Edited by Ian A.C. Dejardin & Sarah Milroy
London: Philip Wilson, 2017
Paperback. 207 pages. ISBN 978-1781300510. £25
Reviewed by Muriel Adrien
Université de Toulouse Jean-Jaurès
Vanessa Bell is the catalogue of a show on Vanessa Bell (1879-1861) held at the Dulwich Picture Gallery in London from 8 February to 4 June 2017, curated by Canadian writer Sarah Milroy and Ian Dejardin, The Sackler Director of Dulwich Picture Gallery. Loans were obtained from British and American private lenders, as well as several institutions, including Tate, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, National Portrait Gallery, Yale Center for British Art and Charleston―the Sussex farmhouse and Bloomsbury retreat that Bell lived in alongside Duncan Grant and their circle. The exhibition championed Bell’s various and versatile accomplishments, trying to take the full measure of her work, showcasing oil painting, photography, ceramics, fabrics, decorative screens, dust-jacket designs and an array of photographs from her family albums, together with photographs of Charleston by the contemporary musician and writer Patti Smith.
In the preface, Dejardin starts off by claiming the consistency of the exhibit within the wider range of previous and ongoing exhibitions at Dulwich Picture Gallery, saying that it is aptly at the crux of the many approaches adopted thus far, nicely wrapping up his projects at Dulwich. Then he gives the perspective and outlook of the exhibition. He stresses how Bell’s identity has been dissolved into the Bloomsbury group which revolved around her, seemingly doomed to be steeped in the background of books and films centered on more distinctive luminaries, and has never really considered for her own sake. Indeed, historiography has often seen her as second fiddle to her sister Virginia Woolf or her husband Clive Bell (father of her sons Julian and Quentin), her lover Roger Fry, her gay life partner the artist Duncan Grant (father of her daughter Angelica) without mentioning numerous other brilliant celebrities―Lytton Strachey, Maynard Keynes, E.M. Forster, David Garnett et al. Moreover, her story as it is known is one that blends her personal life with her art, and the greater focus on her complex entangled private relationships as well as the pivotal role she played in the Bloomsbury Group―pigeonholed as muse and homemaker of the collective life at Charleston―, tends to eclipse her artwork. There has been no real attempt to isolate her from that context which she herself had created, and that is evidenced by the fact that, surprisingly enough, there had been until now no major full-scale monographic museum retrospective with a catalogue dedicated solely to her work. Just small solo shows had been organised; otherwise her work had always been showcased in group exhibitions of a larger scale than her own production (such as the Tate St Ives Exhibition ‘Virginia Woolf―an Exhibition Inspired by Her Writings’, held no later than in 2018), exceeding and therefore overshadowing her art. This exhibit endeavours to see her art on her own terms and tries to make the point that her work can be singled out as distinctive and not merely viewed as part and parcel of the Bloomsbury / Omega phenomenon.
Sarah Milroy is the other curator of the exhibit and editor of the book. The title of her chapter, ‘Some rough eloquence’, quotes Virginia Woolf and is also a phrase which Vanessa repeated in one of her letters. Milroy recalls her emotional and eye-opening experience at encountering Bell’s work during a trip to Charleston. She realised the issues her lifestyle raised anticipated quite a few that are topical today. Milroy mentions the various critiques the group weathered, from Wyndham Lewis to Raymond Williams, who belittled the status of the Bloomsbury characters as challengers to British conventions. She provides numerous counter-examples to invalidate this viewpoint. Bell’s works, she argues, counteracted polished traditional female representations and her portraits shunned easy ingratiation and preferred characterful scruffy coarseness―for example engaging with the general shape of her subjects’ head more than with their features, just as she engaged with pots more than with flowers.
