The Bloomsbury Set is seen, in many ways, as the epitome of bohemianism. The nucleus of metropolitan intellectualism, sexually emancipated, artistic and daring: Vanessa Bell, Virginia Woolf, Duncan Grant, Lytton Strachey and their contemporaries have ignited imaginations since their heyday in the 1920s. It is probably the zeitgeist of the Bloomsbury Set that has drawn the crowds to the Vanessa Bell retrospective at the Dulwich Picture Gallery – the first major monographic exhibition of her work.
Vanessa Bell (1879-1961) aims to present the artist in a new light. Exploring her works thematically (“At home”, “Landscape”, “Still Life”), the exhibition seeks to differentiate her from the Set to which she was so intrinsically wed. Her husband, art critic Clive Bell, and sister-in-law Woolf were key members. Incidentally, we are reminded of their dangerous flirtation more than once in the exhibition’s four rooms. Similarly, Bell’s mentors including Arthur Cope and John Singer Sargent are also referenced on multiple occasions.
Bell was rightfully recognised for her talents in her lifetime. It is therefore remarkable that her paintings are relatively unknown. In 1912, for example, Bell exhibited her work alongside Picassos and Matisses at the Grafton Galleries. She later co-founded The Omega Workshops – a design/ art enterprise – and held her first solo exhibition at the Workshops in 1916. Her work was also exhibited in Zurich, Venice and Paris (which incidentally served as subjects on occasion).
It is not just Bell’s paintings that are exhibited. She designed fabrics that are simple but beautiful, and dust jackets for her sister-in-law’s novels, which are particularly charming. The two mediums receive comparatively little attention in the exhibition, and it remains to be seen whether this is because they were idle hobbies for Bell, or because fewer survive than the paintings, of which there are many.
The portraiture, and Bell’s interest in posture rather than facial expression, make her works exceptional for their day. A particularly poignant picture is the portrait of Woolf knitting: her face is blank, and yet their is something touchingly human seeing her preoccupied by knitting needle rather than a pen.
As a collection, the retrospective is unchallenging but pleasing. Her work is peaceful, particularly the still lifes, which focus on fruit and flowers. It feels very British. The exhibition is an admirable attempt at propelling Bell into her own spotlight. But it is inescapable that what is drawing the crowds is the artist’s involvement with the Bloomsbury Set. The curiosity surrounding Bell’s family life that has overshadowed her legacy continues to do so – and one can’t help but wonder whether, were Bell not Bell, we would still be flocking.
Sometimes people aren’t interesting simply for their creative substance. Instead, they fascinate others because of their place in history, the company they kept, together with their records: these are what make them whole. The Vanessa Bell exhibition, absorbing and inquiring, proves that creative individualism can be both hard to achieve and overrated.
Vanessa Bell (1879-1961) is on at the Dulwich Picture Gallery until 4th June 2017.