Friday, 30 September 2011

Radical Bloomsbury: The Art of Duncan Grant and Vanessa Bell, 1905-1925

The exhibition Radical Bloomsbury at the Brighton Museum and Art Gallery focuses on the two most prominent visual artists from that much documented (not least by themselves) cultural clique. The art of the Bloomsbury set has gone in and out of fashion over the years (it’s probably safe to say it’s spent more time on the out side) and it is often dismissed as being a pallid attempt to import continental, and particularly French styles into polite English upper middle class society. The harsh absoluteness with which the Bloomsbury critics and tastemakers Roger Fry and Clive Bell delivered their disdainful judgements, declaring whole areas of artistic endeavour aesthetically void and worthy of their withering contempt invites a similarly merciless appraisal of the efforts of those in their own circle whom they favoured. It should be said that neither Duncan Grant or Vanessa Bell (who was married to Clive Bell) indulged in such over-assured partisanship. They knew what they liked and tried to incorporate it into work which reflected something of their own experience and way of seeing the world.

Robert Hughes and Andrew Graham-Dixon both cleave to the art historical orthodoxy and give the Bloomsbury artists short shrift. Hughes, in his 1987 review of the RA show British Art in the Twentieth Century, included in his collection Nothing if Not Critical, refers to ‘the weak pastiches of Matisse by Duncan Grant, Vanessa Bell and other Bloomsbury-approved painters’, all of which exhibit ‘a cozy provincialism’. Andrew Graham-Dixon, in his A History of British Art, also accuses Grant and Bell of producing a form of pastiche which diminished the original model; ‘Homages to Matisse and to the ideals of Fauvism which distorted and emasculated precisely what they set out to elevate’. Both go on to praise the daring and radicalism of Wyndham Lewis and the Vorticists (so named by Ezra Pound), who were roundly dismissed by Roger Fry and Clive Bell. Graham-Dixon describes the movement as ‘strong and vital’ and ‘explosive’, whilst Hughes praises its ‘formidable energy’. Wyndham Lewis and his acolytes are perhaps the kind of artists which art historians favour because they engage explicitly and vocally with the political, historical and social currents of their time. Wyndham Lewis was also one of those artists who produced manifestos which belligerently asserted his likes and dislikes and turned them into doctrine. BLAST set about damning a wide range of targets in an artfully arranged and typographically adventurous rant. Like Marinetti and the Futurists, from whom he drew but also distanced himself, Wyndham Lewis was blusteringly masculine. He seemed to welcome the approach of war, in which he willingly participated, sending back tall tales from the front. Whilst anchored in his individualist, Nietzschean philosophy of self-declared genius, he drifted far enough to the right to embrace fascism and for a brief time express his admiration for Hitler in a book length study. Vorticism is similarly aggressive and forthright in its embrace of a modernity which is expressed in monumental and powerfully mechanistic form, dwarfing or absorbing the human figure and incorporating it into its own design.

