How much context do we need to appreciate a painting? Take, for example, Vanessa Bell’s Studland Beach, 1912. We might describe it in terms of its diagonal division: a mauve-blue mass floats above; a blanched beige sits below. Two outlying forms disrupt this simple division: a rectangle of creamy-white voyages out into the upper blue region (and, in turn, it frames another island of blue pigment), and below, the beige zone is encroached upon by two rusty-red masses. So the picture is like a yin-yang; it is composed of balanced halves, each offset by an immigrant fragment from the other. Dark sits within light, light presses upwards into dark. There is a nice rhythm to it.

Of course, we tend to go further and start putting names to appearances. The beige segment is a beach, and the rusty-red blobs are sitting figures. The blue zone is sea and sky amalgamated: a preparatory study for the picture reveals that a horizon line once bisected the blue mass, distinguishing between water and air, but it has been omitted in the name of simplification, and in the pursuit of the more interesting line – the diagonal. But the brain can still try to feel this horizon line into the blue void, and the interplay between the unremittingly flat surface of the painting and the imaginative depth we project into it is what makes the viewing experience tensive and alive. The upwardly voyaging oblong is a tent, which contains within it a female figure. We start to turn our sensory impressions into a labelled landscape.

Further still, we might – if we can – name the figures. Documentary photographs suggest that the hat-wearing red blobs are Julian Bell (the artist’s son) and his Nanny. We can name the beach as Studland Beach, and the occasion as, perhaps, a family outing. How far are we to take this project? In other pictures we can identify jugs and rugs and printed hangings, giving for each vase a date and a place of production; we can guess at the specific relationship between sitter, surroundings and artist. But we might think that there comes a point in the pursuit of these details when the painting in front of us is no longer the object of our enquiry: instead it has become a prop in another exercise entirely – that of biography.

Biography, in short, is a very different exercise to art criticism. The circle of artists often dubbed the ‘Bloomsbury’ group have often been subjected to too much of the former and too little of the latter. Hardly can the names Vanessa Bell, Duncan Grant, and Roger Fry be mentioned without the invocation of some variant of Dorothy Parker’s quip that they ‘lived in squares, loved in triangles and painted in circles’. As a rule, bedhopping has always trumped brushstrokes in the analysis of their paintings: if a sitter can be identified as a sexual partner of the artist, so much the better. Vanessa Bell is typical of this sort of treatment in that, whilst her romances with Roger Fry and Duncan Grant are well documented, there has never been a major exhibition of her work (beyond the 1979 show at the Sheffield Gallery). Curators Sarah Milroy and Ian A. C. Dejardin have stepped into this breach with their exhibition Vanessa Bell in the beautiful John Soane designed Dulwich Picture Gallery. Laudably, they have set out to counter the gossip-heavy handling of Bell as a painter. That no subtitle or exhibition tagline appends the artist’s name suggests that the works will be allowed to speak for themselves. Indeed, the catalogue essays stress Bell’s own reputation for silence (which she considered ‘her defence’ against the patriarchal biases of her day). This is a much-needed corrective to the hackneyed anecdotes that tend to dominate in tired restatements of the group’s bohemianism.

