Vanessa Bell (1879-1961)
8 February – 4 June 2017
The first major retrospective of the modernist painter and Bloomsbury Group member is a long overdue tribute to her accomplishments in art and design.
As the sister of Virginia Woolf and the wife of art critic Clive Bell – not to mention the lover of artists Roger Fry and Duncan Grant – Vanessa Bell’s own considerable creative contribution has often been overshadowed. This exhibition effectively brings her singular skill and brave aesthetic to the forefront by collating more than 100 works, from post-impressionistic paintings to abstract designs for ceramics, fabrics and furniture.
The 1910s saw Bell exhibit works alongside Picasso before establishing the avant-garde decorative arts cooperative in London, the Omega Workshop, and relocating to Charleston with other members of the Bloomsbury Group. Focusing on this era, the display demonstrates the remarkable ease with which the artist moved between fine and applied arts and approached varying subject matter from people to still life and landscapes.
Boldly eschewing strict Victorian ideals – in both aesthetic and social terms – Bell’s work exudes a gratifying feeling of freedom and she is hailed for her liberating approach to the female form. A prime example is the headboard she designed in 1916 for her husband’s mistress Mary Hutchinson, which sees a female nude reclining beneath two burgeoning poppies.
In the painting Studland Beach, Bell has mastered what her husband and Fry referred to as ‘significant form’ – essentially using colours and shapes to capture the feeling of a leisurely day by the coast. Other noteworthy pieces in the display include the artist’s thoughtful depictions of her sister, confident self-portraits, and objects she designed for the home at Charleston.
Painted in 1913, soon after the Omega Workshop was established, Tents and Figures is a simplified version of a sketch Bell made on holiday in Norfolk, painted onto a folding screen. Appearing to convey naked women in the open air, it shows the artist’s debt to Matisse in both style and subject matter.