Radical Bloomsbury: The Art Of Duncan Grant and Vanessa Bell, 1905–1925
Brighton Museum and Art Gallery, Brighton
16 April–9 October 2011
by Dr JANET McKENZIE
Radical Bloomsbury at the Brighton Museum and Art gallery seeks to re-evaluate the work of Duncan Grant (1885-1978) and Vanessa Bell (1879-1961) and their relationship with the avant-garde from 1902-25. As members of the Bloomsbury Group, which came together in 1904-05, they enjoyed intimate and significant relations with the theorists Roger Fry and Clive Bell, Virginia Woolf (Vanessa’s sister), E.M. Forster, Lytton Strachey and John Maynard Keynes.
The group’s member’s were free thinkers, believed in personal freedom and were aggressively unconventional. Richard Shone in his excellent study, Bloomsbury Portraits: Vanessa Bell, Duncan Grant, and their circle, wrote:
The lifestyle they embraced was a complex mixture of inheritance and personal preference. There was a touch of camping out, a happy domestic improvisation which comically clashed with sturdy middle-class comfort and fastidious culture. There was nothing precious about it, though aesthetic enjoyment of one’s surroundings was often placed before other considerations. To some it seemed intolerably Bohemian and haphazard, to others, too ample and not Bohemian enough.
Against such a background went hard work and constant occupation.1
The exhibition is divided into six sections. The first: Bloomsbury before Bloomsbury explores Bell’s interpretation of recent visual traditions, particularly French intimiste painting. The second section: The Exotic, the Oriental and the Ornamental, is particular interesting in the context of Grant’s work as he spent most of the first ten years of his life in India and Burma. This inevitably made for a heightened receptivity to non-British art. The Bloomsbury Group were particularly critical of British Imperialism and Victorian attitudes to art and social mores. Section two also explores the pivotal role played by Sergei Diaghilev’s Les Ballets Russes, first performed in London, 100 years ago. The Encounter with Modernism in section three of Radical Bloomsbury indicates the fundamental role played by the two Post-Impressionist exhibitions organised by Roger Fry in 1910 and 1912. The fourth section looks at the notion of An English Expressionism; section five examines Collage and Abstract Adventures; and the final section Homes and Carnivals reviews the work produced by Grant and Bell after the outbreak of World War I, when they retreated, as conscientious objectors, to the Sussex countryside, living at Charleston, near Lewes.
Both Duncan Grant and Vanessa Bell (she married Clive Bell, her brother Thoby’s Cambridge friend, in 1907) were from privileged upper middle-class families, and their upbringing took place at the height of the Victorian era. Grant was the son of a major in the British army. Vanessa was the daughter of Sir Leslie Stephen; her mother and sister died suddenly when she and her siblings were very young, and her early life has been described as morbid and depressing, and made Vanessa Stephen determined to find an independent life and values. The desire to rid herself of the received values of her childhood had a profound impact on her rejection of nineteenth century art. Although Leslie Stephen was himself an important intellectual and prolific author he had extremely conventional ideas on art. He recognised Vanessa’s talent for drawing and arranged classes for her, with the view of attending the Royal Academy. Any other institution would have been ruled out on grounds of respectability. Her teacher there was John Singer Sargent, who had studied in France in the studio of Carolus-Duran and was not in complete support of the Royal Academy. Sargent admired Whistler and French Impressionism, and encouraged his students to look outside of England for inspiration: “above all things, get abroad, see the sunlight, and everything that is to be seen, the power of selection will follow.”2
When Sir Leslie Stephen died (1832-1904), Vanessa’s life changed dramatically. Her two brothers were by then at Cambridge, but she and her sister, as daughters, had been expected to run a household and look after their father. On this Virginia Woolf voiced her resentment in Three Guineas (1937). Following their father’s death they travelled with their brothers to the Continent. The trip was crucial: in Italy she experienced the Old Masters for the first time, in Paris came her first contact with contemporary French art. From her letters at this time3, Vanessa expressed her distrust of the established values of art, yet the artists they visited (for example, Rodin) were not avant-garde.4 Her appetite for new and non-English art was established, but her limited understanding of the history of art or of modern developments in art meant that at the French Salon, which did not exhibit the most progressive French painting, she admired the familiar work of Whistler and Sargent.5 The real enjoyment in fact came from the great freedom she had in the company of her brothers and sister without the restrictions imposed on middle-class Edwardian (of a chaperone or by parents); it made her resolute in her choice of career and in the kind of personal freedom she wanted.