Wyndham Lewis - self portrait from a CD of spoken word recordings
Bell and Grant’s art is a great deal more feminine, hence Graham-Dixon’s comment about its emasculating qualities and his and Hughes’ emphasis on the masculine virility of Wyndham Lewis’ work. They both took steps towards abstraction but never wholly abandoned recognisable human, still life or landscape forms. Theirs is an art of quiet interiors and private arcadia, personal worlds at a deliberate distance from the chaotic flux and violent progress of the early decades of the twentieth century. The Bloomsbury Set of which they were a central part was indeed a cliquish and elitist circle of men and women from privileged and moneyed backgrounds. But they made strenuous efforts to break free from the social expectations and assumed attitudes attached to such a birthright. They cultivated a worldview which encompass sexual tolerance and openness, an abhorrence of violence on a personal and national level, the valuation of strong and lasting friendships, critical honesty (even when assessing those close to them), a spirit of artistic experiment, and (by and large) socially progressive politics. Whereas Wyndham Lewis gladly and even eagerly went to war, Duncan Grant showed a different sort of bravery and stood up for his beliefs by becoming a conscientious objector, working on the land instead of fighting. If Vorticism was a resolutely masculine movement (Wyndham Lewis apparently failed to publicly recognise that he even had a wife, who remained firmly in the background), then the Bloomsbury set included many strong women alongside gay and bisexual men such as Grant, David Garnett and John Maynard Keynes. There is a certain tranquil repose and domesticity to Bloomsbury art which critics tend to deride as conservatism. It’s a commonplace view that the twentieth century was marked by a steady accumulation of horrors and anxieties, a series of shocks of the new. Any art which isn’t violent, tormented or disruptive is thus failing to live up to the spirit of the age. But there’s a place for an art which stands outside of the political and social trends of the time, which is detached, self-contained and inward-looking. The fierce modernity of Vorticism and the gentler experimentalism of the Bloomsbury artists don’t need to be mutually exclusive, even if the louder contemporary proponents of both were all too ready to declare hostilities. There often seems to be a strange form of aesthetic Darwinism at play in artistic circles, either at the time or retrospectively, which deems that only one strand can become dominant and survive to propagate further offshoots. This would seem to benefit those tracing neatly linear art histories or seeking were the market value lies more than it encourages the healthy flourishing of manifold approaches to art itself (and by extension, to the world).

The exhibition begins with a number of photographs from India and Burma in the late Victorian era which reflect Duncan Grant’s colonial childhood as the son of a Major in the Hussars. There is also a photograph of an assembled group dressed in turbans and robes. This is in fact a shot taken of Grant and his co-conspirators, who included Vanessa Bell’s sister Virginia Stephens (later to become Woolf) and her brother Adrian. They posed, somewhat implausibly but nevertheless successfully, as the Emperor of Abyssinia and his entourage and gained access to one of the new ironclad battleships moored in Weymouth harbour. They were entertained onboard for several hours by the captain and shown sensitive new military equipment. The so-called Dreadnought hoax of 1910 caused a nationwide stir, and were it not for the connections enjoyed by Grant and his fellow pranksters, they could have been in serious trouble. It’s an indication of the privileged and protected world in which they lived that they should have got away with it, and set out with the expectation that they would suffer nothing but a superficial rebuke. Their infiltration was put down to mere high spirits, with no real subversive or treasonous intent, which was no doubt an accurate conclusion. This privileged background is also evident in the picture of Grant at Rugby school, a child immaculately turned out in his young gent’s uniform of tailcoat and shiny top hat. This background could work against them, too. Just as it was assumed that their posing as colonial royalty could have no political or satirical element, so it was all too easy to dismiss their artistic efforts as the work of idle dilettantes.

Vanessa Bell - Byzantine Lady
The early work is screened off on the left hand side of the exhibition rooms, as if it is a little shameful and needs to be hidden away from the main body of the exhibition. Nevertheless, it is interesting to see them both (Grant in particular) trying out different imitative styles, wearing their primary influences openly. Vanessa Bell’s Iceland Poppies (1910-11) lays the flowers’ long, limp stems out on the cool, cream surface of the table before an urn and a medical phial, as if they are being displayed on a mortuary slab. Grant’s early enthusiasm for Aubrey Beardsley is apparent in his drawings. His Dancers from 1910 puts what he learned from his earlier copies of Masaccio’s Expulsion of Adam and Eve to use. Its sturdy, sculptural figures and air of ritual anticipate the earth mothers and goddesses he would go on to create. Grant and Bell had met each other at the Friday Club, which Bell (then Vanessa Stephens) had set up to discuss art and put on an annual exhibition. They were both hugely inspired by the Manet and the Post-Impressionists exhibition mounted at the Grafton Galleries in 1910 by Roger Fry. This introduced to a wide English audience the likes of Gauguin, Picasso and Derain, and above all, Cezanne, whom Fry considered ‘the great genius’. All of these were to exert a strong influence. By the time of the second Post-Impressionist exhibition (for which Grant produced the poster, included here) in 1912, the work of English artists was also included alongside the likes of Picasso, Cezanne and Matisse (with cubism getting a first look in). Matisse was also a great inspiration, and Bell’s Byzantine Lady of 1912 (now in the Government Art Collection and recently also on display at the Whitechapel Art Gallery) shows the impact of his colour palette whilst retaining an individual sensibility in its profile portrait of a woman with eyes closed, who looks half like a painted puppet, half like a dreaming priestess. Both Bell and Grant had paintings displayed at the second exhibition. Their intimacy with Fry, who was once again the curator, and with whom Bell had recently had an affair, points to the rather nepotistic nature of the Bloomsbury set. Then again, most self-organising artistic movements come together partly to promote each other’s work by gathering it under a common banner.

