Vanessa Bell is not unremembered, she is misremembered. Her name is often mentioned with reference to the Bloomsbury Group and her sister, close companion and rival, Virginia Woolf. The perception is that she was a secondary member of this celebrated circle, and a facilitator of the art, lives and loves of others. A new exhibition at the Dulwich Picture Gallery in London – the first major retrospective of her work – sets out not to remove her from this context but to place her work at the centre of it, where it belongs.
The curators identify two key events in Bell’s artistic life. As a teenager she attended art school, and from 1901 studied at the Royal Academy Schools, where she was highly regarded by John Singer Sargent and other teachers. But from the age of 16, when her mother died, she became the “angel of the house”: being on hand to pour the tea always took precedence. When her father died nine years later in 1904, she was relieved of her domestic duties in his household, and moved with her siblings to Bloomsbury where she immersed herself in its artistic and intellectual life. This was Bell’s first liberation.
Her second came with the pair of post-impressionist exhibitions staged in London by Roger Fry in 1910 and 1912. By this time an adept painter, Bell was dazzled and astonished by the possibilities these shows opened up to her. That one could represent things with colour, surface and feeling, rather than through meticulously precise depiction – or forgo representation altogether – was a revelation of which she made the fullest use.
Her work in the coming decade, the focus of this exhibition, was to be varied and brilliant: portraiture, still life, abstraction, landscape and (as a director of the Bloomsbury Group’s in-house workshop) design. Although she was to make art throughout her long life – her graphics from the 1930s are well represented here – it is in the 1910s that she became a singular force, one who did as much as anyone to give a British identity to those radical ideas from the continent.
It is telling that so much of the work in this exhibition has been coaxed out of private collections. Her art would surely have been more widely shown had her reputation matched her calibre as an artist. The received image of Bell, as a muse, amanuensis, social linchpin and romantic adventurer who happened to be quite good at painting, cannot survive this exhibition. As Francis Spalding wrote in her biography of Bell, she played a central role in the history of English painting during the first three decades of the 20th century. This exhibition confirms her status as a major British modernist.
“David Garnett” (1915)
Bell’s portraits are fascinating not for the renown of their subjects – from writer and critic Lytton Strachey to Virginia Woolf – but for their informality and intense subjectivity. It is not just that she used gesture, expression and colour to uncover hidden aspects of her sitters; crucially, she used these techniques to reveal her own feelings towards them. She painted Strachey, the luminescent star of their circle, as a kind of Fauvist Apollo, his yellow, pink and red face and beard not so much reflecting sunlight as radiating it. A portrait of her husband’s mistress, Mrs St John Hutchinson, an elegant society beauty, shows a sour-faced, rather dowdy woman. Bell’s lover Duncan Grant painted his lover, David Garnett, as a muscular, chiselled swain. In the same sitting, Bell produced this image of a vaguely flabby, porcine youth – wielding her paintbrush like a weapon, avenging wounds created by her household’s open relationships.
“Virginia Woolf” (1912)
There are two portraits of Woolf in this exhibition. In one, her face is sharply defined: she is nervous, delicate, aristocratic. Here, Woolf’s face is nearly blank; she slouches, eyes downcast, absorbed in her knitting. Bell’s portraits often reveal as much about her as they do the sitter. This one tells of the unbridgeable divide separating us from those we feel closest to. A much later work, “The Other Room” (late-1930s, pictured above), although ostensibly decorative, emphasises this distance; the eye, drawn first to the vase of flowers at the centre, then the languid woman reclining below, notices only belatedly two other women, their faces and thoughts hidden from us and from each other.
“Tents and Figures” (1913)
While it recalls the highly stylised bathing or dancing nudes of Cézanne, Matisse and Picasso, Bell’s study of the female form is imbued with empathy: she knew what it was to be subjected to the male gaze. Where her erotically charged “Nude with Poppies” (1916) has a certain slyness – it was a study for a headboard made for her husband’s lover – this large folding panel is both sensual and serene. The women, whose colour and texture echo that of the tent canvas surrounding them, are relaxed and in their element: they are not there for anybody but themselves.
“Landscape with Haystack, Asheham” (1912)
By distilling the atmosphere of their surroundings, rather than simply documenting them, modernist landscape painters attempted to capture the spirit of a place. Bell’s landscapes – such as this painting of Asheham House, where Virginia and Leonard Woolf spent weekends from 1912 to 1919 – often depict the Sussex Downs, where she spent so much of her life. Their placid colours and sculpted forms capture England at its balmiest, yet are refreshingly devoid of sentimentality.
Vanessa Bell Dulwich Picture Gallery, London, until June 4th