Will Stone

Vanessa Can Stand Alone

The London Magazine - - CONTENTS -

Vanessa Bell (1879-1961), Dul­wich Pic­ture Gallery, un­til 4 June 2017 ‘Life apart from hu­man be­ings was al­most com­pletely vis­ual for me.’ - Vanessa Bell, 1941

Can any­thing more pos­si­bly be wrung from the in­ter­minably pored over mem­bers of the Blooms­bury group, those priv­i­leged pro­to­type free­thinkers, self-ex­iled in their ru­ral re­treats tend­ing their cre­ative sub­cul­ture and colour­fully in­ter­weav­ing re­la­tion­ships? This sig­nif­i­cant show­case of the art of found­ing mem­ber Vanessa Bell proves there can be. The Dul­wich show ex­pounds on her place in Bri­tain’s most fa­mous artis­tic en­clo­sure and proves that Bell as a stand-alone artist should still com­mand our at­ten­tion. The ex­hi­bi­tion also in­ter­est­ingly re­veals a num­ber of Bell’s pe­riod photo al­bums, show­ing images of friends and fel­low artists and most poignantly her own chil­dren fa­thered by art critic Clive Bell and artist Dun­can Grant re­spec­tively. Most in­trigu­ing are those photographs taken at Ashen­ham in 1912, where we see the main play­ers re­lax­ing in deckchairs or cre­atively em­ployed on a pa­tio in the lee of a high brick wall as if ac­tively en­closed from the world be­yond. A won­der­ful im­age even shows Bell wield­ing a pair of scis­sors and giv­ing Lyt­ton Stra­chey a much needed hair­cut. The ex­hi­bi­tion has a se­duc­tive add-on too, a sep­a­rate room in which fur­ther pho­to­graphic al­bums of Bell rub shoul­ders with more re­cent fu­ne­real black and white images taken by the Rock singer and poet Patti Smith, one of the more high pro­file pil­grims to the Blooms­bury Group haunts. Smith’s photos of the tombs of ‘free-thinker’ po­ets, Wil­liam Blake, Dy­lan Thomas, Sylvia Plath et al are also in­cluded here, though to me seemed sur­plus to re­quire­ments, but her murky grainy images of the Charleston li­brary, the fa­mous lily pond and es­pe­cially the mau­soleum like beds of the Blooms­bury ghosts with their chill bed­cover shrouds proved evoca­tive.

The first room deals with Bell’s por­traits and most markedly those of her

tragedy-in­clined sis­ter Vir­ginia Woolf who ap­pears in a state of trou­bled weari­ness or gen­tle fore­bear­ance, slumped in an arm­chair or deckchair. Th­ese stud­ies were all made in 1912. First is a youth­ful Woolf painted af­ter Cézanne. Here Bell cap­tures with ten­der­ness the fixed gaze to else­where, and through muted blues, greens and flesh­tones ad­mirably con­veys the sen­si­tiv­ity and vul­ner­a­bil­ity of the bur­geon­ing writer. But it is the con­trast­ing raw­ness and ex­po­sure of the bared arms and their club-like hands prom­i­nent at the base of the can­vas, al­most pre­della-like to the rest of the fig­ure, that im­pacts on the viewer. In an­other Bell has painted her sis­ter knit­ting or half doz­ing in an arm­chair, as if pro­tec­tively en­veloped in, or con­sumed by the swoop­ing red flames of the up­hol­stery. Here the fea­tures so ar­dently ex­pressed in the first paint­ing have eroded to a smudge of mouth, a faint line of nose, min­i­mal painterly in­tru­sion, caus­ing a solemn si­lence to veil the scene. You can al­most hear the mantle­piece clock ticking... Now in a third we see Woolf rest­ing in a deckchair, book on lap, her face now re­duced to noth­ing more than a blank oval, rem­i­nis­cent of Matisse or per­haps more dis­turbingly Munch, as if Bell has, in her striv­ing to com­mu­ni­cate her sis­ter’s apart­ness, fi­nally gone for broke.

