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Exhibition Review – Vanessa Bell at Dulwich Picture Gallery

Frances has many years' experience writing about exhibitions in art galleries and museums.

Self-Portrait (1952)

Vanessa Bell shown in her attic studio at Charleston. Image by Frances Spiegel with permission from Dulwich Picture Gallery. All rights reserved.

Vanessa Bell shown in her attic studio at Charleston. Image by Frances Spiegel with permission from Dulwich Picture Gallery. All rights reserved.

Bohemian and Unconventional

In 2017 Dulwich Picture Gallery presented Vanessa Bell 1879-1961 a major retrospective exhibition of paintings, designs, and photographs by Vanessa Bell.

We often think of her as the quiet, somewhat Bohemian figure at the heart of The Bloomsbury Group and as the elder sister of the extraordinarily talented Virginia Woolf. But this exhibition invited us to consider Bell as a talented artist in her own right.

Curators Sarah Milroy and Ian Dejardin examined her distinctive way of seeing the world through her pioneering work in portraiture, landscape, and still life as well as ceramics and designs for the Omega Workshops. Speaking at the time Sarah Milroy said:

“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.”

Virginia Woolf, (c. 1912)

Bell depicts her sister Virginia reclining in a chair. Image courtesy of National Portrait Gallery, London, NPG 5933. Copyright National Portrait Gallery. All rights reserved

Bell depicts her sister Virginia reclining in a chair. Image courtesy of National Portrait Gallery, London, NPG 5933. Copyright National Portrait Gallery. All rights reserved

About the Artist

Born Vanessa Stephen in London on 30th May 1879, Vanessa was the eldest of four children and sister to the well-known writer Virginia Woolf. Vanessa was encouraged from a very early age to develop her own individual talents. She attended classes at both the Royal Academy and the Slade School, studying under a number of teachers, including Arthur Cope, Henry Tonks, and John Singer Sargent.

Following the death of her father in 1904 Vanessa, together with her siblings, moved to Gordon Square, Bloomsbury. It is here that meetings with fellow artists, writers, and thinkers lead to the founding of The Bloomsbury Group.

In 1907, Vanessa married art critic Clive Bell with whom she had two children.

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Bell enjoyed a number of successful exhibitions. In 1912, four of her paintings appeared alongside such eminent artists as Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso in the Second Post-Impressionist Exhibition at the Grafton Galleries, London, organised by Roger Fry.

In 1916, Bell's first solo exhibition took place at the Omega Workshops established by Roger Fry and active between 1913 and 1919. Her work also appeared in international exhibitions in Paris, Zurich, and Venice.

An Artist in her Own Right

The display showcased approximately one hundred oil paintings, together with fabrics, photographs, works on paper and related archival material.

The exhibition explored the artist's extensive career showing works from her student days in 1905 to her final self-portraits just before her death in 1961. Vanessa Bell 1879-1961 allowed this artist to shine as an artist in her own right.

The display featured a number of portraits, including two of Bell’s remarkable self-portraits. Also on show were portraits of her sister Virginia Woolf, the writer Lytton Strachey, the poet Iris Tree, art critic and art historian Roger Fry, and Bell’s own self-portrait from the collection of the Yale Centre for British Art. The exhibition included key paintings such as Studland Beach (c.1912, loaned by Tate) in the context of related works such as Duncan Grant's depiction of the same scene.

Bell had interesting and unusual ideas about how children should be brought up. She created a home at Charleston, East Sussex, which was “a place of freedom and unbridled creativity, rather than conformity and constraint.” This was the very opposite of the repressive, controlled atmosphere of her Victorian childhood.

Nude with Poppies (1916)

Painting shows Bell's innovative approach to depicting the female form. Image courtesy of Swindon Museum and Art Gallery. Copyright The Estate of Vanessa Bell, courtesy of Henrietta Garnett. All rights reserved.

Painting shows Bell's innovative approach to depicting the female form. Image courtesy of Swindon Museum and Art Gallery. Copyright The Estate of Vanessa Bell, courtesy of Henrietta Garnett. All rights reserved.

Experiments with Fauvism, Cubism and Abstraction

After experimenting with Fauvism, Cubism, and Abstraction, Bell soon returned to figuration always seeking new ways of depicting the female form. One example is Nude with Poppies (1916) where we see the vibrancy and depth of colour for which she is so well-known.

Bell was very aware of, and had a deep understanding of, artistic developments in Europe. Speaking at the time Curator Ian Dejardin said: “No British artist of Bell’s generation so instinctively understood and reflected the radical new artistic developments unfolding in Paris. Her resolute deskilling, 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.”

Dulwich Picture Gallery has a varied and interesting programme of exhibitions and details of their latest venture can be found on their website.

© 2017 Frances Spiegel

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