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 free- thinkers, 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 forbearance, 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 mantle-piece 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 exhibition 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 1910- 11 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 overridden all, permeating her life at every juncture, and this important solo collection rightfully allows her to step outside the Bloomsbury catch-all and entrench her legacy as an artist in her own right.

Will Stone is a poet, essayist and literary translator. Shearsman Books have recently reissued his poetry collections in new editions and published his third The Sleepwalkers in March 2016. His translations with Arc, Menard and Hesperus include works by Verhaeren, Rodenbach, Trakl, Rilke, Nerval and Roth. Pushkin Press published his Stefan Zweig Montaigne in August 2015 and Zweig’s 1930’s essays as Messages from a Lost World in January 2016. His Selected Poems of Georges Rodenbach will be published by Arc in 2017 and an expanded collection of the poetry of Georg Trakl by tributes to Poetry Review, The TLS and Apollo magazine.

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