The Stephens’ return to London saw the beginning of the Bloomsbury Group: the house in Kensington was too big to afford and represented much that they wanted to forget, and in spite of protests from family and friends, they moved to unfashionable Bloomsbury. There, she had much more time to paint and a steady stream of visitors. She was not able to return to the RA the following year (1905) and so spent a brief period at the Slade, describing herself at the time as, “that terrible low creature, a female painter”.6 She set up a group to meet weekly, which would talk about art. The Friday Club’s main impetus was the concern for the isolation that many artists experienced outside the teaching institutions and the problems of staging exhibitions, which all, young artists faced. The founding members included: Mary Creighton, Gwen Raverat, Clive Bell, Henry Lamb, Bernard Leach, Saxon Sydney Turner, Duncan Grant and Mark Gertler. The group lasted until 1910, by which time a divide between, conservatives and those less so but still in fact existed, somewhat out of date.7
By 1910 Vanessa was interested in Post-Impressionism and the theories of Roger Fry. If one compares a portrait by Vanessa of Lady Robert Cecil, (1905) a tentative and conservative work, which absorbed the concern with overall tonal quality favoured by many members of the New English Art Club, but also perhaps reflects the conservative taste of the patron, with Iceland Poppies (1908-9) both on show in Radical Bloomsbury, there is a significant development. Iceland Poppies was exhibited at the NEAC of 1909 and brought her the praise of Sickert. She used a restrained tonality and careful spacing between the objects, and her feeling for rhythm and balance and colour, reflects Whistler’s aesthetic influence on her painting and on British art in general. Already there is evidence of the severe reductionism that Vanessa developed after 1910.
At the beginning of 1906, Duncan Grant moved to Paris where he admired a wide range of art from classical to avant-garde. Vanessa’s meeting in 1910 with Roger Fry and their subsequent friendship and the works she saw at the exhibition Manet and the Post-Impressionists, in the same year, which he organised, provided her with a new direction and a possibility of complete change. Also of great significance for the young artists was Diaghilev’s Les Ballets Russes, which performed for the first time in London in April 1911.
Sergei Diaghilev’s (1872-1929) Les Ballets Russes, one of the finest collaborative projects in the arts in the early 20th century, exerted a profound influence on dance, music and the visual arts. Its compelling style was epitomised by a new emphasis on the sensuous presentation of the body, a major influence on Bell and Grant. Les Ballets Russes (1911-29) began as a series of concerts of Russian music in Paris; in 1909, Diaghilev organised a Russian ballet company to travel to France. By commissioning outstanding musicians (Erik Satie), choreographers and dancers (Nijinsky, Pavlova) and designers in Russia (Leon Bakst, Natalie Goncharova) as well as artists in France he created a sensation. Artists included the best of the time: Braque, de Chirico, Derain, Matisse and Picasso. Costumes, sets and curtains were superbly designed and executed. The energy and vibrancy displayed by Les Ballets Russes, precipitated artists to liberate their art practice. Further, the brilliance in both conception and execution of the Russian ballets also made possible the extension from easel painting to design sets and interiors. Goncharova’s and Bakst’s designs for stage sets and costumes, and the dramatic use of colour and fabrics seems to have encouraged Bell to work, not only on screens and furniture, but also with clothing design. Bloomsbury was very much involved with Diaghilev’s Ballet, finding it an inspirational source of imagery and genuine gaiety close to the outbreak of war. Roger Fry started a correspondence with Larionov and Goncharova, showing some of Larionov’s marionette designs at the Omega in February 1919. He wrote a highly appreciative article about him for the Burlington Magazine. John Maynard Keynes married Lydia Lopokova, (1892-1981) principal ballerina whom he met in the 1914 season, in 1925. She and Léonide Massine (1895-1979) both sat for the Bloomsbury artists.
Virginia Woolf wrote, “On, or about, December 1910, human character changed”. Roger Fry was the most influential individual in the introduction of modern art to England in the early years of the 20th century. In 1906 he became the Curator of Paintings, and then, the European Advisor to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. In 1909 he accepted the position of editor of the Burlington Magazine; from 1910 he became a key figure of the Bloomsbury Group. In the same year his exhibition, Manet and the Post-Impressionists, opened at the Grafton Galleries in London. The exhibition, organised by Fry, introduced the British public to large numbers of work by Cézanne, Matisse, Seurat, Van Gogh and Picasso and caused a public outrage. The exhibition of over 200 works was anchored to Manet, who had already become acceptable in England. He was represented by eight oil paintings, including Un Bar aux Folies-Bergère (1882) and a pastel drawing. The central figures were Gauguin, Van Gogh and Cézanne, with works by Seurat, Signac, Cross, Redon, Denis, Sérusier, Vallotton, Vlaminck, Rouault, Derain, Matisse and Picasso. For purposes of convention, they were called Post-Impressionists, after terms such as “expressionists” were rejected.