As one pro­ceeds it be­comes clear that Bell is con­tin­u­ally ex­per­i­ment­ing with the styles of mod­ern French artists, no­tably the Fauves with their bold colours. But no Ger­mans or other na­tion­al­i­ties are to be seen. It is strik­ing that while the Bri­tish Blooms­bury artists re­garded their own kind, dis­till­ing art from their do­mes­tic sur­round­ings, on the con­ti­nent in the years pre­ced­ing the First World War, the rev­o­lu­tion­ary flood of ex­pres­sion­ism was in full spate, swal­low­ing Paris, Ber­lin, Zürich, Mu­nich, Brus­sels and Prague. Why then did the pan-Euro­pean rev­o­lu­tion of Die Brücke and Der Blaue Reiter, ap­pear to ex­ert so lit­tle hold on th­ese Bri­tish artists? Surely Bell, had she the opportunity, would have seized on the colour the­o­ries of an artist like Franz Marc? I would have liked to see this ex­hibiton ex­plain what the rea­sons were for this colos­sal blind spot, if such it was. All roads lead to France and Italy, might of course be the sim­ple an­swer.

Richard Shone, a Blooms­bury Group scholar, states in his es­say on Bell’s late self por­traits, ‘She (Bell) was never a ‘sym­bolic painter’, one try­ing to

con­vey states of mind or alert to some psy­cho­log­i­cal un­der­tow. It is from her man­ner of paint­ing, her choice of sub­ject and colour scheme, her re­fusal to be drawn away from what she sees in front of her that we can de­duce those el­e­ments of ret­i­cence, mod­esty and watch­ful­ness that char­ac­terise her work.’ The por­traits of the poet and ac­tress Iris Tree and of Mrs Sir John Hutchin­son from 1915 ap­pear es­pe­cially charged with that watch­ful­ness, as are those of Blooms­bury mem­bers Roger Fry and Molly McCarthy. Fry is painted in 1912 us­ing the so-called ‘leop­ard man­ner’ where the can­vas is speck­led with dabs of yel­low gold paint, a vig­or­ous pointil­liste tech­nique for­mu­lated by Dun­can Grant the pre­vi­ous year. Fry is as if seen through a sandstorm, the ef­fect rad­i­cally elec­tri­fies the im­age, re­duc­ing flat­ness and im­bu­ing the fig­ure with a sense of fever­ish in­te­rior ac­tiv­ity. The Molly McCarthy can­vases in­ter­est­ingly show con­trast­ing stylis­tic ap­proaches; the later cu­bist-in­spired ef­fort with its rich colours calls to mind mod­ern stained glass and re­veals Bell’s pre­oc­cu­pa­tion with de­sign.

For Bell colour is the guid­ing force in the ad­vance to­wards ab­strac­tion and home be­came a bare tem­plate, a win­ter land­scape into which her per­sonal vision of cre­ative dec­o­ra­tion would grad­u­ally emerge like spring. The Blooms­bury brethren saw the home as the means to trans­mo­grify the per­sonal into the ab­stract. For them the com­mon­place had eclipsed the pre­oc­cu­pa­tions with the ex­otic and fan­tas­tic of the fin de siecle era. The artist must now keep in step with Proust’s prob­ing of the minu­tiae of the ev­ery­day. Imag­i­na­tive beauty would from here on be culled from the or­di­nary. Thus Vir­ginia Woolf in ‘Mod­ern Fic­tion’ called for writ­ers to ‘ex­am­ine for a mo­ment an or­di­nary mind on an or­di­nary day’, to wait for ‘myr­iad im­pres­sions’ that ‘shape them­selves into Mon­day or Tues­day’. For Bell, such con­vic­tions are trans­mit­ted in works like ‘In­te­rior with Artist’s Daugh­ter’ from 1935-36, which shows Bell’s daugh­ter An­gel­ica Gar­nett in the sim­ple act of read­ing in the Charleston li­brary. Through ju­di­cious ar­range­ment of colours, ob­jects and per­spec­tive Bell in­fuses an im­age of a teenage girl read­ing with a mood of spir­i­tual peace and hu­man­is­tic pres­ence, even in­no­cence.

