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!

Book review: The Bloomsbury Cookbook

bloomsburyFor Christmas one of the (many) books I received was Jans Ondaatje Rolls’ The Bloomsbury Cookbook: Recipes for Life, Love and Art. I have to admit that I’m not a particularly keen cook, but this is much more than a recipe book and I thoroughly enjoyed it. The rationale behind the book is that the Bloomsbury group, with their friendships and enthusiasm for communal living and intense talk, often did so over food. Virginia Woolf wrote in ‘A Room of One’s Own’ that ‘A good dinner is of great importance to good talk. One cannot think well, love well, sleep well, if one has not dined well.’ If their food was inspirational to their conversation, their work and their lives, this is the book to demonstrate that. From tea and biscuits to game, there is a Bloomsbury recipe for every occasion you might imagine, and some you couldn’t.

I’d never really noticed before how much talk of food there is in the novels of Woolf and E. M. Forster, among others, though I had noticed Vanessa Bell’s proclivity for painting still life fruit, eggs etc. Forster commented onfood the food which appears in Woolf’s novels, pointing out her sensuous awareness of taste, creating a kind of epicurean realism for literary ends; given Woolf’s concern with women’s lives (and after all, food preparation was primarily the concern of women), this sets aspects of her novels in a slightly different light. Most of the figures who appear in the cookbook had domestic staff, of course, so if they cooked themselves it was for pleasure, perhaps even an affectation, but Woolf’s enthusiasm for baking bread and Bell’s desire to feed and care for her family, Carrington’s nourishing of Lytton Strachey, demonstrate aspects of their lives which are perhaps less radical than they might have wished.

This is quite an odd book: not academic, not really biographical, it is more VB2of an assortment – like an old recipe book, perhaps, full of titbits, of gossip, anecdotes and suggestions as well as recipes. A consistent narrative of the lives of the Bloomsberries is constructed through the chronological development of the book, divided into chapters based on time periods, and as such it is remarkably wide-ranging. There is plenty here which doesn’t relate at all to cookery,  and some of the links are rather tenuous, but it is written with such joy in food and conversation, and such good humour (there are some very funny anecdotes I hadn’t come across before) that it is a great read. One of the greatest pleasures of this book is the illustrations: it is lavishly full of full-page colour reproductions of paintings, especially by Bell and Duncan Grant, as well as photographs, book covers, pages of recipe books etc. bloomsbury cookbook

The recipes come from various sources, as Rolls points out in her introduction; some from original cookery books belonging to relevant figures, others from contemporary recipes, while a few are of her own devising. I might even try a few, especially the cakes. Rolls points out the appeal of recreating these recipes:

The intimacy of handling the same ingredients, sharing the same smells, textures and tastes as they did, is the closest one can come to dinner tete-a-tete with Bloomsbury.

Using food and cookery as a central domestic theme provides a new wayNPG Ax140432; Lady Ottoline Morrell; Maria Huxley (nÈe Nys); Lytton Strachey; Duncan Grant; Vanessa Bell (nÈe Stephen) by Unknown photographer of looking at these well-researched figures, then. The recent ‘Life in Squares’ indicates that there is still a great deal of interest in the personal lives of the Bloomsbury group, and what is more personal than cooking, eating and sharing food? It might make them seem more ordinary, growing vegetables, preparing them, cooking, eating; but it was all done with such panache and relish, according to Rolls, that it only continues the appeal of the group.

Life in Squares

Life-in-SquaresWatching ‘Life in Squares’, the new BBC drama about the Bloomsbury set, is a matter of watching people self-consciously try to be unconventional, which is slightly painful. Somehow the ‘liberated’ approach in which, as Vanessa Bell says, if we are not free we might as well be our parents (that is, Victorians), seems stifling and uncomfortable much of the time, and I suspect that really is how it was. Freedom doesn’t lead to happiness, is the moral of this series, even if it does lead to changing society and great art.

