Blooms­bury’s lead­ing fe­male artist is re­vealed as a bold in­no­va­tor and, at the out­set of her ca­reer, a de­ter­mined Mod­ernist, says Matthew Den­ni­son

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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

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