However, the way Milroy addresses Bell’s unconventional life with relish seems to go along the lines of previous studies which stress how her personal life permeated her art within the Bloomsbury context. The period of greatest intensive artistic creativity came with early motherhood, she says, and that is a recurrent idea throughout the catalogue. Far from being mutually exclusive, ‘Bell’s creativity and procreativity flared in unison’ . Milroy discusses Bell’s disengagement with feminism but says nonetheless that her view of liberated motherhood was at odds with the elemental earth mother cliché that stuck to her and she definitely took pride in her maternal line, starting with Julia Margaret Cameron. Bell sought to empower her children rather than curb them in their will, breaking free of the repressive Victorian standards even as she photographed them frolicking in the mud, in a way that brings to mind Sally Mann. Similarly, Bell hardly campaigned for ideas but in her letters, she held it against the despicable ‘respectable rich’ and was indignant against any restriction of female freedom. Her most eloquent action was actually the kind of life example she set, as a testimony of sorts.
What Bell was most vocal about when talking of other painters was their new use of color (Géricault, Velazquez, Renoir…), a color which she herself took up with a vengeance. Her paintings throb with color―even though one suspects some may have lost in saturation and vividness. The chromatic brashness, the darting brutality of the jagged brushstrokes were, according to Milroy, a way to cope with the war. Her approach in the 1910s was truly novel, progressive, forward-looking. However, the daring urgency and energy she threw in her work slackened a little after the war came to an end, becoming more muted and tentative. But she had already made her mark, and her manner which defies conventional polish and good taste has survived in would-be followers such as David Hockney, among many others.
Hanna Leaper’s chapter, ‘Between London and Paris’, is more chronologically biographical, starting with her lineage and literary family members, including her father Leslie Stephens and her step-grandfather, William Makepeace Thackeray. Leaper describes her as an artist who wanted to change art, despite the burden of family responsibilities, especially before but also after her father’s death. At the Royal Academy, all the while being a diligent and hardworking student, she increasingly came to question the claims and tutelage of her teachers and their restrained and deadening past-looking backward idiom, including John Singer Sargent whom she had met and admired. She was introduced to neo-impressionism by Camille Monclair’s book, translated into English in 1903, which championed form over narrative realism. With the death of her father in 1904, she moved to Bloomsbury with her sister and brothers. That proved to be a new beginning in that she started to chart her own course. There she met her future husband Clive Bell and confidante and lover the connoisseur Roger Fry. Leaper goes over that rich creative period with Bell at the epicentre of the London art world, boldly embracing and engaging with the continental modernism that rippled through in England. Bell was instrumental in introducing it to the rest of London. She had a pivotal role as leader of the informal Friday Club launched in 1905, she cofounded the Omega workshops, the pioneering London design collective or cooperative for decorative arts in 1913 until it floundered in 1919. Leaper evokes the electrifying impact of the landmark Post-Impressionist exhibition curated by Roger Fry at the Grafton Gallery in London in 1910-11, within the flourishing pre-war context (Ballets Russes, the blossoming modernist aesthetics theory…) All in all, during that time period, Bell put together numerous shows and events and travelled widely in and out of Britain. However, even if she joined discussions about the new critical theory, she materialised her ideas in artwork rather than articulated them in language, keeping as silent as her sister was loquacious.
The second part of the book is arranged according to traditional thematic sections (portraiture, landscape, still life, design, domestic scenes and female subjects) which include both a selection of reproductions and related essays.
‘Among friends’ is the ‘record of a brilliant subculture of free thinkers and iconoclasts’ . ‘Vanessa, Virginia and the Modern Portrait’ by Bell’s eminent biographer, Frances Spalding, focuses on four portraits by Bell of her sister Virginia Woolf. Bell’s portraits remain indistinct in areas, sustaining omissions and elisions, deliberately leaving out descriptive information. Spalding ventures to put forward a number of possible purposes behind this indeterminacy and unfinished manner: it may be a way to convey how the portrayed person is never entirely present in another’s gaze, be it the precise facial features or the state of mind, however intimate or close they may be, and furthermore, the gaps are a means to interrogate the spectator.
