Sunday, 3 August 2014

Virginia Woolf - Art, Life and Vision... Plus


There's an exhibition about Virginia Woolf at the National Portrait Gallery at the moment that illustrates her life through portraiture and her writing. It starts off with photographs of her parents and family, early photos from the late 1800s, and moves on to focus on Virginia and her friends. She was at the centre of the development of writing and the arts in the early part of the last century so her circle of family and friends covered some of the most important artists of the day from critics like Roger Fry to poets like TS Eliot to artists like her sister Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant and they're all featured in the exhibition. Also featured, of course, is her husband, Leonard Woolf, who, amongst other things founded the Hogarth Press that published many of the more experimental pieces of writing of the time.

It's not a very large exhibition and many of the things on display are small so crowds tend to develop around the artefacts and paintings/photographs. It was nice that it was so busy on a random Thursday afternoon with a surprising number of older people intently looking at the exhibits. I don't think there's been an exhibition like this before - or at least in recent years - which might explain its popularity.

We see portrait photographs of the young Virginia Stephen, all posed as you'd expect of the late Victorians and photographs of Virginia throughout her life. Some are by friends at events of various types and others are by 'proper' photographers like Man Ray and Gisele Freund. I liked Gisele's photo of Virginia sitting on a big couch with her cocker spaniel Pinka at her feet. It's a rather domestic scene for someone with Virginia's intellectual reputation.

Two painted portraits are side by side in the exhibition from what looks like the same sitting, one by Roger Fry and the other by Vanessa Bell (Vanessa's is used in the poster for the exhibition). The earliest portrait is by Duncan Grant with Virginia Stephen apparently sitting and chatting to her sister wearing her big Edwardian hat - according to the label Virginia came into the room while he was painting, sat down in hat and coat and started talking to Vanessa so he started painting her. It's a nice tale of unthinking intimacy that something was so important that she just had to talk to Vanessa about it straight away.

There are also photos and paintings of family, friends and accomplices, of Leonard and Vanessa, of her brother Adrian and nephew Julian Bell who died in the Spanish Civil War. There are portraits of people like Vita Sackville-West and Hope Mirrlees (who looks like a young Felicity Kendal to me). There's a lovely painting of Vanessa by Duncan Grant and a self-portrait by Dora Carrington.

As well as paintings and photographs there are a lot of other exhibits in the form of first edition books hand-printed by the Hogarth Press (such as a first edition of TS Eliot's 'The Waste Land') and some of Virginia's books with covers designed by Vanessa. It's nice to be able to see these on display. There's also the bust of Virginia by Stephen Tomlin and a small painting ('Weeping Woman') that Picasso donated rather than attend a benefit arranged by the Bloomsbury people to raise money for families affected by the Spanish Civil War. The saddest exhibits were her farewell letters to Leonard and Vanessa, presented together in one frame. There are also some oddities like the 'black book' that listed all the people Hitler wanted to be arrested on sight following the German invasion of Britain that included Virginia and Leonard's names.


There's a rather touching painting by Vanessa from 1943 called 'The Memoir Club' which features a selection of the great and good sitting round chattering away about art, politics and people. On the wall, are portraits of lost friends and members of the club - Virginia Woolf (and it's nice that it's Duncan Grant's early portrait of the young Virginia), Lytton Strachey and Roger Fry. Gone but not forgotten and, with Virginia's literary legacy, never to be forgotten.


It's a very interesting and thought-provoking exhibition and well worth seeing.

Virginia Woolf also features in another exhibition in London at the moment, the Books About Town festival of painted benches dotted around London and 'Mrs Dalloway' is one of the featured books. The 'Mrs Dalloway' bench is in Gordon Square in Bloomsbury and features a painting of Clarissa on the front and Septimus on the back. And here they are:


1 comment:

Liz Schendelaar said...

Hey :) Stumbled upon your blog. I have always loved the history behind art and I love reading more on different artists. I genuinely enjoyed reading your knowledge on some of these artworks :D