The Ass (1913) - Duncan Grant
One of the pictures Grant displayed was The Queen of Sheba (1912), which once more displays the ancient figures and scenes which exercised his vivid imagination. The style shows the influence of Seurat and pointillism, although the brush dabs are broad and suggestive of mosaic tiles, in keeping with the biblical subject matter. The clearly defined blocks of colour contained within heavily outlined areas are a step towards the formalism (the primacy of colour, shape and outline and their arrangement over directly representative subject matter) for which Fry and Clive Bell argued. This also anticipates the decorative work which Bell and Grant would carry out at various houses including, eventually, their own. There is humour here, too. Solomon’s face seems to slump down into the supporting architrave of his cupped hand, suggesting that he is not entirely engaged by what Sheba has to say. Meanwhile, a rather supercilious camel drifts by outside, feigning an aloof indifference to the rider upon its back. The whole subtly undermines the grandiose self-importance of the pictorial tradition of historical or classical scenes. Grant would portray further exotic or eccentric animals in his work, perhaps drawing on memories of his Indian childhood. There’s a marquetry tray with an elephant and rider, all sharp angles, like a flattened version of a Gaudier-Brzeska sculpture. The Ass (1913) is a playful and characterful animal portrait which looks like it could be taken from a children’s book. In its goofy grotesqueness, it resembles one of Mervyn Peake’s illustrations for his nonsense poems. The background landscape has the angular planes of a Cezanne painting, whilst the heavy lines of broadly spaced hatching point to a decorative sensibility. They also resemble stitches, making the ass resemble some sewn-together, patchwork creature.

Venus and Adonis (1919) - Duncan Grant
Grant also continued to show an interest in primal, ancient subject matter. His Head of Eve (1913), with its mask-like face and exaggerated bodily outline, could be an object excavated from some long-forgotten downland tumulus. There used to be more of her, with a tumbling Adam at her side, but somehow, the isolated head and bust is more impressive, the design more concentrated and thus making a greater immediate impact. Venus and Adonis (1919) foregrounds the reclining Goddess in a hot Mediterranean landscape, her bed composed of glowing reds, oranges and yellows, like scarcely solidified magma. Her body has the overemphasised breasts and hips of ancient Goddess figures and is rooted to (or contiguous with) the earth. Her head, which seems almost detached from the body, tethered only by the broad anchor of a great hand, floats amongst the clouds, whose billowing form and sun-blushed colour is echoed by the waves of her hair and the flush of her cheek and lips. Adonis is a tiny figure running freely through the landscape. But he is positioned so that he seems to be traversing the expanse of her thigh, his further progress constrained by the upraised pillar of her calf. The sculptural form of Grant’s earth mother certainly seems to anticipate the work of Henry Moore, for whom it might well have provided a grain of inspiration.

