Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Vanessa Bell, Modernist Amateur

Vanessa Bell, née Stephen, (1879-1961) was a member of the Bloomsbury Group. A brief Wikipedia entry about her is here and a lengthy Guardian article dealing with her painting is here.

She had some formal art training and painted for much of her adult life. From what I've read about her, it seems that most of the paintings she made were for herself; she didn't have to paint to make a living.

Given when she lived and who she associated with (artist Duncan Grant and artist / art critic Roger Fry, among others), she was swept up in modernism, especially 1910-20. By the late 1930s she pulled back and made more conventionally representational paintings. I am not aware that she painted abstractions.

The Guardian piece linked above makes her out to be far more than she was, if the images below are any evidence.


Photo of Vanessa by George Charles Beresford - 1902

Virginia Woolf - ca. 1912
She painted several pictures of people where faces were either lightly indicated or simply rendered as colored blobs. My conjecture is that she (or one of her friends, likely Roger Fry) thought that including facial detail would make faces the painting's focus, whereas a blank face would allow viewers to contemplate the image in "formal" terms -- color, composition, and such.

Virginia Woolf - ca. 1912
A Cézanne-like treatment of Vanessa's sister, the writer Virginia Woolf.

Conversation Piece - 1912
More faceless subjects, thinly painted.

Lytton Strachey - 1913
The biographer before he gained fame and wealth.

Molly MacCarthy - 1914-15
This is the only Cubist-inspired portrait I'm aware of, though others might have been destroyed in a World War 2 air raid.

Mrs. John Hutchinson - 1915
The pink face and pink wall provide a modernist version of a Coles Phillips illustration.

The Blue Room, Wissett Lodge - 1916
Accurate anatomy, linear perspective, scale and other attributes are sacrificed to the gods of modernism.

View of the Pond at Charleston, East Sussex - ca. 1919
Here she retreats a little from extreme modernism. Drawing is more accurate, but brushwork remains dabby.

8 Fitzroy Street
Perspective is ignored, and the colors give this a whiff of Henri Matisse.

Dora Morris - ca. 1937
This is much more representational, but the brushwork remains haphazard.

Angelica Garnett (Vanessa's daughter)

Leonard Woolf - 1940
Virginia Woolf's husband, perhaps doing his obsession, the finances for the Hogarth Press.

Lady with a Book - 1945-46
A postwar painting with even more compromises with representationalism, though it retains a modernist feel.

Self Portrait - ca. 1958
Done not long before her death.

1 comment:

Hels said...

I love Vanessa and her friends, particularly once they lived in Charleston Farmhouse from WW1 on. I don't know that she and Grant made the greatest paintings and other art objects in the history of humanity, but they defined modernity for me.

The works that they created on commissions for Roger Fry's Omega Workshops did make a difference. I cannot find a date for 8 Fitzroy St but yes, Matisse would have enjoyed it.

Thanks for the link