Exhibition Review: Virginia Woolf


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


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.


(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.


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



Suffragettes, feminism and twitter abuse

Emily_Davison_portraitI realise I am a little behindhand with this, but June 2013 marked the centenary of the death of Emily Wilding Davison, the suffragette who threw herself under the King’s horse on Derby Day and died of her injuries four days later. Today she is mostly celebrated as a martyr to the cause of women’s suffrage. I finally got round to watching Clare Balding’s programme Secrets of a Suffragette yesterday, and found it very interesting. I know a fair amount about the Suffragettes anyway, but was interested in the information about Emily Davison’s life, and how she went from middle-class respectability to being a militant suffragette.

What I found especially intriguing was the examination of her final act; for example, the assumption has always been that she didn’t mean to kill herself because she had a return train ticket, but it seems that only returns could be bought on Derby Day. Yet ultimately the programme concludes that Davison’s intention wasn’t suicide, but simply to attach a “Votes for Women” scarf to the King’s horse, based on forensic analysis of newsreel coverage, and the unexpected appearance of just such a scarf which was sold by a member of staff at Epsom (and now, appropriately, hangs in the House of Lords).

What really got me thinking, though, is the hate mail she received while she lay in a coma in hospital. She never recovered, and so never knew what people were saying about her, but I imagine such things weren’t uncommon. There is an excellent online exhibition on the London School of Economics website devoted to Davison’s centenary, which is well worth a look. The final item is the letter, which reads:

Miss Davisonimage

I am glad to hear you are in hospital, I hope you suffer torture until you die. You Idiot.

I consider you are a person unworthy of existence in this world, considering what you have done, I should like the opportunity of starving and beating you to a pulp “You cat”.

I hope you live in torture a few years, as an example to your confederation.

Why don’t your People find an Asylum for you?

Yours etc

An Englishman

It is clear that this patriotic chap felt strongly not only about what she had done, but about the Suffragettes more generally. While his language is restrained compared with that which is more commonly used today, the sentiments remind me of some of these threats which have been circulating on twitter recently. These, in case you’ve been on holiday, involve high-profile women (feminist women) receiving death, rape and bomb threats via twitter, leading journalist Caitlin Moran to instigate a day of #twittersilence in protest.

The hatred that some people (men and women) feel for feminists is a constant source of surprise and sadness to me. Internet forums seem to be a focus for emotional, angry rants against women, and this seems to be a trend which is escalating. While there may be people who do not think that we need full equality (yes, equality – a big misconception seems to be that “feminism” means “aiming for superiority over men”), the vitriol directed towards high-profile women is shocking. And clearly it has not changed in the last century; but now, in a more permissive society and with easy access to targets over the internet, it is more pervasive and even more violent. Women may have the vote, but they remain targets of violence and hatred; Emily Wilding Davison and her contemporaries would have been horrified.

Mary Poppins and social anarchy

Sister SuffragetteWhen I was about eight, I frequently marched around the house singing ‘Sister Suffragette’ (actually, I still do). Mary Poppins was probably my favourite film for years, because I loved the music and knew all the songs, but perhaps it also appeals to a child’s sense of anarchy. It opens with chaos, as Katie Nana leaves the Banks household because Jane and Michael are too naughty. Into the disrupted household comes Mrs Banks, fired up by her attendance at a Suffragettes’ meeting, wearing a ‘Votes for Women’ sash;

the women of the household, whether willingly or not, join in, with mistress/servant divisions temporarily set aside. ‘Though we adore men individually, we agree that as a group they’re rather stupid’, Mrs Banks sings, knowingly. Yet when Mr Banks enters, home from his work at the bank, it is clear that his wife adores him and supports his masculinist construction of the world. Mr Banks knows his place in the world, and everyone else’s: ‘It’s grand to be an Englishman in 1910. King Edward’s on the throne, it’s the age of men. I’m the lord of my castle, the sovereign, the liege; I treat my subjects – servants, children, wife – with a firm but gentle hand; noblesse oblige!’ His search for a new nanny shows his desire to perpetuate this patriarchal world, yet he is an appealing figure in many ways; a bit of a buffoon, but well-meaning, though deluded.

The film focuses, of course, on Mary Poppins’s reign in the Banks nursery. Her magic comes much more easily to Jane mary_poppinsthan to Michael, but both children benefit from the magic of walking through pavement pictures, tea-parties on the ceiling, and dancing chimney sweeps. The anarchy she brings into the well-regulated life of Mr Banks is delightful, but it also indicates a deeper anarchy, that of a world on the brink of change, both in the period depicted, and in the time the film was made (1964). Based on the books by P.L. Travers, in a series which started in 1934, the premise is that chaos appeals to children, but also that chaos can have its own structure. With Mary Poppins in charge, the children learn that the world can have many different types of logic, from that of magic to that of the ‘Fidelity Fiduciary Bank’. They also learn that happiness comes more readily in Mary Poppins’s world than in their father’s. The film seems to offer a critique of patriarchal values, from Mrs Banks’s suffragette song, to Mary’s interactions with Mr Banks, where it becomes obvious that his background and values do not make him happy, and that he is himself as much a victim of a rigid, patriarchal society as women and children. In ‘A Man has Dreams’, when Mr Banks sings with Bert, he finally seems human and vulnerable, and one of the loveliest moments in the film has to be his eventual rejection of the oppressive world of the bank when he instead goes to fly a kite with his family. ‘Feed the Birds’, the central piece of the film, demonstrates the love and compassion which Mr Banks is lacking, but which he eventually finds with the help of Mary and Bert.

Mary Poppins kitesUltimately, I am not suggesting that Mary Poppins is a feminist film; it’s not. Mrs Banks is more excited by the idea of suffrage than by a deep commitment to a reform of patriarchal society; even Mary is easily flattered by Bert’s compliments and enjoys looking in the mirror, and traditional gender roles are entrenched in every character (as are class divisions). But its critique, and its demonstration of a how a specifically female force can change the world forever remains significant for generations of children. The very house itself, at 17 Cherry Tree Lane, is shaken by Mary Poppins, but what she brings is not really chaos, but a different kind of order, one which follows its own rules and intentionally undermines the rules of Mr Banks’s world, offering a new freedom for the whole Banks family, without undermining social rules to the extent that it becomes ‘dangerous’; class, manners, respectability and afternoon tea are important to Mary, who prides herself on being ‘practically perfect in every way’, but the patriarchal institutions of society, the well-ordered family and the bank, are shaken up as if to demonstrate the possibility of social anarchy, which can be combined with a loving family and also guidance and boundaries for children.