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.

lady-strachey

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.

ahsham

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!

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Virginia Woolf: Art, Life and Vision

Virginia_Woolf_by_George_Charles_Beresford_(1902)I find Virginia Woolf fascinating. It took me a few years to appreciate her novels, though I read and loved her non-fiction much younger, but I’ve been rereading her novels over the last year or so and am finding it a wonderful experience. Not only do her feminist views and approaches to women’s writing appeal to me, I find her novels give the best perspective of the way I (and presumably others) think that it’s the most immersive reading. I like how engaged she was with history, art and music, and I like that she was interested in clothes, too, as a way of representing ourselves (particularly apparent in Orlando) – and she appeared in Vogue, ‘merging high fashion with high culture’. Now, thanks to the exhibition Virginia Woolf: Art, Life and Vision at the National Portrait Gallery, I discover she crocheted, too.

The exhibition, accompanied by an excellent catalogue by Frances Spalding (which I had to buy) explores the complex web that was Woolf’s life, through paintings of her and by those around her (in Bloomsbury), photographs, books, letters etc. The introductory panel points out the privacy Woolf wished to maintain in order to live a writer’s life, which contrasts with our desire to ‘know’ writers, and the fascination we feel for those whose books we love. But there seems little prurience here, and the focus is on the public, writerly side of Woolf, though it is also a pleasure to see pictures of her home (published in Vogue) and portraits of herself and her family and friends. vanessa-bell-conversation

‘Who was I then?’ she asked, and we are still asking exactly who she was, and trying to understand how her mind worked and produced such delicate, radical and absorbing novels and essays. From the ’eminent Victorians’ who dominated her young mind (including her father, Leslie Stephen, as well as Tennyson, Browning et al) to the influence of the Bloomsbury set, including her husband, Leonard Woolf, painters including her sister Vanessa Bell and her husband Duncan Grant, Lytton Strachey and the modernist critic Roger Fry. Well-connected throughout her life, this exhibition highlights how her circle grew from her family and those around her, and offer a tranquil picture of her life. But there is much more to it than that: the daily absorption in literature, art and music created Woolf’s own unique vision (perhaps contributing to the accusation that her work is ‘elitist’) is imagined here through the exhibits.

mother's dressIn fact, rather than elitist, the exhibition suggests that the Woolfs were intentionally practising ‘cultural inclusiveness’ through the Hogarth Press, with works which ‘promoted democracy, anti-imperialism and anti-war arguments, publishing books that cut across the divides created by class, education and nationality.’

One of my favourite twentieth century paintings is here: Vanessa Bell’s A Conversation, which balances the mood between gossipy and serious, and contains echoes of how we (think they) lived at Charleston. In fact the exhibition is also illuminating of the changing forms and styles of Bell’s and Grant’s work, as well as demonstrating their ability to capture characters. There are also many delightful books from the Hogarth Press which the Woolfs set up, with eye-catching covers very resonant of the period, and including not only Woolf’s own work but that of her contemporaries. She seemed to know everyone – from TS Eliot to James Joyce; there are also letters here to Katherine Mansfield, with whom she seems to have had a volatile virginia-woolf_1652005cfriendship. Another little bit of information: I was fascinated to find out that the Pre-Raphaelite sculptor Thomas Woolner proposed to Woolf’s mother, who was connected to Pre-Raphaelite circles through her family. Woolf was photographed for Vogue in Woolner’s house, and wore her mother’s gown for the occasion.

Her last letters to Vanessa and Leonard are here, and the final item is a painting by Duncan Grant in 1960, Still Life with Bust of Virginia Woolf, Charleston. Now, the beautiful woman with the soulful eyes of the earlier paintings and photographs is replaced with a more severe representation; she is doubly memorialised here, the eyes blank but surrounded by books and the reminders of her life’s work.