Sunday, 5 March 2017

Vanessa Bell at Dulwich Picture Gallery

There's a new retrospective of the work of Vanessa Bell at  Dulwich Picture Gallery which is well worth a visit. Vanessa holds a possibly odd place in the hierarchy of 20th Century British art and I don't have any feeling for how well known she is - or I didn't until I attended on Saturday afternoon and it was incredibly busy. She's the sister of Virginia Woolf and is at the centre of the Bloomsbury group, the creator of Charleston house which was often the country refuge for the Bloomsberries. So she's there at the heart of this early 20th Century coterie of artists and thinkers but is she known in her own right? If not, she deserves to be after this excellent exhibition.

The exhibition is made up largely of paintings but there are also examples of her photographs, her book covers for her sister's books (I was pleased that they were displayed as books and not simply as framed designs), examples of her textile designs for the Omega Workshop printed on linen, an example of her ceramics, a painted screen along with other designs for screens. There's something here for everyone.

Vanessa is, of course, the poster girl for the exhibition, with her self-portrait from 1915 on the posters and front of the catalogue. It hangs in the first room beside a portrait of her sister, Virginia, from 1912. It's nice that they were hung together. 

It's thinly painted and, presumably, done quite quickly. She did several paintings of Virginia, some with the face obscured or not showing, presumably to emphasise that Virginia's work was about the inner life, not the external. But I like this portrait, a young Virginia who has yet to hit her stride as a writer, still finding her own style and her own reasons to write.  I think that's almost caught in her eyes, heavy lidded and thoughtful, her body almost blending with the background, just the hair, the eyes and the slightly parted lips standing out.

Vanessa did lots of portraits of the Bloomsbury group, of family and friends, but what I didn't realise was that she did lots of landscapes throughout her life. There's a room dedicated to her landscapes, vast vistas of rolling hills or glimpses through a window and I loved the colours in them, very expressive and bold. One of my favourites was 'View of the Pond at Charleston', her home down in Surrey. The colours are lovely and warm, welcoming, as we see the pond in the garden through a window with a vase on the window sill. It's very comforting and welcoming, guaranteeing a pleasant stay at Charleston when you need it most. I like the curtain and the objects on the window sill, an interior looking out.

Another interior was 'The Other Room', the largest painting in the exhibition. We see a room with a vase of flowers just off centre, and then notice the three women all engaged in their own business, not talking or interacting. The blocks of colour and the swag of the curtain and pattern of the green arm chair. One woman looking down, one seemingly reading and one looking out into the garden - what is she looking at? The day is warm and still, so what's going on in that room? Have the women had an argument? I don't think so otherwise there would be signs of turbulence. They're in their own worlds and perfectly comfortable there.

Another 'interior' painting that caught my eye was actually called 'Interior With The Artis'ts Daughter', Angelica Bell, from about 1935. This is more thickly painted and a more detailed painting, with rows of books behind Angelica sitting in the arm chair in the distance. The foreground is taken up with a table with a vase, scissors and thread and a pamphlet and we look through a doorway to the library. I like the detail of the book shelves, of the rug and the table cloth and the other vase of flowers beside the arm chair. Vanessa seemed to like vases of flowers and they feature in many paintings, from these 'interiors' to still lives. Are we suppose to admire the decorative inside of Charleston in this painting or is there a message about the young lady reading? Who knows?

The painting with the most people in it and most people interacting is 'Bathers' from 1911. Partially clothed, clothed and naked, this group of people on the beach makes for an intriguing painting - what's going on? The colours are warm and sunny and the figures seem to be mainly female but what do these groups say to us? There are very young girls, older, teenage girls, woman as mother and a woman naked as Venus, overlooking the scene. There is also a figure in the striped skirt with a parasol gazing out across the beech. What is going on? I don't know, but I stood and looked at this painting for a while, trying to puzzle it out, wondering what they might have been looking at and when it would be tea time.  

There's a lot to see and consider in this exhibition and I intend to go back to see it again during the week when I hope it will be less busy so I can wander and gaze in a more relaxed environment. One of the portraits I really liked was of 'Duncan Grant In Front Of A Mirror', in which Duncan is painted from behind with his face in a scrap of mirror with a cloth over his head. What an original way of doing a portrait.

Well done to Dulwich Picture Gallery for a great exhibition and for putting Vanessa Bell clearly on the map. I've seen various paintings by Vanessa over the years but have never been in a room surrounded by her work and knowing there are more rooms to come. I thoroughly enjoyed this exhibition and fully recommend it. I'll be going back for seconds!

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