaret Cameron and worked up in oils by Bell after her mother’s death. Lady Strachey is also appealing: a slightly grand but rather practical-looking woman, passionately feminist, unconventional and given to reciting poetry aloud. Bell’s portraits move sharply away from the conventions of Victorian portraiture, capturing their subjects in a way which does not rely on a realist depiction but rather uses unexpected colours and brushstrokes to draw out some deeper energy which she saw in them. In the portrait of Lytton Strachey we can see his spontenaity as well as hers; in the portrait of Woolf in an armchair we are conscious both of her inscrutability and also of the portrait as a depiction of the writer’s complex inner life.

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The designs for the Omega Workshop which appear in the exhibition are full of life and colour, the clashing bold designs both of their time and timeless, which is also true of her still lifes; while Bell clearly knows and subtly references earlier still lifes with their flowers and fruit, hers are quite her own, though Iceland Poppies demonstrates what she learned from Sargent, but paintings such as Arum Lilies, with its slightly awkward angle and apparently haphazard positioning is appealing in a unique way because of its original approach to form and colour. I’ve always wondered how the vase remains upright.

While she noted that ‘one isn’t meant to paint what one thinks beautiful’, happily she was able to ignore such rigorous tastes, painting things that clearly are beautiful but in a way which creates her own view of such beauty. The Other Room, a painting intended as an overmantel, in Studland Beach. Verso: Group of Male Nudes by Duncan Grant circa 1912 by Vanessa Bell 1879-1961which we see out of a window across a room; the effect would have been cleverly to suggest that one was looking in a mirror, transforming the room in which the painting was hung, but also implying that there are hidden, other places we can glimpse through paintings, round corners, out of windows. Paintings such as this remind me that Bell’s art is all about art – about colour and form and design, about living it, about painting other artists. Everything she paints says something about her artistic theories and integrity – a conclusion I probably couldn’t have reached without this exhibition.

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Other paintings indicate her awareness of Impressionism and other movements, from the Cubist portrait of Molly McCarthy to landscape paintings which reference Cezanne and Monet. I never really thought of Bell as a landscape painter, but the exhibition has corrected me in this, and points out that she loved to paint as she explored the countryside around her home. There are also many Continental landscapes, full of light and colour, capturing the spirit of place wonderfully and evocatively.

Her portraits of women, with which the exhibition closes, are amazing: the opening panel points out that her ‘portraits of women offer us bracing encounters with female subjects given startling new agency and force’. After all, this is a time when women were beginning to gain some power – the vote, for instance, and to have more possibilities for establishing themselves as artists, writers and intellectuals independently of the men in their lives. This is apparent in her portraits, yet she does not shy away from depicting alienated women in Studland Beach, and in her self-portrait she shows herself as a painter, yet with her face blurred, absenting herself from her own work. There is much to reflect on here, and though the arrangement of the works by theme rather than period can be obscuring of her development as an artist, it also offers an insight into the ideas that preoccupied her across her life, as well as indicating the breadth of styles and approaches, as well as subjects, she explored. I must add that the exhibition labels were extremely good – detailed and informative, which is all too rare these days, and the catalogue is a delight!

Exhibition review: Paul Nash

angel-and-devilI was very pleased to be able to catch the Paul Nash exhibition at Tate Britain last week (it closes March 5th), and I took 11 pages of notes, so this post will be an attempt to condense my ideas into some form of review! Nash (1889-1946) is not, I think, as appreciated as he should be (in my circles, anyway!) but his deep and sustained involvement in a movements, events and exhibitions throughout the early twentieth century, particularly in his surrealist later work, is demonstrated beautifully in this large exhibition.

The opening room is entitled ‘Dreaming Trees’, and indeed trees feature throughout much of his early and mid-career work, in different forms. I hadn’t been aware of the strong influence of the Pre-Raphaelites and Blake on Nash’s work, but some early examples of his illustrations clearly three-treesindicate this, such as ‘The Combat’ and ‘Our Lady of Inspiration’. Nash also on occasion wrote his own poetry to accompany his work. His engagement with landscape, and trees in particular, is accompanied by his unusual approach; he ‘tried to paint trees as though they were human beings’, looking for the character and individuality of plant forms, as a part of his attempts to explore the locus genii which preoccupies his work throughout his life. Moving beyond conventional landscapes, he wrote that

my love of the monstrous and the magical led me beyond the confines of natural appearances into surreal worlds…

I particularly liked the almost-human trees in ‘The Three Trees’, which appear in many of his paintings and were inspired by the trees near his family house. Their personality appears, and in the range of paintings of trees including these it is possible to see how he became more drawn to the drama and mysticism of the natural world: the exhibition label says that he

lived the drama of the nocturnal skies – falling stars, moonrise, storms and summer lightning.