Bell’s still lifes are sub­lime. The tex­tures and colours of fab­rics and

pot­tery scav­enged on trips to France, Spain, Italy and Turkey feed into th­ese stunning works. The fruit, flow­ers and ce­ram­ics are never se­date or stul­ti­fy­ing and un­able to re­strain the pas­sion of their maker, ex­plode with life force and au­then­tic­ity. Like Cézanne’s fa­mous rus­tic ap­ple, you wholly be­lieve in th­ese figs, the or­anges and lemons. Ice­land Pop­pies 1908-9 is, un­like the later con­vul­sions, al­most monas­tic in its min­i­mal­ism and re­straint, the sub­tleties of light leak­ing into and out of this hushed grey green shrine of a paint­ing are ex­tra­or­di­nary. The urn, the bot­tle, the bowl and three pop­pies, two white one red, does any­more need to be said? The aura of si­lence and de­tach­ment is in­vi­o­lable.

One of the ex­hi­bi­tion high­lights and an­other show­case for Bell’s il­lus­tra­tive acu­men are the beau­ti­ful book cov­ers de­signed by Bell for her sis­ter’s pub­li­ca­tions. Th­ese valu­able first edi­tions from the Hog­a­rth Press are pa­raded in a chrono­log­i­cal line un­der glass. All the fa­mous ti­tles are here, Mrs Dal­loway, 1925, To the Light­house, 1927, The Waves, 1931, even On Be­ing Ill from 1931. The Land­scape sec­tion demon­strates again that it is the French painters whose legacy Bell sum­mons. Matisse yes, but also Derain, Pi­casso, Bon­nard... This is most ex­plicit in works like ‘On the Seine’, 1921, with its rich sun-warmed ochre and am­ber bridge arches and their re­flec­tions tele­scop­ing into the dis­tance, or ‘The Vine­yard’, 1930, where ro­bustly coloured vines haystacks and trees fairly writhe, rip­ple and pulse be­tween the shafts of blind­ing sun.

Be­tween 1908-1912 Bell had spent summers on Stud­land beach, rep­re­sented here by two com­pelling and enig­matic works. The Beach, Stud­land 191011 and Stud­land Beach, 1912, both show the same scene; wide bands of am­ber dune, ochre beach and grey pur­ple sky. In the fore­ground two girls in sun hats face out to sea at whose edge looms a tall white block, a bathing tent, yes but some­thing more, be­fore which a woman stands with a gag­gle of chil­dren seated close by on the sand. In the ear­lier paint­ing the woman ap­pears to hold her hand to her face or fore­head sug­gest­ing anx­i­ety or alarm, but in the sec­ond ver­sion the woman is calm, arms at her sides, hyp­not­i­cally fac­ing the im­per­vi­ous white block. The at­mos­phere has vis­i­bly dark­ened, the on­set of storm per­haps chas­ing the light from the

can­vas. The sym­bolic seems to have worked its way in af­ter all.

The ex­hi­bi­tion closes with Bell’s late self-por­traits from the pe­riod of the Fifties when she had con­clu­sively with­drawn to her at­tic stu­dio in Charleston and where she died in 1961. In the self-por­trait from 1952 she re­calls the ear­lier por­traits of her sis­ter, but Bell boldly ad­dresses the viewer, she is up­right not supine, a sur­vivor stiff­ened with de­fi­ance against the on­com­ing, a posy of wooden brushes bran­dished in an ex­plic­itly tight fist. What­ever the per­sonal chal­lenges for Bell in her life, the in­tox­i­ca­tion of art had over­ri­den all, per­me­at­ing her life at ev­ery junc­ture, and this im­por­tant solo col­lec­tion right­fully al­lows her to step out­side the Blooms­bury catchall and en­trench her legacy as an artist in her own right.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from UK

© PressReader. All rights reserved.