The ‘Design and experimentation’ section is followed by the essay ‘A Moment in abstraction’ by Grace Brockington. The abstract paintings and papiers collés of 1914-15 are the climax of Bell’s experimental period. Bell retained them as private works and never tried to sell them. They account for some of the earliest expressions of abstraction, but this phase was actually short-lived for Bell and she reverted to more figurative art. They show patterns similar to those found in her Omega designs and also signal her flair for and appreciation of the European avant-garde. They evidence her early questioning of the nature and status of painting. The essay also describes the way she encountered pioneering works by Kupka, Kandinsky, Picasso or the Vorticists on the Continent.
This section is followed by another on her still lives, which are anything but still as they display shattered lines and lavish vibrant color, yet featuring often simple and mundane objects, for example pottery bought on her travels on the Continent. In ‘Love, Actually’, Regina Marler, who has published Bell’s letters, shows how her painting entitled ‘Oranges and Lemons’ conveys her elation when she realised that her homosexual friend Duncan Grant actually experienced feelings of love for her. The painting is a response to that fulfilled wish, and the shapes and brushwork are reminiscent of primitivism (then influential in the Omega workshops) as if she were releasing her primordial self. She painted it ‘against all modern theories’  also as a way to distance herself from art critics in their circle, to whom she was dangerously close, as one was her husband (Clive Bell) and the other, her recent ex-lover (Roger Fry).
In the section ‘At Home’, Bell is said to have envisioned home both as a tranquil place and as a laboratory or crucible where one was engaged in unbridled creative pursuits rather than as a place of conformity and constraint. This section takes up the leitmotiv already evoked in the initial chapters that her most experimental creative period cross-fertilised with her motherhood. The essay ‘Domestic Modernism’ by Christopher Reed argues that infusing domesticity in artistic ventures was one of the hallmarks of the Bloomsbury genius, and this combination was especially distinctive and daring in a day and age which tended to disparage domesticity, decoration and amateurship. We know that Charleston is covered with Bell’s artwork but her depictions of interiors are nonetheless always seen through the modernist lens of form and color relations. They explore the potential of wonder in familiar things, incorporating the European avant-garde idiom, away from any kind of didactic story-telling.
In the section on ‘Landscape’, the paintings also embrace the formal simplifications and bold graphic geometries of continental art. ‘The First Winter’ by Darren Clarke provides a chronological description of her move to Wissett Lodge in Suffolk and then to Charleston in Sussex. With quotes from letters that evince great attention to weather conditions, the author recounts the unusually cold and harsh winter they went through that first year. ‘Blue and green’ (1921) is included as a pendant to ‘Landscape with a Pond and Waterlilies’ (c.1915). ‘Landscape Near and Far’ by her grandson, the artist and art historian Julian Bell, is an almost lyrical analysis of the composition of ‘View of the Pond at Charleston’ (c.1919), with a focus on the play of shifting levels, spatial twists, optical distortion and perspective, hovering between surface abstraction and illusionist recession. He compares and contrasts her modus operandi to Cézanne’s.
According to the next section, ‘Pictures of Women’, Bell brought a new monumentality and sense of empowerment to the representation of the female form. The artist Corin Sworn looks at ‘A Conversation’ (1913-1916) and the way it troubles boundaries between the interior and the exterior, drawing on the Flagellation of Christ by Piero della Francesca (1459-1460), before giving a few quick comments on its gendered slant. In ‘Vanessa Bell’s Late Self-Portraits’, Richard Shone, curator of the past exhibit, ‘The Art of Bloomsbury : Roger Fry, Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant (1999)’, reckons that the five extant self-portraits dating from her last decade show her modest reticence and contained withdrawal of her late years. During his visits to Charleston, Shone was on the lookout for signs of her late presence, trying to find what in the place spoke of her and of the group they formed. He casts light on their daily life, giving a few factual details, such as the typical daily schedule or a few anecdotes told to him by Duncan Grant.
