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Exhibition Review: Vanessa Bell

Vanessa Bell 1879–1961, Design for Omega Workshops Fabric, 1913, Watercolor, gouache, and graphite on paper, Image: 53.3 × 40.7 cm, Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Fund. 3353 - B1992.14.2© The Estate of Vanessa Bell, courtesy of Henrietta Garnett.

Some artists risk being decontextualized and viewed as singular geniuses that created art in a social and cultural vacuum. Vanessa Bell is not one of those artists. In fact, Bell’s context is so continuously discussed that it often drowns out her own artistic voice. She was surrounded by critics – Bell’s sister, Virginia Woolf, her once lover Roger Fry and husband Clive Bell, all writers, tend to dominate. Perhaps in light of this, Bell often assumes (or is forced to assume) the role of the silent partner of the Bloomsbury group. It’s a common theme to start any piece of writing about Vanessa Bell with a statement about her imminent ‘re-discovery’ and reinsertion into the mainstream canon of modern artists. Many go on to acknowledge the need to disentangle Bell’s art from the web of social and sexual intrigue, deemed so integral to the Bloomsbury group, and yet fail to actually do so. Dulwich Picture Gallery’s new exhibition of Vanessa Bell’s work looks to right these wrongs.

Let’s be clear. This exhibition needed to happen. Firstly, despite the number of publications, both factual and (weirdly) fictional, that look at her life there has never been a major Vanessa Bell retrospective. Secondly, I think the dreamy ideal of Bloomsbury is potentially dangerous – it risks becoming a gift shop experience. The reality is much more exciting.

Dulwich Picture Gallery’s new exhibition takes a thematic approach, introducing the key areas in which Bell worked throughout her life one room at a time. The first is dedicated to people. Surrounded by portraits of Woolf, Duncan Grant, Roger Fry and Lytton Strachey we’re faced with the force of Bell’s vitality in colour. Faces are vividly represented with energetic smears of paint ­– the caption describes one as a ‘jazzy traffic-jam’ – while the backgrounds in Bell’s self-portrait and her paintings of Mary Hutchinson and David Garnett become blocks of abstract colour that act as lively spatial frames for her sitters. Although some portraits are familiar, others are less so –Bell’s painting of Duncan Grant, reflected in a mirror with a towel over his head, is only usually accessible via a transatlantic flight to view the collection of the Met. However, this is still Bloomsbury as we’re used to seeing them. In a sense this first room gets a lot of this of social awkwardness out of the way; it meets our prior expectations in order to trump them later. From here on in, we’re able to enjoy Bell on her own terms.

Vanessa Bell, Self–Portrait, c. 1915, Oil on canvas laid on panel, 63.8 x 45.9 cm, Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Fund. 5050 - B1982.16.2© The Estate of Vanessa Bell, courtesy of Henrietta Garnett.

The second room is a vibrant exploration of colour and composition. Dealing with Bell as a designer, this room features many works on paper produced for the Omega Workshops. In a series of abstract designs, we see Bell’s intense desire to ‘turn everything into colour’ – even at the expense of figurative subject matter. Although difficult to attribute some of the designs ­– they were signed collectively as ‘Ω’ (Omega) rather than as individual artists ­­– Bell’s watercolour and gouache abstracts have become integral to our understanding of her as an artist. The later fabric patterns became ubiquitous in portraits, appearing on chairs, curtains and in backgrounds and are now strongly associated with the popular ideal of the Bloomsbury group and life at Bell’s Sussex farmhouse, Charleston. However, this aesthetic is so strong that it has spawned countless imitations with which you too can get the ‘Bloomsbury look’. The idea of Bloomsbury risks drowning out the reality. Nonetheless, the show offers a welcome reminder as to why the abstract designs were so influential in the first place, and displays the vitality of Bell’s experiments in colour.

[endif]--For the curator Sarah Milroy, Bell’s serial subversion of patriarchal prejudice continues to act as an inspiration. In the catalogue, Milroy notes that Bell persistently undermined assumptions, ‘like a door swinging open’ to a multitude of possibilities. Fittingly, the exhibition concludes with a collection of Bell’s paintings of women, and looks at how she challenged the way the female experience was represented in art. The dynamic depictions of the nude female form in Design for a Folding Screen: Adam and Eve (1913-14) and the spatial positionings of A Conversation (1913-16) and Studland Beach (c.1912) insist on a place for the active female presence in an art world that so often consigns them to passivity.1952, Bell forces us to accept her on her own terms; in her artist’s studio, clenching a fistful of paintbrushes and presenting herself unapologetically to the canvas.

Top Right: Vanessa Bell, Self–Portrait, c. 1915, Oil on canvas laid on panel, 63.8 x 45.9 cm, Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Fund. 5050 - B1982.16.2© The Estate of Vanessa Bell, courtesy of Henrietta Garnett.

Middle Right: Vanessa Bell, The Other Room, late 1930s, 161 x 174 cm, Private Collection, © The Estate of Vanessa Bell, courtesy of Henrietta Garnett. Photo credit: Photography by Matthew Hollow.

Above: Vanessa Bell, Studland Beach. Verso: Group of Male Nudes by Duncan Grant, c. 1912. Oil on canvas, 76.2 x 101.6 cm. Tate: Purchased 1976. © The Estate of Vanessa Bell, courtesy of Henrietta Garnett. Photo credit: © Tate, London 2016.

Bell’s subversive attitude extended to the modern theories she is often associated with via Roger Fry and Clive Bell. The sunny still-life Oranges and Lemons (1914), with its echoes of Cézanne, is charged with the pure joy Bell felt on receiving fruit sent by Grant all the way from Tunis. This prompted Bell to, ‘against all modern theories’, stick them in her Italian yellow pot and begin painting. Milroy invests Bell with a new kind of importance. For her, Bell’s challenge to ‘conventional polish and good taste’ gave permission to a raft of subsequent experiments in British painting from the ‘high-chroma gestures’ of Howard Hodgkin through to the painting of gay-subculture in ‘Matissean’ colours by David Hockney.


What’s more, we’ve been sold the myth that Bloomsbury, when confronted with the realities of the world, withdrew to their country houses – merely screwing up their eyes and complaining of a ‘temporary glare in the foreground’. However, what emerges throughout the exhibition’s catalogue is a more dynamic picture. In her essay ‘Between London and Paris’ Hana Leaper offers up a re-evaluation of this unhelpful misrepresentation. Instead, she paints a compelling picture of Bell as actively experimental, internationalist, and instrumental in the development of the early twentieth century British art environment. While resisting anachronistic readings of Bell’s life (I can’t quite see her in a pink pussyhat) her relevance to our own times is plain to see. Bell’s art was defiant and free, and as Leaper notes, we are finally returning to explore her artistic potency.

Vanessa Bell is at Dulwich Picture Gallery until 4 June 2017.

Students / Art Fund £7.

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