If we regard art as a fame game, then the painter Vanessa Bell hasn’t achieved A-list status. On the surface, she’s had the bad luck to be overshadowed by the novels, and suicide, of her sister Virginia Woolf. But is this view correct? In the pantheon of artists, should she be in the VIP lounge rather than being sidelined to an artistic Siberia? This exhibition, the first major monographic one of her work, gives us a chance to consider these questions.
Bell was a member of the Bloomsbury Group, a collection of artists and writers who were based in that area of central London from the decade before the First World War until the end of the inter-war years. Artistic training, as much as any family or friendship connections she might have, got her a place in that grouping. She put in her time, paid her dues in the art-room at both the Royal Academy and the Slade School. She studied under teachers such as Henry Tonks (later famous for his pictures of soldiers facially mutilated in the First World War) and society portraitist John Singer Sergent. Encouragement was given her by Walter Sickert, arguably the most important of the British Impressionists and founder of the Camden Town Group of artists who are said to have introduced Post-Impressionism into British art.
What was Bell setting-out to do in her art? According to her husband, the art critic Duncan Grant, she was using what he called ‘significant form’ – the outward and visible signs of painting such as colour and line – to grasp and show human experience. She experimented with introducing the shocks of Fauvism and Cubism into the traditional genres of still life and landscape. She soon returned to more traditional forms of work, but in it she retained the spirit of her earlier work.
But Bell didn’t restrict herself to painting. In 1913, the Omega Workshops had been established by Bloomsbury artist and critic Roger Fry to encourage a Post-Impressionist influence in designs. Bell experimented with producing designs for interiors, fabrics and furnishings for Omega. She also attempted social experimentation via art. Brought up in a repressive Victorian family, she wanted to reinvent and show the home as a place free from conformity and restraint. She gave her farmhouse at Charleston, East Sussex, a light, colourful form of decoration which was designed to encourage a sense of freedom and creativity.
Given her wide output – and her connections – Bell should have been in line to get more recognition than she did. So we have to ask why – apart from the Virginia Woolf factor – her fame hasn’t matched her achievements. There are a number of possible reasons. The private lives of the Bloomsbury Group, which were free from the conventions of bourgeois sexual morality have – unsurprisingly – tended to garner more coverage than their artistic work. When it comes to the fickleness of fame, the bedroom wins out over the art room hands down. Next, Bell’s art may have been seen as rather simplistic and even traditional in its later phase when compared with the output of Bloomsbury’s intellectual heavy-hitters such as the economist John Maynard Keynes, a creator of the post-war International Monetary Fund, and the satirical historian Lytton Strachey whose book Eminent Victorians set new, irreverent standards of establishment-baiting and reputation-wrecking.
Also, the big beasts of artistic Modernism, led by Picasso, were charging into the consciousness of the larger art world immediately after the end of the Second World War, making all previous art forms seemingly redundant and – perhaps of more consequence – unfashionable. Further, photography was seen by some as having ousted traditional painting (a view perhaps strengthened by the role of newsreel film in the recent conflict). And, with the beginnings of post-war prosperity, the idea of the home as a light, airy place with colourful and practical furnishings was no longer a novelty, but was starting to be pioneered by designers such as Terence Conran.
But why should we reconsider Bell’s work now? As Sarah Milroy, Exhibition Curator, says: ‘Unconventional in her approach to both art and life, Bell’s art embodies many of the progressive ideas that we still are grappling with today, expressing new ideas about gender roles, sexuality, personal freedom, pacifism, social and class mores and the open embrace of non-British cultures. This is the perfect moment in which to re-evaluate Bloomsbury, and Bell’s legacy within it, and we look forward to affirming her importance to a contemporary audience.’ And Ian A C Dejardin, Co-curator and Sackler Director of Dulwich Picture Gallery, points-out that: ‘No British artist of Bell’s generation so instinctively understood and reflected the radical new artistic developments unfolding in Paris. Her resolute de-skilling, her vibrant embrace of colour, the sheer brutality of her brushstrokes – as if hacking at the canvas with the brush – and her bold rejection of traditional notions of the beautiful, are truly brave and can astonish even today.’
Socially, Bell should not be regarded as a relic of her time, but as someone whose life is worth reappraising today when societal norms are in a state of flux due to the changes rung in by, among others, Bell and her associates. And, also, because the political changes sweeping the West today can be taken – to a certain extent – as a rejection of those changes. And what of her place in art? Today, with the work of the Young British Artists of 20 years ago having, arguably, now run out of shock-value steam, there is a sense that we are waiting for something new to emerge on the artistic front. Re-examination of her work may help inspire a new generation of artists surely waiting in the wings.
The exhibition runs from 8 February to 4 June 2017. For further information, including admission details and tickets, find out more here.