The public and the press were affronted partly because of the sheer size of the exhibition, and because they felt they had been betrayed, by a leading connoisseur, whom they had trusted. By introducing this work in Britain, Fry seemingly destroyed his reputation as an art critic. Desmond MacCarthy who was secretary of the show wrote: “kind people called him mad. The majority declared him to be a subverter of morals and art, and a blatant self-advertiser.” Virginia Woolf recalls that the public in 1910 was thrown into paroxysms of rage and laughter.8 The pictures, they insisted, could not be taken seriously. They were: “outrageous, anarchistic and childish.”9 The works by Cézanne were compared to the scribbles of small children. Ricketts exclaimed: “Why talk of the sincerity of all this rubbish”, and his view that the works on show were the works of madmen, was supported by eminent doctors.10 Fry’s response was: “There has been nothing like this outbreak of militant Philistinism since Whistler’s day.”11 The general consensus in the press was that the works exhibited by Roger Fry were perverse and hideous. They displayed no element of skill, sensitivity or truth to nature, and ignored the established canons of beauty. (The New Age, London, December 1910)
In the face of highly personal criticism, Fry received support and enthusiasm from his Bloomsbury friends, and other young artists who found the show refreshing. For Vanessa Bell, the exhibition and the public reaction to it, was exciting and dramatic. It confirmed her feelings that as an artist she could be detached from the rest of society (for British Society, in her view did not understand art) and possibly contributed to the limitations she placed upon her associations and friendships, which in turn, she portrayed in her painting. Sir William Rothenstein observed that Fry became, “the central figure, round whom the more advanced young English painters grouped themselves”.12 This meant more to Fry than winning the acceptance of the art establishment for whom, by this stage, he held little respect.
The exhibition was a turning point in British art. In his writing and through his friendships, Fry encouraged artists to relinquish any aspect of their painting that was associated with literary ideas and to work at the expressive potential of pure form. He claimed that in the new conception of art, decorative elements were more important than representational elements. In the work of the Post-Impressionist artists, Fry saw the renunciation of descriptive detail, which tied art to an illusion of the real world. Fry favoured simplicity, asceticism and intellectual rigour, distrusting any form of embellishment or ostentation. Fry regarded art as a means of searching for reality and he looked forward to introducing Post-Impressionist art to Britain with a missionary zeal.
As supporters and friends, artists such as Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant, who in turn developed an obsessively critical view of the 19th century, believed that Fry’s theories could flush away the remnants of what she perceived was their archaic and sentimental tradition. This in Vanessa’s case was fuelled by her oppressive experience of caring for her emotionally demanding father, author of The History of English Thought in the Eighteenth Century, and editor of The Cornhill Magazine and The Dictionary of National Biography. As a result, Vanessa turned to the French tradition, with an ill-digested understanding of it, in order to free herself from her own heritage. She “was exposed to too much, too suddenly”13 and her work between 1910 and 1914 rarely conveyed more than a mild enthusiasm, tranquillity or vivacity. More often it was a parody of the French works it attempted to emulate, and little personal response. Although Radical Bloomsbury is an excellent, meticulously curated exhibition, the issue of how radical Grant and Bell is one that cannot be finally proved, such is the range of circumstances that require to be explained in a discussion of their work. In terms of feminist issues, the break Vanessa Bell made, with her sister Virginia Woolf from a restrictive Victorian upbringing, to a life given fully to art and friendship, is radical indeed; even if her paintings were only ever to serve as testament to this courage and vision, they are absolutely worthy of the curators’ claims. One feels in the case of numerous works, that experimentation, rather than the development of a true personal vision, characterises of both of their careers. The best works such as Grant’s large painting Bathing (c1911) is a splendid work, with an original decorative interpretation. Indeed, the work they did in the decorative arts, at the Omega Workshops, could be argued to be among their best.
Vanessa Bell has been described as “the matriarch of Bloomsbury” because of her ability to organise the practical concerns of life.14 Her ideas about taste and interior design now encouraged Fry to establish the Omega Workshops.
She still believed that the English were unable to appreciate simplicity or boldness in design. In a number of letters to Roger Fry in 1912 she expressed her opinions about British taste and decorative art.15 She observed that English taste was for discreet, expensive and complicated patterning, devoid of gaiety and freshness.