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The works on display indicate the extent to which Nash links the natural world with creativity, but other worlds intrude; after his war experiences, his paintings often still include trees, but they are different, an attempt to drag order from chaos, forms from formlessness. His movement towards surrealism is marked, at the start, by a formal, structured beauty which tries to make sense of a changing world, but at the edges there is an untamed wildness, and an acknowledgement that the relationship between humanity and nature is an unequal one, where the balance varies. The section ‘We Are Making a New World’, named after one of his most famous war paintings, exemplifies this: he described himself as ‘no longer an artist’ but ‘a messenger’, using simplified forms, such as stunted trees and devastated landscapes, to demonstrate the destructiveness of war (here, again, the trees seem to stand in for people). Yet in several of the paintings, such as ‘Spring in the Trenches’, nature reassert itself after the damage that war has inflicted: nature is always stronger, in the end, though the soldiers in the trenches are blind to its beauty.

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The landscapes become more and more angular and geometric; they indicate a world which continues to change, where humanity seems increasingly reckless in its treatment of the environment. In a series of paintings with red clouds it is difficult to tell if nature is in sympathy, or angry with a world bent on destruction. In ‘The Menin Road’ the landscape has become entirely subject to form, with even the sky appearing unnatural, and the vicious vertical lines of the blasted trees standing in for the ruined lives of soldiers.

Later sections demonstrate Nash’s attachment to place, as well as his interest in ancient monolithshistorical sites such as Whiteleaf Cross. This might be read as an escape from the troubling present, but it is human interventions in and reshaping of landscape that seems to draw him here. Increasingly his paintings veer towards abstraction, with forms placed in the landscape – which he continued to do for the rest of his life – and with works such as ‘Winter Sea’ constructing a geometric abstraction from nature. His paintings which seem to show nature framed, shaped and controlled by humanity, such as ‘Month of March’, often show a branch out of place, or some small sign that nature is still in charge.

In the 1930s his work undergoes further shifts, especially in his interest in still lifes and indoor paintings which demonstrate his increasing use of form and shape to structure his works. These invite questions; ‘St Pancras’, for example, with its slightly disorientating perspective, pits verticals against horizontals, curves against straight lines, so that the viewer’s eye is confused once it moves beyond the vase in the foreground, and we watch as if looking through the window ourselves. His exploration of shape in the world is extrapolated further in ‘Dead Spring’ and ‘Lares’, in which the latter abstracts the shapes of the former. Other still-life/abstract works draw in found objects, such as glove stretchers repurposed as sculptural trees; there are several tree-related works which both echo his earlier paintings and indicate how far his work has moved on, particularly under the influence of surrealism.

Nash writes of landscapes:

They are unseen merely because they are not perceived.

Exploring his own vision of landscape allows him to see differently, and even manmade objects seem to form landscapes in his works. ‘Equivalents for the Megaliths’ is one of his most famous paintings, and indicates his ability to combine landscape and form in unexpected juxtapositions; the stylised landscape of the background is populated by forms which stand in for the megaliths so that what is man made becomes a very different part of the view. There are also photographs; ‘Monster Field’ is an image of elms struck by lightning which take in both the appearance and the personality of monsters.

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With the advent of WWII, Nash painted crashed German bombers, and in a number of paintings indicates the threat which comes from the sky during war, sometimes with the red clouds which appeared in his previous war paintings. Towards the end of his life, his work is lighter in colour, exploring cycles of change, life and death, which is apparent both in his works with sunflowers, and also in his essay ‘Aerial Flowers’. Again he turns to the natural world to understand the incomprehensible, exploring varied landscapes to create his unique vision. There is an appealing circularity in this return to the land.