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!

Woolf Works

 

wwThe Royal Ballet’s production of Wayne McGregor’s Woolf Works seems to have been discussed and reviewed everywhere recently, and I was very happy to be able to go and see it at the weekend. Woolf’s novels have been adapted and reframed in different ways before, but none quite like this; it works brilliantly, though. The ballet is divided into three acts, each relating to one of Virginia Woolf’s novels: ‘I now, I then’ is based on Mrs Dalloway, ‘Becomings’ on Orlando and ‘Tuesday’ on  The Waves. The whole experience is dramatic, moving, even playful sometimes, and intertwines Woolf’s life and work. Max Richter’s music both directs and echoes the movement on stage, and in the programme notes he describes the unique ‘musical grammar’ required for each of the three texts.

The programme notes (which can be downloaded online) are helpful in exploring the process of depicting Woolf’s works on the stage; the deliberate obscuring of narrative, for example, and Woolf’s creative exploration of language as a medium to depict experience might seem an unpromising place to start, but in fact her engagement with other art forms, including music, dance, art and photography, and the ways in which these appear in her writing, means that these Modernist texts offer possibilities not otherwise fully explored.

“How can we combine the old words in new orders so that they survive, so that they create beauty, so that they tell the truth?”

For example, in the first section, Mrs Dalloway can be torn apart and displayed on stage as simultaneous Clarissas perform, the contrast of youth and age which the novel explores depicted movingly beside one another (and just the expression of Alessandra Ferri’s legs is emotional!) Equally, Septimus and Clarissa, who do not meet in the book, share the stage here, haunting each other. Contrary to my expectations, I found from the beginning that there are clear links, if often interpretative ones, to the novels, which made it all the more appealing (I’m not sure how the ballet would appear to someone with no knowledge of Woolf’s works). The filmic sequences which play behind the dancers in this section (designed by Ravi Deepres, who is Professor of Moving Image and Photography at Birmingham City University) seemed to me to root the action in Woolf’s concepts of time and place, especially London of the period. The moving frames which appear mid-stage seem repeatedly to offer vistas and remove them, glimpses through into other worlds which seems wholly appropriate.

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The second section is based on Orlando, Woolf’s mock-biography of a man who becomes a woman, living over 400 years, and while the complex narrative of the novel would be almost impossible to contain in an act of a ballet, the sense of it is captured beautifully: paired androgynous figures leap and whirl with glee, offering a binary sense of gender that splits further until the concept of gender – along with time and place – becomes meaningless, an effect which the novel itself has. As lasers shoot across the stage and at the audience through billows of smoke, the spotlit dancers appear suspended in the mists of time, identifiable not through the usual means of dress distinguishable by period or gender, but by their movements. This act is the loosest interpretation of Woolf’s text, and it contrasts strikingly with the final, more sombre ‘Tuesday’, based on The Waves. Water imagery saturates both the movement and the stage here, following on from a reading of Woolf’s suicide note (and, of course, she also took her life in water). The watery visuals work well: waves of movement are complemented by waves of music and also the backdrop, and the sadness implicit in life bookended by death is conjured here, the suicide of Woolf echoing Septimus’s suicide in the first act.

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I loved this. For me, the intertwining of text and dance provided a wonderful experience (and it seems critics, and audiences, agree; it’s sold out and has been well reviewed, on the whole). Perhaps it doesn’t matter if you don’t know who the characters are, but for me, seeing versions of Woolf’s characters, and even more importantly, interpretations of her ideas, performed so beautifully was a very absorbing and uplifting experience. The production offers as many approaches, and effective use of different art forms, as Woolf’s own works, and I’m sure she would have been very satisfied with Woolf Works.

The illusion is upon me that something adheres for a moment, has roundness, weight, depth, is completed. This, for the moment, seems to be my life. If it were possible, I would hand it you entire. I would break it off as one breaks off a bunch of grapes. I would say, ‘Take it. This is my life.’ (The Waves)

