“On a clear spring afternoon I dropped by Vanessa Bell’s for lunch. It was one of those days at the Bloomsbury house, always cozy and welcoming. Vanessa had a little argument with the maid, but that did not spoil the spirit. It was a silly discussion about the cushions in the living room, a new experiment about colour and interior design that frankly was original! But the colouful rooms snugged me like a glove: The nice furniture and fresh flowers next to generous tea pots, plants and bric-a-brac from the South of France. I was so absorbed by my book that I did not see Virginia knitting her new book. Vanessa asked me to keep still for a portrait, but that was also interrupted when the gang of writers and artists arrived unexpected in the twilight.”
When my friend Renee cancelled our appointment, I realised that I had an unexpected free day in London. I have been wanting to go around and visit some of the many exhibitions of this season. At the end, I opted for Vanessa Bell’s exhibition at the gorgeous Dulwich Picture Gallery (the first public Gallery in London, even before the National Gallery was opened!). Indeed, this gallery has a reputation for exhibiting provocative female artists, amongst them, the beautiful exhibition of Emily Carr, and this time an overdue retrospoective of Vanessa Bell.
Virginia Woolf. After Vanessa Bell. Digital Painting by Beatriz Acevedo
Vanessa was the sister of Virginia Woolf, both amazing artists, innovating in their own medium. But while Virginia is the most celebrated of the sisters, it was Vanessa, who actually was the heart of this group of innovators. Most interestingly, she pushed boundaries in terms of re-inventing what is to be a woman at the turn of the century, breaking old rules and questioning usual forms of families and communities: and all of this is reflected in her art. Indeed, it seems to me that Vanessa’s life was the work of art, and painting was part of this aesthetic approach to life. To understand her work, one needs to be aware of her family ties, her houses, her friends and the socio-cultural context of London in connection with Europe. There are many good biographies around, including fictionalised interpretations of her life, and learning about her life definitively help to understand what she did. Her work gives us a glimpse to the groundbreaking world of the Bloomsbury group of Virginia Woolf, Duncan Grant, Robert Fry, Maynard Keynes, the surrealist Dora Carrington, and many artists, painters, dancers, thinkers, editors and celebrities of her time: their efforts to create a new world shaking the heavy legacy of Victorian times.
Nude in Pink. After Vanessa Bell. Digital Painting by Beatriz Acevedo
The exhibition starts with a portrait of her mother, Julia Jackson in the Red Dress, a celebrated beauty of her time, based on a picture by her relative the pioneering photographer Julia Cameron. This luxurious portrait evidences -once and for all- her allegiance to the matriarchal side of her family. Sadly, mother and father died when the children (Vanessa, Virginia and brothers Toby and Adrian) were relatively young, so she sold the family house in 22 Hyde Park, to move to the dubious Bloomsbury neighborhood, where they created a new way of life relevant for their times. Their house in Gordon Square was a hub for friends, discussion, experiments and parties. She married Clive Bell, but she also fell in love with Duncan Grant (whose sexuality was rather ambiguous), while keeping an open view about relationships, marriage and social norms. Perhaps, it is possible to say that her way of live, inaugurated the sexual revolution of the 1960s: the questioning of nuclear families, monogamy, the celebration of colour and friendship, the discovery of pagan and non christian religions and ways of thinking!
This gregarious spirit is reflected in numerous portraits of friends, all in bright colours, so unusual for the times. Take the portrait of Iris Tree (1915) on a vibrant orangey red background, her monumental figure is not one of “demure” or “classical beauty”; instead, she is earthy, solid, once again, matriarchal.
Iris Tree. After Vanessa Bell. Digital Painting by Beatriz Acevedo
The intimacy of many of the portraits shows the centrality of Vanessa’s house, a real home where people feel comfortable, cozy, familiar. This comfort and easiness is nicely depicted in the portrait of Virginia Woolf, knitting in her favourite arm chair, completely absorbed in her own world, hugged by the orangey colours of the chair, like a huge womb against a blue background.
Still Live. After Vanessa Bell. Digital Painting by Beatriz Acevedo
Throughout the exhibition I felt like getting into her home: I was that girl reading in the library, or the lady snoozing in the floral chair next to the ample window in the colours/style of Matisse (that as you know is one of my super favorites!). I was munching on the pears carlessly organised in the fruit bowl… I was walking with them in their country house in Charleston (East Sussex), playing with colours, textures and stories in some of the eternal summers in the East of England. I travelled with her to Turkey, basking in the blue sun, to the South of France or simply walking the city of London…
Charleston near the Pond. After Vanessa Bell. Digital Painting by Beatriz Acevedo
I took tea and coffee, helped with some of the chores, posed for her portraits, stayed in the attic writing letters, and enjoyed the intellectual discussions about economy and politics, about art and the new movements such as post-impressionism and cubism. I was there attending the exhibition of Picasso, wooed by his genius alongside Vanessa, who took all those influences and transformed them into paintings. And even though painting was central to her life, and she adopted a daily routine of doing art, my impression is that it was not a “work” or a “career” but a way of life.
The conversation. After Vanessa Bell. Digital Painting by Beatriz Acevedo
This resonates with my own approach to art as part of my goal of a rich, healthy and creative life, instead of becoming a “career” – a very male view of the muse indeed!-. Like Vanessa my quest is for ways of being in the world, understanding what happens around me and aiming for a beautiful way of living: a bonito living. Although I lack her courage to experiment with new ways of loving and relationships, I believe in friendship and try to be a good friend. I loved the way in which she appropriate trends and paintings, all in her own life journey, where art is not only about “producing” but a way of being, and this perhaps is the legacy of such a magnificent woman, a real matriarch and role model for our times!