Studland Beach (1912) - Vanessa Bell
Roger Fry and Clive Bell’s emphasis on the formal aspects of a painting as providing the most important aesthetic element had a definite effect on both Grant and Bell, who no doubt heard the critics’ theories at persuasive length. This led to them both experimenting with varying degrees of abstraction and general reduction of detail, although both tended to return to representational subject matter. Total abstraction was not, in the end, something which expressed their character or interests. A mixture of the formal and representational can be seen in careful balance in Vanessa Bell’s Studland Beach (1912). Areas of bold and clearly distinguished colour are contained with heavily outlined and simplified shapes. There is a very mysterious and almost ritualistic atmosphere to this painting, which makes it much more than a simple beachside holiday scene. All the figures are facing away from us. The two in the foreground, sitting in the dune area, are distinguished by their dark reddish dresses (the red of life?) and the straw coloured hats which take the place of heads and further set them apart from the beach area. A clear expanse of bone-white sand separates them from the other group, who cluster around the bathing tent which breaks the transverse sweep of the lines of dune, beach and sea. Four figures huddle as if in obeisance around a fifth, who stands in front of the tent as if on the threshold of some portal. She wears a simple blue dress, the blue of the ocean into which she is just about to plunge. But there is a sense of finality to the scene, as if she is not likely to return once she has passed through the white doorway. This is a scene of farewell and departure. The whole picture is suffused with an air of dream and memory, landscapes and people recollected and used as the stage for an interior psychodrama, a sense enhanced by the formal simplification of the composition. In this sense, the beach looks forward to the flat, desert-like planes and city squares populated with dream objects by Dali, de Chirico and Tanguy. The picture is filled with a quiet sense of loss, unsurprisingly so given that Bell had lost her mother when she was six, her half-sister Stella Hills when she was 18, and her father when she was 25. Her sister Virginia would make her first suicide attempt a year later. All of which makes the picture hugely affecting and filled with a premonitory mystery, presaging a passage into the great blue beyond which has swallowed the sky and now forms a universal and all-embracing element. Bell’s The Tub (1917) is another painting in which formal design is to the fore, the whole centring around the compressed oval of the tub itself. The picture also has a religious quality. The woman, to the right of the picture, with her primitive, mask-like face taken from African art via Picasso, toys with her braid (perhaps undoing it), but her clasped hands and downturned head give her a prayerful aspect. The tub, just to the left of centre, looks like a heavily lidded eye, awaiting the right words and gestures to slowly blink open and deliver whatever oracular vision it has to offer. The arched, sky-blue space at the back, with the ochre vase containing splayed yellow and red bulbs balanced on the straight deep blue line, has the feel of an altar. The bathroom is thus turned into a sacred space, a place of solemn ritual and contemplation.

Bell did briefly venture into the realm of complete abstraction in 1914, but soon turned back. The most remarkable abstract work here is Duncan Grant’s Abstract Kinetic Collage Painting with sound. This is a long strip of canvas with arrangements of coloured rectangles, some given stippled ‘shadows’, perhaps to give an impression of depth, which proceed in more or less discrete clusters along its length. This was designed to effectively act in a manner akin to a spooled loop of film, to be viewed through a viewing screen in a box. Grant’s sketched designs for the proposed mechanism are displayed alongside the strip itself. When the Tate Gallery purchased the work in 1973, they made a film of it in motion (or perhaps merely tracked along its length). Grant chose the slow movement of Bach’s first Brandenberg Concerto to accompany the images, and the film plays adjacent to the original work, displayed in all its elongated, horizontal glory. I imagine this is a piece which the gallery staff will not want to hear again for a long time after the exhibition closes. This is art as synaesthetic experience, aspiring to the condition of music, the procession of rectangular forms tumbling and righting themselves in a stately, shuffling dance. Where the more action-oriented of the abstract expressionists would use huge canvasses to create a sense of motion through space across which the spectator’s eye roved, Grant kept things compact by making the canvas itself move, doing the viewer’s work for them. Although you can create your own loop, of course, by walking along the length of the strip, trying out different speeds (and different pieces of accompanying music if you happen to have a portable music device handy) or maybe seeing what it’s like in reverse.