Book review: Weatherland

9780500292655I like English weather, on the whole. I’m not one for too much sun, and providing it isn’t catastrophic (and I don’t have to drive in it), I enjoy the drama of mist, heavy rain, snow, and the occasional sunny day. I like seeing the effects the changeable weather has on the garden and on my moods. But for me as for most people, the weather is a backdrop to our daily lives, and one which, travelling by car, living in centrally-heated homes and working in air-conditioned, often windowless offices, we can increasingly ignore. This, as Alexandra Harris’s book suggests, is a shame.
Weather is important. The landscape is shaped by it, and many writers and artists believe that national character and temperament are shaped by the climate. Harris’s book, subtitled ‘Writers and Artists under English Skies’, explores how the English weather has been depicted from Beowulf onwards. Along the way, she considers how the weather affects people, and how and crucially why it is included in literature and art. Is it just a backdrop, or used for pathetic fallacy? It’s often much more significant than we think, it seems: human insistence on relating the weather to ourselves (writers who write better in Spring weather, for example), or anthropomorphising it, trying to make sense, find patterns, using faith, science, myth or art to explain it: we can’t ignore the weather. This determination to make something which is impervious to us make sense on our terms is fascinating, because it tells us more about the human condition than it does about the weather, even if it is simply in the recording of daily weather.
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‘The Rain it Raineth Every Day’, Norman Garstin (1889, Penlee House)

Harris explores an enormous and impressive range of works, drawing on social thought, history, science and the arts to explore how our relationship with the weather has changed over the centuries. Swift’s hatred of hot weather, Shelley’s desire to be a cloud, Ruskin’s concern that the skies were being spoiled for us by science: these are things I’d not really considered before. Harris’s gift is for writing in a manner both erudite and entertaining, which I thoroughly enjoyed in her last book, Romantic Moderns, and this is no less fascinating, making obvious things which are all too easily overlooked.

Harris’s deepest interest seems to be in Virginia Woolf, whose work is constantly preoccupied with weather conditions, and the book returns frequently to Orlando, in which the action takes place over four centuries, and the weather is observed (satirically): the Victorians are dark and damp, for example, while the twentieth century is bright and dry. Apparently Wyndham Lewis disliked English weather, suggesting in his Vorticist manifesto that it should be ‘Blasted’, because it was inappropriately dull and changeable for a modern machine age.
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Reading Weatherland has made me want to return to books I know well, including several of Woolf’s, both to consider the ways in which the weather is important in them, and because ‘the weather in which we read affects our understanding of a book’ (p.349). The recent spell of hot weather prompted me to think that the English do become a little mad in our brief spells of sunshine, and this is borne out by Harris’s reading of The Go-Between, for example, but, of course, ‘significant weather is suspect when it gets into fiction’, as she notes when discussing Julian Barnes’s work: weather in books can be made to produce certain effects, to resonate with the characters’ feelings, to cause certain events to happen, and though these things might happen in real life, they seem improbable in fiction. But weather does do surprising things in real life, of course, because our lives are still, in so many ways, bound up in the climate, as the powerful and disturbing conclusion of Weatherland emphasises.

Ravilious, Dulwich Picture GalleryFOR REVIEW USE ONLY

‘Wet Afternoon’ by Eric Ravilious (1928)

As our changing planet forces us to consider a future of increasingly extreme weather conditions, in an anthropocene age where humankind has, finally and disastrously, affected the weather, this is a book which explores the literary and artistic memorialising of the weather of the past, and invites us to consider our own experiences of weather. As Richard Mabey says, we all experience weather differently, and it affects us in diverse ways, which is, of course, the essence of why it has proved such a significant aspect of literary and artistic inspiration, but after finishing this book, I feel that our experience of the weather is part of being human, of living on this planet. It is a cliche to say that the cycle of the seasons reflects the cycle of our lives – one more way in which we try to tame nature, perhaps – but the elemental experience of Lear’s battle with the storm on the heath, for example, reduces humankind to its most vulnerable, and asks us to consider life in a very different way:
Lear.  Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks! rage! blow!
You cataracts and hurricanoes, spout
Till you have drench’d our steeples, drown’d the cocks!         runciman_lear_heath_ngs
You sulphurous and thought-executing fires,
Vaunt-couriers to oak-cleaving thunderbolts,
Singe my white head! And thou, all-shaking thunder,
Strike flat the thick rotundity o’ the world!
Crack nature’s moulds, all germens spill at once
That make ingrateful man!
[…]
Rumble thy bellyful! Spit, fire! spout, rain!
Nor rain, wind, thunder, fire, are my daughters:
I tax not you, you elements, with unkindness;
I never gave you kingdom, call’d you children,
You owe me no subscription: then, let fall
Your horrible pleasure; here I stand, your slave,
A poor, infirm, weak, and despis’d old man.
But yet I call you servile ministers,
That have with two pernicious daughters join’d
Your high-engender’d battles ’gainst a head
So old and white as this. O! O! ’tis foul.

 

There’s a great review here by A S Byatt (someone whose work I admire and whose judgement I trust!)

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.

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.