The last section is devoted to a selection of photographs by Patti Smith, the contemporary American musician and writer, who admires Bell’s free-thinking ways and creativity, considered by the curators to be a kindred spirit. The very last text by Dejardin includes useful references for those who wish to pursue further reading and enhance their understanding of Bell and the Bloomsbury group. Touchingly, this is the last exhibition project of Ian Dejardin as Sackler Director, Dulwich Picture Gallery.
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This extensive full-colour volume enriched with large high-quality illustrations―more than 180 colour plates―is captivating to anyone who has once fallen under the spell of the Bloomsbury Group and who wishes to zoom in onto Vanessa Bell’s creative output. If one may express a small technical reservation, it is to be regretted that the dimensions and locations of the paintings are not mentioned.
As often in such catalogues, there are a few repetitions―but not many. One repetition is quite revealing: the leitmotiv according to which Bell’s art cannot but be merged with her personal life within the Bloomsbury experience. The curators had setthemselves the challenge of seeing how Bell’s achievements could be viewed and appreciated on her own terms only, isolatedly from the Bloomsbury noise she has been submerged in all these years. This stance echoed that of the theorist-critic of high formalism, Clive Bell, Vanessa’s husband, who had claimed that it was those who could not appreciate formal arrangements as pure, visual rhythms who resorted to the projection of worldly cares onto them. According to him, aesthetic emotion is conveyed by the contemplation of formal features, abstract masses, and rhythms within artworks, beyond humdrum worldly mundane, personal narratives. Vanessa Bell also prioritised form over representation in her writing, although the catalogue does not expand on her relationship with theory, unfortunately.
Yet despite the curatorial commitment to context-shedding in line with the modernist theory, it seems the authors of the catalogue cannot resist reverting to that original and prevalent biographical engagement, be it only that the pictures they refer to depict friends and lovers and cherished intimate places and domesticity. Eventually the book suggests more or less overtly and unwittingly that Bell’s life reads as a novel from which springs her art: she is a narrative character who provides a great story (numerous films have been made with her in the spotlight). At the end of the day, that which they try to distance themselves from may prove to be the very distinctive and paradoxically singular hallmark of Vanessa Bell’s craft and creativity. It would be delusory to free her entirely from the clutches of the Bloomsbury set, as she was the driving force behind their mutual involvement in the artistic hub of Bloomsbury then Charleston, and her art throve on their interactions and labyrinthine relationships.(1)
As a matter of fact, although her whole life is a performance of sorts, her self-portraits, be they paintings or photographs, are far from theatrical, vain, self-indulgent or complacent. She does not replicate the beauty she was known to be, nor does she try to stage herself. Those self-portraits are uncompromising, unpretentious and unflattering representations at the very least. Their very genuineness and honesty make the fabric of her work precisely closer to her personal life in a way that is no longer derogatory but forceful, affirmative in its own right. Anyway, there is no orthodox artistic expression which could claim the exclusive right to defining what an artist ought to be―saying so would be reactionary to an extent. Bell composed the life in Charleston as she composed her pictures, giving off a sense of plenitude and completeness envied by her sister Virginia Woolf to the point that Virginia tried to plunder, appropriate and absorb her art into her novels.(2) Among other things, the catalogue is to be credited for attempting to regard Bell for her own sake, but her twin role as Bloomsbury mastermind and artist commands admiration and is enough to see her as a charged and creative force to be reckoned with.
(1) It would be interesting to compare and contrast her situation with Dora Carrington, which Gillian Elinor started to do in her article ‘Vanessa Bell and Dora Carrington : Bloomsbury Painters’, Woman’s Art Journal 5/1 (Spring-Summer 1984) : 28-34.
(2) See Marianna Torgovnick’s chapter, ‘The Sisters’ Arts : Virginia Woolf and Vanessa Bell’, in The Visual Arts, Pictorialism and the Novel. Princeton University Press, 1985.
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