Bathers by the Pond (1920-1) - Duncan Grant
There’s a strong arcadian element to Bell and Grant’s work, too; a search for a changeless Edenic polder walled off from the frenzied progress of the unfolding century. A place of stillness where they and their friends could live freely beyond the bounds of conventional society. Both Grant and Bell painted scenes of their camping holiday with Clive Bell, Roger Fry, John Maynard Keynes, Adrian Stephens and others. Grant’s Tents (1913) sees him evidently in thrall to Cezanne, with the angular lines of the tents reflected in the intersecting planes of the trees, and the palette constrained within a narrow range of olives, yellows, and bluey greys. Bell’s Summer Camp (1913), owned, along with Grant's picture, by Bloomsbury enthusiast Bryan Ferry, has more of a sketch-like quality, with broad black outlines and single strokes of paint, with the whole composition anchored by the yellow tent poles and sloping lavender and olive canvas. Arcs and blocks of green, blue and ochre paint in the background give the merest, notional hint of a surrounding, verdant woodland which is more fully represented in Grant’s painting. Grant also turned on several occasions to the subject of male bathers, most strikingly in his 1911 design for the students’ dining room in Borough Polytechnic, South London. This is a study in waved and arcing lines. The three planes of the sea (or is it a lake?), intersecting at different angles and seemingly layered atop one another, resemble batik bedspreads with their gradations of watery colour contained within brown outlines. The bathers are composed of curves of shallow convexity joining at sharp angles. There’s something a bit Blakean about them. The pope being cast into the fiery pit in Blake’s illustrations to Dante’s Inferno could be transposed to take a less agonising dive here. The figures in the foreground look as if they’re drowning as much as they’re swimming. The wavering lines of the water’s surface are traced over their limbs, whereas those of the swimmers in the second plane of water, who are either diving in or climbing out, are obscured, suggesting these may be deeper currents. Their hair follows the undulation and curve of wave and muscle. The only straight lines here are those of the horizon and the block on the lower right hand side from which two figures are diving, one immediately after the other. The later Bathers by the Pond (from about 1920-1) returns to a form of paint-dabbed pointillism for the watery background and shore foreground, which gives the impression of hazy summer shimmer despite the somewhat drab, Sickert-like colours. The dazzling white and orange-red of the bathers’ trunks and the towel really stand out against the muddy greens, browns and yellows. The figures are more individuated than those of the 1911 mural, with facial features delineated and bodies more naturalistically portrayed. The small dash of brown representing the pubic hair of the reclining foreground figure goes against the smoothly unnatural conventions of the classical nude, and there is an air of languid homoeroticism about the whole picture.

Interiors and thresholds granting views out into gardens or arcadian landscapes were also a common theme of Grant and Bell’s work. Bell’s Interior With A Table (1921) sets the brown of the table, with the sinuous curve of its legs resembling the twining spiral of a vine and giving it an organic look, and the cool whites of the curtains and window frame against the warm colours of the St Tropez landscape beyond. The discs of the four flowerheads in the vase provide an intermediary balance between the separate spaces, the colours of the bright burning world brought into the subdued shadows of the interior. Grant and Bell’s concern for domestic spaces was also manifested in the interior decorations which they carried out in various houses, including John Maynard Keynes’ place in 1910-11. They produced a number of objects for the Omega Workshop, a William Morris-style enterprise set up by Roger Fry in 1913 to encourage artists to direct their talents towards the applied arts and improve the standard of home decoration. These works included Grant’s elephant tray and several screens, two of which are placed back to back in the centre of the first gallery. Bell’s screen returns to the camping theme, with the central pyramid of tent and pole orbited by four green women disporting themselves in various languorous poses. The one in the centre, with her back to us, is seated within a dark red triangle which echoes the shape of the tent above. The simplified and sharply angular forms and mask like faces, rendered with a minimal series of slashes, recall the contemporary sculptures of the likes of Gaudier-Brzeska and Constantin Brancusi, as well as Picasso’s Demoiselles d’Avignon. The colours are rather drab, verdigris greens and mustard yellows. The same cannot be said for Grant’s screen, which features more playfully drawn animals, this time bright blue sheep grazing on pink hills in an eye dazzling riot of fauvist exuberance. This is certainly no English farm I’ve ever seen. Bell and Grant eventually discovered their own arcadia at Charleston, a farmhouse at Firle, just east of Lewes in Sussex, which Bell first rented in 1916. They both lived here on and off until the end of their days, their closeness reflected in the shared styles and subject matter of much of their painting. They even had a child together, Angelica, in 1918. The writer David Garnett, a fellow conscientious objector, also lived at Charleston during the war years, at which time he was having an affair with Grant. He was present at the birth of Angelica and some years later, in 1942, ended up marrying her. With such a dedicated determination to circumvent social conventions, life was certainly never dull in Bloomsbury circles. Bell and Grant set to decorating their own home over the years, and you can see the results for yourself, as Charleston and its surrounds have been open to the public since 1985. Bell and Grant (who died 7 years earlier in 1978) are both buried in the nearby churchyard at Firle, which suggests that Charleston was a spiritual home to the both of them.

