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.


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.


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: Ravilious

Train_at_Nightrgb_mediumJust before it closed, I managed to get to see the Ravilious exhibition at the Dulwich Picture Gallery. This was a new experience for me insofar as it was the first exhibition I’ve attended with my 3-year-old; it was also quite crowded (sorry, anyone visiting who had listen to his demands that EVERYONE LOOK AT THE AEROPLANE! AND THE HORSEY! AND THE TRAIN! etc). Actually, it was a great exhibition for a child, with lots of objects in the pictures which appealed to him, and I’m pleased to say he actually discussed it with me afterwards, and proudly chose himself a postcard to take home (while I, having had to go a bit more quickly than usual, decided to buy the catalogue). The exhibition was one of the most enjoyable I’ve seen for a while, though: Ravilious’s graphic art with its muted colours and restrained detail is absorbing and revealing.belle_tout_lighthouse

The catalogue comments that his work has been seen as variously ‘light-hearted, sinister, quintessentially English, modern,
emotionally distant and nostalgic’. All of these seem fair comments, I think, and not necessarily exclusive to each other; his focus on objects rather than people, in the majority of his works, and often strange objects at that, leads us to conjecture about his paintings, wondering why a room is deserted, a bedstead of such interest, etc. There is a strange sense of isolation and desertedness in many of his paintings, as if the inhabitants have just left a room but will never return – and yet the nostalgia for a pre-war England, with its faded wallpapers and old-fashioned furniture, is apparent, painted with care by someone who wanted to preserve something which was about to change forever.

tea_at_furlongsThe exhibition demonstrates the astonishing range and flexibility of the artist’s approach: from woodcuts to watercolours, he seems to make a range of marks on paper in a variety of ways which somehow perfectly capture the mood of a scene, not faithfully replicating it but somehow infusing it with a sense of period, of loss or longing, even. From domestic interiors to his work as a war artist (he died when his plane went down in 1942, aged only 39), to the seemingly random subjects such as derelict buses or a tea table, his works are always identifiably Ravilious, somehow, containing a hint of his unique vision. The exhibition divides his work by subject: ‘Relics and Curiosities’, ‘Figures and Forms’, ‘Interiors’, ‘Place and Season’, ‘Changing Perspectives’ and ‘Dark and Light’. Interestingly, this approach is also broadly chronological, beginning with early work and concluding with his wartime watercolours, thus suggesting an arc of development in his ideas and methods as well as the range of subjects (or objects, perhaps!) that he studied. The constant is in his distinct eye, appearing in his consistent use of colour, brushwork, and unusual perspectives and angles, influenced (though not excessively) by his Modernist contemporaries.Train Landscape

It is an exhibition to make us wonder, I think; the pictures inspire stories, conjecture, invented histories, alongside a sense of a real history of a time and a place which is no longer truly accessible to the modern world, for all that the landscapes are still with us, if somewhat altered. Ravilious wrote little about his work, so we don’t even have much of his own words to go on, to augment his work, though research has been done, particularly by his daughter, and his letters and biography are available – but they give away relatively little – and in a way I’m not sorry about this. Even information about the place and situation in which he painted still doesn’t really fill in the details which the viewer is invited to ponder, though. If you missed the exhibition, buy the catalogue, and dream up some stories.

room hurricane