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.