A radical regained - Vanessa Bell


So much has been written about Bloomsbury art it is easy to forget how little we have seen of it. The Tate's huge winter exhibition is the first comprehensive showing of the paintings of Duncan Grant, Vanessa Bell and Roger Fry. Two things can safely be predicted: this will be a show of extraordinary richness, startling colour, wit and sharpness, confounding the critics who view Bloomsbury as frowsy; and it will bring about a true appreciation of the magisterial talents of Vanessa Bell.
Why has Bell for so long been so profoundly underrated? All the usual reasons: prejudice against women artists; denigration of domestic and decorative arts; Bell's long liaison with Duncan Grant, which led critics to dismiss her lazily as his less talented appendage; her own deep-rooted habit of diffidence. Added to which she was Virginia Woolf's sister. This has not helped her reputation in a 20th-century culture that has valued literary brilliance way above achievement in the visual arts.
Vanessa Bell the painter was as radical as Virginia Woolf the writer. I have come to think her more so. In her simplified portraits and mysterious dream landscapes painted from 1911 onwards, she invented a new language of visual expressiveness. Bell and Grant's still-life paintings of 1914-15 are among the earliest pure abstracts in the Europe of the time.
Still life of flowers in a vase, violet and pink chrysantemem, late 1940's 

Though so proudly independent, Bell understood the value of creative collaboration, in a sense that still seems modern. The in situ art at Charleston, the farmhouse in Sussex where she lived with Grant from 1916 onwards, has altered the whole way we think about the decoration of interiors and the objects we arrange around ourselves at home. For Bell, art was all-pervasive, and intensely personal.
It could not be more suitable for her to appear in this important retrospective poised between Roger Fry, for a time her lover, and Grant, the predominantly homosexual father of her daughter. For Bell, more than most painters, her creative urges were entwined with the closest of her human relationships, and her artistic experiments related to her precarious experiments with life.
Bell was the subversive in the literary household. Her elderly father, Sir Leslie Stephen, was a Victorian intellectual giant, whose major work was The History of English Thought in the Eighteenth Century. He edited the Cornhill magazine and the first 26 volumes of the Dictionary of National Biography. Neither he, Virginia nor her two brothers shared Vanessa's instinctive feeling for the visual.
Virginia Woolf, A Room of One's Own (1929) Cover design by Vanessa Bell

The early death of her mother, followed two years later by that of her older step-sister, left Vanessa, then 18, with stultifying duties in the running of the Stephen household. Her escape to "secret" drawing classes, then to the Royal Academy Schools, was a considerable act of will-power. She was taught by John Singer Sargent, the society portraitist, who persuaded her that her painting was too grey.
You can see in Bell's search for light and pattern a desperate response to the sepulchral interior of the Stephen mansion in Hyde Park Gate where, as she remembered later, faces around the dinner table loomed out of the surrounding shade like Rembrandt portraits. It is also easy to relate her later avidity for risquŽ conversation in animated groups to the gloomy silence of the patriarchal home, where her father could eventually only be spoken to through a hearing tube. Several of Bell's early paintings are conversation pieces.
Like so many young women of her class and generation, Bell felt thwarted and tantalised by "glimpses of a life where one might have been at ease". This was only possible when Sir Leslie died in 1904. The children of his second family moved out to Gordon Square, in Bloomsbury, feeling they were making a new beginning in tall, austere, white-painted rooms. These were rooms of their own, where things previously unthinkable were suddenly becoming sayable. "Semen?" asked Lytton Strachey, pointing at a stain on Vanessa Bell's white dress.
The garden at Charleston
The garden at Charleston 
It is sad that so much of Bell's painting of this period was destroyed when her London studio was bombed in 1940. Two surviving still lives - Iceland Poppies and Apples, 46 Gordon Square - show how her particular artistic depths of domesticity and quietude, her way of glimpsing outside scenes from inside vantage points, had developed even then. Bell was the true daughter of this century in her inner tensions between the urge for rootedness, solidity, maternity and an innate recklessness. Virginia enviously described her sister's handling of life as if it were a thing you could throw about. She resisted a conventional marriage, twice refusing a proposal from her brother Thoby's friend, the art critic Clive Bell. But, distraught by the news of Thoby's death from typhoid caught in Greece, she had given in. She and Bell were married in 1907. They had two sons in quick succession: Julian in 1908, Quentin in 1910. Her characteristically careless marriage slithered into a long friendship, without acrimony.
1910 was the year in which human nature changed fundamentally, as Virginia Woolf perceived it. Certainly it was the year in which Bell's painting entered a new phase of confidence and lucidity. This was partly the result of a feeling in the air: Wyndham Lewis's Blast; Marinetti's London visit; the women's suffrage movement, which impinged on her though Bell was not formally involved in it; her burgeoning relationship with Roger Fry.
But more particularly, the change was brought about by the first Post-Impressionist Exhibition organised by Fry in 1910 in London. This assembly of works by CŽzanne, Gaugin, Van Gogh, Matisse, Picasso, at the time virtually unknown in this country, made an enormous impression on Bell. "Here was a possible path," she wrote, "a sudden liberation and encouragement to feel for oneself, which were absolutely overwhelming."
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