Bloomsbury’s leading female artist is revealed as a bold innovator and, at the outset of her career, a determined Modernist, says Matthew Dennison
Matthew Dennison applauds a show celebrating Vanessa Bell
In 1923, Vanessa Bell described to a former lover the excitement she had found as an artist in her efforts to ‘turn everything into colour’. A new show at Dulwich Picture Gallery—surprisingly, the first fullscale exhibition with catalogue devoted exclusively to Bell— electrifies on account of its bravura use of colour and what Virginia Woolf described as her ‘rough eloquence and vigour of style’.
Woolf, of course, was Bell’s sister. A century ago, these beautiful, intelligent, dauntless daughters of Victorian literary giant Sir Leslie Stephen jointly and separately rejected key conventions and assumptions of the comfortable, distinguished world of their parents. Bell’s focus was art, Woolf’s literature. In both cases, their absorption was whole-hearted and lifechanging: Bell referred to ‘this painter’s world of form and colour’ as if everything she glimpsed provided raw material for her work.
In Edwardian London, the sisters’ rebellion placed them at the centre of Modernist expression. Each was a key player in the Bloomsbury Group of avant-garde artists and thinkers, which Ian Dejardin, co-curator with Sarah Milroy and outgoing Director of Dulwich Picture Gallery, describes as ‘the Mar- mite of British art’ on account of its continuing ability to polarise responses.
The exhibition reminds us of the boldness of Bloomsbury experimentation as embodied by Bell. Works from the 1910s also show us an optimism about the possibilities of Modernism that for Bell and other Bloomsburies burned less brightly in the aftermath of the First World War.
As a child, Bell read Ruskin’s The Elements of Drawing and absorbed its careful orthodoxies. The Stephen home in Hyde Park Gate was a late-victorian amalgam of ‘red plush and black paint’, portraits by G. F. Watts and ‘Sir Joshua [Reynolds] engravings’. From the age of 16, she visited Arthur Cope’s art school in South Kensington.
Afterwards, she studied at the Royal Academy Schools under teachers who included John Singer Sargent.
The work she undertook after leaving, and following her father’s death in 1904 and landmark exhibitions of post-impressionism in 1910 and 1912, reveals the extent of her autodidacticism and an assured ability to embrace diverse influences without succumbing to simple imitation or pastiche. ‘I believe all painting is worthwhile so long as one honestly expresses one’s own ideas,’ she wrote in January 1905. ‘The moment one imitates other people, one’s done for.’ Undoubtedly, Bell’s art was shaped by her relationships with Roger Fry and Duncan Grant. The exhibition illustrates the strength of her independent vision.
The curators have assembled more than 100 works from public and private collections. Viewed as a group, Bell’s early portraits, including a self-portrait of 1915, have a muscular simplicity that demonstrates simultaneously her indebtedness to artists including Gauguin, van Gogh, Matisse and Cézanne and the confidence of her assimilation of these influences.
Over and again, these paintings deny the traditional primacy in
portraiture of the face. In images of Lytton Strachey, Woolf and the compelling Duncan Grant in front of a Mirror, Bell deliberately obscures facial features so that posture and setting reveal every bit as much as the tilt of an eyebrow or a limpid gaze. In a later portrait of Lady Strachey, from 1923, her brushstrokes do the work: bold slashes of paint that reduce the sitter’s hands to a blur, but perfectly express determination in the jutting chin and fixed expression.
The exhibition includes landscape and still-life paintings
and a focus on the artist’s ‘female’ experience, from a wonderfully tender portrait of Julian Bell as a baby, to three women talking in the striking A Conversation (1913–16) and the stylised domesticity of Tea Things (1919). Later, Bell’s still-lifes and interior views, such as Pinks in an Oriental Jar (1954), acquire a sfumato prettiness akin to similar paintings by Grant—a tendency she dismissed as ‘that usual English sweetness’.
In more experimental earlier essays, including Still Life (Triple Alliance) (1914), which uses newspaper collage and fragments of maps, the absence of anything approaching ‘sweetness’ is marked.
In Bell’s abstract paintings and the designs she produced for screens and textiles for the Omega Workshop is a consistent focus on newness. It’s testament to the bold pull so
many of her paintings exercise on 21st-century viewers that works such as 8 Fitzroy Street, Interior with the Artist’s Daughter and the wonderful The Other Room, painted in the late 1930s, are both timeless and arresting.
Bell may not emerge as a giant figure in British art through this show, but she more than merits such a handsome, largescale survey. ‘Vanessa Bell (1879–1961)’ is at Dulwich Picture Gallery, Gallery Road, London SE21, until June 4 (www.dulwichpicturegallery.org.uk; 020–8693 5254)
Next week: Russian Art 1917–32 at the Royal Academy
The Other Room (above, late 1930s) and Landscape with Haystack (below, 1912) assimilate with confidence the influences of post-impressionism
Nude with Poppies (1916) rejects traditional notions of the nude with rough brushstrokes and vibrant colour
Bell’s innovative portraits, such as Selfportrait (right, about 1915) and one of several 1912 studies of her sister Virginia Woolf (far right), reduce detail to enhance the design of the composition while conveying an intimate, if slightly withdrawn, presence