During the summer of 1912 Vanessa and Clive Bell visited Bell’s parents in Wiltshire. Vanessa wrote to Roger Fry describing how depressed their wealthy tastelessness made her feel. She felt the English could not escape “fatal prettiness”.16 She found conventional taste stifling for she often associated it with her claustrophobic Victorian upbringing. When she and Virginia moved from Kensington to Bloomsbury in 1904 she had painted the walls white in contrast to the dark, intricate Morris wallpapers and dark paintwork in her parents’ house. She related simplicity and gaiety in the decoration of houses and objects with personal freedom which she believed led to a better family life, more rewarding friendships and, for her the capacity to work hard at her painting. Her enthusiasm too, with her fellow Bloomsbury Group members, for the light and warmth in Italy and France, made England seem “too dreary for words”. The fact that her life by this stage included two small children meant that, in her own view, it was quite impractical to live in an elegant manner. If she were to continue painting while she had maternal responsibilities, then life had to be simplified, and she cared less and less for tidiness or conventional appearances. Her attitudes gave strength to Roger Fry’s plans for the establishment of workshops that were to enable artists to broaden their range of activities and further the cause of post-impressionism. It is important too, to realise that the Omega Workshops really were enjoyable and social – a contrast to endless difficulties in surviving commercially as artists. Friendship was a key unifying factor. Vanessa was displaying the symptoms of an early modernism.
Vanessa Bell’s painting Studland Beach (1912) is one of her most successful. She holidayed on the beach with her family and various friends at the end of 1911 and painted a series of pictures of the beach. This particular work was painted in the studio early the following year. It is more refined and severe than most of her previous work and yet at the same time retains a sense of immediacy towards the subject. Instead of building up related tints to achieve a traditional, tonal work, she applied a red ground first, and then the solid blocks of colour, to indicate the beach and the sea.17 The canvas is divided diagonally into two main areas. The sea in the upper part of the canvas is a deep indigo and the beach is painted in various ochres and shades of cream. There are two groups of seated figures, one by the edge of the water beside a beach box, the other in the lower left hand corner of the painting. The latter group serves as a point from which the eye can move. The figures in Studland Beach are simply shapes attached to hats. In this work Bell achieves a sense of order, tranquillity and freedom.
In 1912 Roger Fry organised a second Post-Impressionist exhibition. The French works in the exhibition were more contemporary than the 1910 show, and also included sections by English and Russian artists. In the catalogue introduction to the exhibition Fry argued that the post-impressionist creates, not a pale response to actual appearance, but a new reality.18 He argued that the logical extreme of such a method would be the complete renunciation of natural form and the creation of a purely abstract language, a visual music. Fry’s 1912 ideas were taken up by Clive Bell in Art, which he published in 1914. Expanding and clarifying Fry’s theories, Clive Bell arrived at the conclusion that the common denominator shared by “the windows at Chartres, Mexican Sculpture, a Persian bowl, Chinese carpets, Giotto’s frescoes at Padua, and the masterpieces of Poussin, Piero della Francesca and Cézanne is ‘significant form’”. Significant form, Clive Bell argued was, “the one quality common to all works of visual art”.19
These theories had a significant impact on Vanessa Bell’s work (1913-15), which exemplify a practical consequence of four years of experimental work, under the influence of Roger Fry and Clive Bell’s theories. She shows that representation, in her view, is not relevant to painting. Instead she explored the purely formal elements of painting with the intention, it seems, of creating what Fry had called “visual music”. Virginia Woolf defended her sister by saying that art was a world where no stories are told, “If portraits there are, they are pictures of flesh which happens from its texture, or its modelling, to be on equality with the china pot or a chrysanthemum”.20 Woolf shared Bell’s view that, in painting, meaning must come from the relations between colour and lines.
Duncan Grant’s work, Abstract Kinetic Collage Painting with Sound (1914-15), is impressive in its sheer scale. The large, long, non-representational scroll painting was intended to be a performance piece. It shows the eagerness of Grant to experiment with the ideas of Matisse and Picasso. He was one of the very few British artists at the time who actually knew both Matisse and Picasso, visiting Picasso’s studio in 1914 in Paris and was excited by his use of pasted or collage, in his pictures. Grant was, like Vanessa, developing a modernist standpoint.
When Vanessa attempted to ignore her subject matter and develop the formal elements of the work, a tension resulted. Her work of 1910-14 illustrates that she was never completely at ease with painting that suppressed subject matter. She resolved this, very cleverly by re-asserting a more personal response to her subject by returning to a more naturalistic style and applied a great deal of what she had learnt of abstract forms to decorative work, at the Omega Workshops, and her house Charleston in Sussex. The final section, Homes and Carnivals, examines their lives following their retreat to the Sussex countryside 14 miles from Brighton with family in response to the first world war. In unison, both artists had responded in visual terms with a modernist form of Classicism. They also put great energy in to the depiction and decoration of the domestic space.