Vanessa Bell at Charleston (1917) - Duncan Grant
Grant portrays Bell in the early days at their home in Vanessa Bell at Charleston (1917). She is relaxed, sprawled at nonchalant full length across the sofa, shelves bowing under the weight of the books against the wall behind her. The window is open to the left (although we don’t see through it) with its brightly patterned red curtain hanging still to the side, and the room appears light and airy. It feels like the room of one’s own which Vanessa’s sister Virginia sought. Bell and Grant both painted a series of portraits of friends and acquaintances seated and, to varying degrees, at their ease in domestic interiors, usually in bright and occasionally hallucinatory fauvist colours. Bell’s portrait of Virginia Woolf (1912) finds her cradled in the winged arms of a warmly orange chair. Although her hands seem to be engaged in knitting or crocheting, the blurred features of her face subjectively suggest a state of light sleep. As with the Studland picture, the simplified formalism of the painting gives it a hazy, dreamlike quality. Duncan Grant’s portrait of the mountaineer George Mallory (1912), another of his boyfriends, is a full and shirtless head and torso composition, radiating frank desire. It shows him as a heroic and monumental figure, gazing off into the distance with arms around drawn up knees, as if dreaming of his next adventure. The portrait is partially painted pointillistically to give the effect of a mosaic - a depiction of a notable ancient about whom tales will long be told. Vanessa Bell’s portrait of Mrs St John Hutchinson (born simple Mary Barnes) of 1915 has, on the other hand, a rather shifty quality. This is partly due to the primly pouting lips, partly to the blue eyes looking warily or distractedly off to the side. She is set against an abstract formal design, perhaps one of Bell’s 1914 efforts, which hints at an element of cool calculation in her character. Mrs Hutchinson was the open mistress of Clive Bell, Vanessa’s husband, and whilst such arrangements were par for the course in Bloomsbury circles and didn’t necessarily present a problem, she and Vanessa never got along. The distrust between them seems apparent in this portrait. Nevertheless, with her form filling the space between narrow framing blocks of blue colour and making a striking impact in the pulsating yellow-green of her dress, she has a definite, commanding presence.

Virginia Woolf (1911-12) - Vanessa Bell
This exhibition brings together the diverse works of Bell and Grant’s experimental years, the period in which they were searching for their own individual means of expression. If nothing else, it shows how assiduously they pursued a series of attempts to transpose the various new styles of art from the continent into a personal and particularly English context. The degree to which they succeeded is up to you to decide, but it’s well worth following their progress whether or not it ended up marking a significant moment in the story of British art, or a mere notable footnote. This was the perfect summer exhibition for the Brighton Museum and Art Gallery. Grant’s bathers looked splendid on the advertising hoardings facing the sea, although it has to be said that while we were there a fierce gale was whipping the waves up into a dramatic surge which would have made any attempt at swimming a foolhardy exercise. But Radical Bloomsbury remains here until 9th October, so there’s still time to see it whilst the brief late bloom of our Indian summer draws on.

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