The title is taken from Dorothy Parker’s quip that the Bloomsbury set ‘lived in squares, painted in circles and loved in triangles’, or something like that. The first and the last of these are emphasised more tbellhan the painting, or writing, in ‘Life in Squares’, despite claims that this series was not simply prurient about the lives of those involved (‘sniffing the bedsheets’, according to Virginia Nicholson, a descendant). There is a lot of sex, and conversation, much of it trite, and although we are occasionally reminded of art (a shot of Vanessa Bell painting, Virginia Woolf mentioning her writing) the priority is on relationships.

The so-called ‘Bloomsbury Group’ were a collection of artists, writers, critics, publishers etc (many of them related) who, in the early twentieth century, rebelled against the stuffiness of society, trying to change everything about how we saw the world. Indeed the opening scenes are very late-Victorian, giving the viewer a real sense of what they – especially the Stephen sisters Vanessa and Virginia – wanted to escape from. The first episode set up this sense of a new generation forWoolf (1)ging the way ahead, from the sisters throwing their corsets out of the window to a genuine sense of the women’s desire for what men had – education, freedom, power. This sense is lost somewhat by the second episode, though, as relationships become increasingly tangled and we see ahead to their future beyond the heady days of youth and freedom.

Everything is very loaded; references to future events – Woolf’s depression and eventual suicide; her bisexuality; the death of Vanessa’s son Julian; the future marriage of ‘Bunny’ Garnett and Angelica Bell – these are all alluded to in a way which makes those who know about the events nod knowingly. This seems heavy-handed sometimes, as well as charleston-3_1910932ithe way in which the characters appear so much what I expected that they are almost caricatures of themselves. The series is clearly attempting to do the characters justice, but with insufficient focus on their art it’s difficult to achieve that. The focus on Vanessa Bell is nice, though: it can’t have been easy being Virginia Woolf’s less-famous sister, apart from anything else, so it’s refreshing to see Bell, with her muted sadness, as a central figure (and I have always enjoyed her paintings). The aesthetics are wonderful, too; the clothes, the houses, reflect the post-Victorian-ness of the time, and no doubt will bring further visitors to Charleston, the Bells’ country home. It also perhaps asks the viewer to reflect on whether these somewhat naive fledgling attempts to forge a new kind of society, and a new kind of art, were successful, worthwhile, or doomed from the start. It will be interesting to see if the final episode brings any answers to these questions.

Photographs of the Bloomsbury Set

Another small display at the National Portrait Gallery is ‘The Bloomsbury Poet and the Cambridge Photographer: Julian Bell and Lettice Ramsey’. Julian Bell, the son of Vanessa and Clive Bell, formed a relationship at Cambridge with Lettice Ramsey, whose firm Ramsey and Muspratt’s photographs make up this exhibition. This exhibition features photographs of many of the Bloomsbury set, remarkable people including Virginia Woolf, Vanessa Bell, Clive Bell, as well as Angelica, Quentin and Julian Bell, and some of the Cambridge Apostles, many of whom went on to have illustrious careers: John Maynard Keynes, G.E. Moore, George Rylands and Donald MacLean, for example. The display is full of intense studio portraits in which you sense the sitter’s self-importance, and casual snapshots which are in many ways much more appealing, giving access to a private side of a figure.

At the end of the display is a beautiful bust of Vanessa Bell by Marcel Gimond, which depicts Bell, calm and Madonna-like – which is appropriate given her remarkably close relationship with her son (who died fighting fascism in the Spanish Civil War). The bust, with its heavy-lidded eyes and stern expression, looks almost sorrowful. Exhibitions like this are always fascinating, I think, for the insight they give into the characters of significant historical or literary figures, as well as flagging up the relationships between them.

The display coincides with the publication of Julian Bell: from Bloomsbury to the Spanish Civil War, by Peter Stansky and Williams Abrahams.