The exhibition begins with a theatrical piece of curation: entering the first room, the viewer is met by three large, loud portraits, all from 1915. Among this exhibition’s insights is the importance of the period 1910-1920 in Bell’s oeuvre; it is shown to have been an era of ecstatic experimentation, following the famous Post Impressionist Show at the Grafton Gallery in 1912. The central picture, Iris Tree, is particularly striking: slabs of colour march inwards, waging war on the darkness of Bell’s Edwardian training. A number of pictures in this room show Bell grappling either with the relationship of line to coloured mass (Virginia Woolf, 1912) or with the modulation of flesh tones in chunks of luminous chalky pink and lemon yellow (David Garnett, 1915, and the tantalizingly unfinished Lytton Strachey c.1913). The room as a whole makes clear just how explosive Bell’s growth was following her stayed beginnings as a John Sergent pupil (Saxon Sydney Turner at the Piano, c.1908). And yet, to begin the exhibition with portraits – many of which depict friends and lovers – seems a dangerous move given the curatorial commitment to context-shedding. Frances Spalding’s catalogue essay on Bell’s portraits of Virginia Woolf is full of biographical speculation. For Spalding, the blanked-out faces of Bell’s portraits of her sister are invitations to the viewer to imagine vivid details of the sitter’s character and liveliness into the void. She even sees Bell as something of a prophet, who used the blank face in one 1912 portrait to ‘signify the inchoate’, the as-yet unwritten eloquence of Virginia’s future literary career (Woolf had written no novels in 1912). The theorist-critic Clive Bell, Vanessa’s husband, was dismissive of this sort of biographical engagement with art in his 1913 book, ‘art’. Those who cannot appreciate formal arrangements as pure, visual rhythms, he claimed, resort to the projection of worldly cares onto them. They look at the forms but they see only the mundane, personal narratives; they are like ‘deaf people at a concert’.

That biography has tended to receive more attention than aesthetics in Bloomsbury studies to date is therefore somewhat ironic. Clive Bell’s 1913 text is a manifesto for what later became known as ‘high formalism’: it proposes the contemplation of formal features, abstract masses, and rhythms within artworks as the only viable path towards a (rather mystical) ‘aesthetic emotion’ which could transcend humdrum worldly experience and access something essential. Vanessa’s relationship to these theories was not uncomplicated, but we find a similar privileging of form over representation in her writing:

‘It seems to me always the visual relationship that is important in painting. There is a language simply of form and colour that can be as moving as any other and that seems to affect one quite as much as the greatest poetry of words. Of course the form and colour nearly always do represent life and I suppose any allusions may creep in’.

In aiming to let the pictures speak for themselves, then, the curators are meeting Bell on her own terms. Subsequent rooms of the exhibition, with thematic focuses on abstraction, design, landscape and still-life, are better pitched in this regard, and well-capture Bell’s prioritisation of form over connections with the more mundane trappings of ‘life’. The second room suggests continuity between Bell’s early experiments with formal abstraction and the textile designs she produced during the years of the Omega Workshop (1913-19). Some of Bell’s most remarkable pictures are in the fourth room, ‘Landscape’. View of the Pond at Charleston, 1919, is a study in the play of shifting levels, of elements dancing between surface abstraction and illusionist recession. Julian Bell’s essay ‘Landscapes Near and Far’, which begins with a poetic analysis of this painting’s depiction of depth, is much the best piece of writing in the catalogue. Barns (By the Estuary), c.1915 is similarly bravura in its construction, reducing a riverside scene to an almost wholly abstract study of locking planes. Only a sliver of mast pokes above a cyan slab of pigment, suggesting an obscured ship. Some allusions ‘creep in’, but form and colour are moving in themselves.

This exhibition does succeed in prioritizing attention to form above the usual Bloomsbury intrigue. But this success is a close-run thing. The crucial room of Bell’s Omega work and abstract experiments, which proposes her as first and foremost a ‘designer’, is very well judged, for Bell and her circle saw no distinction between commercial design, domestic decoration, and fine art. But that room is preceded by the room of portraits of friends, and followed closely by a room titled ‘At Home’ (which takes as its theme Charleston’s distinctive domesticity): both of these run the risk of reverting to the Bloomsbury ‘status quo’, naming lovers and fetishizing domestic commonplace. What is lacking, from both the exhibition and the catalogue, is a thorough account of Bell’s complex relationship with theory, particularly Clive Bell’s formalism. She may have been Bloomsbury’s ‘quiet centre’, but her letters, particularly those to Duncan Grant, are littered with a telling vocabulary – discussing colour, mass, distortion and abstraction. An exhibition that managed to group paintings along these lines, the qualities that mattered to Bell herself, might begin to offer the sort of context we really need to appreciate paintings such as these.

By Robert Hawkins

Vanessa Bell (1879-1961)
Dulwich Picture Gallery
8 February – 4 June 2017
£7 – £14

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