Vanessa Bell and Patti Smith at Dulwich Picture Gallery
We take a trip to the Dulwich Picture Gallery as they bring together the painted works of Vanessa Bell giving us an insight into the Bloomsbury group, with a special wing dedicated to the photography of Bell and Patti Smith.
Words by Danielle Morgan
Coming to this exhibition with not much of an insight into Vanessa Bell, aside from the bohemian plights of the Bloomsbury Set, of which she was a proud and prominent member, I approached her work with a completely open and uninhibited mindset. What I left with was a profound appreciation of Bell's work, and her as a person, and an eagerness to know more more more!
The exhibition is compartmentalised into different sections ranging from 'Still Life' to 'Home', 'Design and Experimentation' and 'Pictures of Women'. The effect of this is to break down her completely overwhelming life experiences into a more manageable and reflective way of viewing her art.
It is important to understand Bell's nature and morality in order to begin to understand her work; the two were not separate, they're one and the same. She was one of the first 'Nasty women' to completely defy the Victorian sensibility that a woman's public and personal life could exist separately from one another. The ebb and flow of her personal life can be consistently traced throughout her work.
One of the things that was brought to our attention as we were guided around the exhibition by the curators is how completely overwhelmed Bell would have been by seeing such a strong and expansive collection of her work in one place. Very self deprecating, the contemporary relevance of her work for her predecessors in art and feminism is huge, and it was suggested she perhaps did not comprehend this significance at the time of creating her works. A brilliant story was told of her papier collé Molly McCarthy, which she hated and used as a roof for the rabbit hutch, until it was heroically rescued by Bunny Garnett and purchased for the princely sum of 5 bob, much to Bell's dismay. Had she not needed the money, the piece would most likely have remained fugitive to the elements and lost forever.
We often hear of the disposable nature of life at Charleston House. It is interesting to consider what little significance was placed on some of the work created there, when you think about how much emphasis was placed on the values that manifested within them; it wasn't unheard of for paintings to be cut up and used as shelves or to patch up the house.
The Omega workshop started trading in 1913, and by 1920 it had shut up shop. A short and seemingly inconsequential time for a textile manufacturer to establish themselves at all on the market? You'd be forgiven for coming to this conclusion, but in fact the significance of the workshop and their lasting impact on design cannot be underestimated. For the Bloomsbury Set, and in the case of the Omega Workshop's main designers Vanessa and Duncant Grant specifically, it wasn't enough for them to merely observe and imitate the world around them; they wanted to create their own environments, to be lived in. The 'Design and Experimentation' wing of the exhibition is a glimpse into Bell's perception of the world she lived in, and the need to reinvent and stray from what she had been accustomed to during her Victorian childhood. A 'ripping up of the rule book' so to speak, was eventually what lead Vanessa to create the strikingly contemporary textile designs of the Omega Workshop, and what undoubtedly fed into her completely modern feminist approach to technique and subject matter in her painting.
In life as in her work, Bell is laying down her own law. Monogamy was discouraged at Charleston House, homosexuality encouraged. The children were allowed to run about the grounds naked, conscientious objectors were welcomed. The Bloomsbury set wanted to live.
That isn't to say that she completely shuns the Victorian era. Let's not forget, Bell is poised between the traditional ideas of beauty and loveliness of the late 1800s and a desire to pull everything into the 20th century. Modernity in the age of women gaining the vote and making their way out of the home and into the factories are all values she is constantly adopting, but she cannot be condemned for finding it a little challenging to shake off the old ways. In some of Bell's works in the last wing of the show, we see her engaging with the traditional iconography of the Victorian era; the Madonna, the nanny and child, whilst fusing them with her wholly modern notions of femininity.
What Bell was interested in was the role of women in public and private spaces; constantly throughout her work we get the sense that she was trying to do justice to the real, lived experience of being a woman. Frequently, Bell paints women that avoid the gaze; women that won't be coerced into giving the viewer, or the painter, their full attention. Bell didn't want to paint the conventionally beautiful picture of the woman, she wanted to defy those conventions and paint her own experience of being a woman, and that of the women around her. Above all, this exhibiton is a poignant insight into the way Vanessa Bell toyed with her own morality, conscience and femininity. A beautiful and compelling must for Bloomsbury-bods or beginners!
Legacy: Photography by Patti Smith
Small perhaps, lacking, definitely not. The room adjoining the main exhibition devoted to the Polaroid's of Patti Smith was personally very moving. I was so excited to get up close and personal with the photographs I had poured over in her book Just Kids and its 'sequel' if you will M Train, I maybe did a little wee. Just a little one!
They tell of the fascination and enduring legacy the likes of authors such as Bell's sister Virginia Woolf had on the musician and writer. Graves are a theme that Patti continually revisits, as though visiting the grave of her favourite deceased authors will somehow bring her closer to them and their works, physically if not metaphorically. But do not be fooled; these photographs, although perhaps morbid in subject matter are anything but. They pertain an almost ethereal quality that falls into line with the photos taken by Bell. The ghostly black and white images are not without their flaws, a blur or fade only add to their special-ness.
The experimental, almost amateur nature of her smudged and hazy photographs is what makes them so irresistible. Whatever Patti did, it was always intrinsically linked with words. There is an honesty and vulnerability to her images; behind every photograph a little girl that had once poured over her beloved books, eager to visit her literary heroes, in spirit if not in person; a purity behind capturing a simple shot of the chair or a bed or a pot of paintbrushes that they used, of trying to know better the people she will never meet through the possessions they left behind. Having never visited the graves of my favourite authors, I found these photos surprisingly comforting and strangely nostalgic! I have to confess, I have an almost obsessive love for Patti Smith. I feel as though seeing these delicate photographs in the flesh brung us just a little bit closer. Flawed? Definitely, but in my eyes, she can do no wrong!
Find out more about this exhibiton and how you can buy tickets here.