Vanessa Bell’s painting and decorative work between 1908 and 1918 represented a variety of different styles and ideas that remained characteristic of her work well into the 1920s. The confidence that she acquired in the company of her Bloomsbury friends existed side by side with a profound uneasiness. When she was isolated from the Bloomsbury Group proper, she seemed able to infuse her response to subjects with an authenticity and immediacy that rarely appeared in her previous work. Bloomsbury provided Bell with a number of positive ideals. Their philosophy dissolved the traditional roles for men and women. Women were regarded as equals and the realisation of their potential was considered normal and desirable. Vanessa and Virginia were free to develop their work and were not expected to play the role of typical Edwardian women. Painting and the decorative arts were both deemed valuable – and at times interdependent – and Vanessa was therefore able to direct her energies into which ever seemed most appropriate.
The house Charleston epitomises the celebration of everyday life with which much of Bell’s later work was concerned. Her best work was unselfconscious and often quickly executed. The decorations at Charleston, and her still-life painting share vitality, an intense personal vision and sense of warmth and contentment. Alongside this, Bell produced numerous works, such as the murals she and Duncan Grant painted for John Maynard Keynes’ rooms in King’s College, Cambridge, that were awkward and unresolved. It seems that the awkwardness in the figures in these murals arose because the figures were imaginative. They were painted for no other reason than to decorate Keynes’ rooms and were inspired by copies of Old Masters. Because they did not grow from personal experience, Bell had no authentic connection with the subject.
The uneasiness in some of Bell’s work possibly came from a lack of confidence, which she expressed in letters to Virginia Woolf, Roger Fry and Duncan Grant. (Charleston Papers, Kings’ College, Cambridge). As she became older this self-deprecation became almost obsessive. When she worked with Grant, whom she regarded as the better artist, her work became tentative and at times peculiarly ambivalent. She produced her best work when she did not have other peoples’ talents, theories or opinions to contend with. The work produced in this vein was personal and authentic. Rupert Brooke reviewed a Cardiff exhibition in Cambridge Magazine, 23 November 1912:
Mr Grant has painted better things, perhaps, than any he shows here. But several of these are lovely. He is always a trifle disappointing. One always feels there ought to be more body in his work, somehow. Even his best pictures here are rather thin. But there is beauty in The Seated Woman, and exquisite wit and invention in the delightful Queen of Sheba, and a grave loveliness in The Dancers. His genius is an elusive and faithless sprite. He may do anything or nothing. Also, he is roaming at present between different styles and methods. What an eye for beauty! Why aren’t his pictures better? But it’s absurd to suppose they won’t be when he has ‘found himself’.21
Richard Shone in Grant’s defence (which can be applied to Bell as well), explains, “Influences come thick and fast in the years just before the war but there was always some point to them, some definite ensuing richness in the delineation of his talent”.22
With or without Duncan Grant, the works of Vanessa Bell were, by the 1920s already representative of an emergent and genuinely significant British modernism. In Alexandra Harris’s recent book, Romantic Moderns: English Writers, Artists and the Imagination from Virginia Woolf to John Piper (2010), she describes Bell and Grant (as during Roger Fry’s lifetime) as being synonymous with Post-Impressionism. She points out too, that Kenneth Clark, a supporter of both painters, admired Grant’s Englishness: he had not in fact succumbed (in Fry’s view) to Francophile influence, but was a descendant of the old English masters. In a 1934 catalogue preface he admired Grant not as a painter in the native tradition: “though he owes so much to French art, [he] cannot help being as English as Hogarth or Gainsborough”.23 By contrast, Vanessa’s Shell poster Alfriston (1931) “had a distinctive and coherent modern look. Vanessa Bell’s scene at Alfriston was bright and lucid, emptied of quaintness”.24
Radical Bloomsbury explores the period up to 1925, though it is tempting to go further forward historically to see if the view presented is accurate. Indeed, the Bloomsbury artists’ lives were as complex and dramatic as the period itself, with the insecurity and complexity of wartime, changed partnerships, love affairs, and personal tragedy. The period and artists have both been done a great service by the new exhibition, which is curated by David Alan Mellor, Professor of Art History at the University of Sussex with Darren Clarke as assistant curator. The show includes loans from the Tate, the National Portrait Gallery, the Victoria and Albert Museum, the Courtauld Gallery and regional galleries and private collections throughout England.