“Painting and writing have much to tell each other,” Virginia Woolf believed, yet she left London’s second post-Impressionist exhibition in 1912, organised by her Bloomsbury friend Roger Fry, convinced that “artists are an abominable race. The furious excitement of these people all the winter over their pieces of canvas coloured green and blue, is odious.”
This exhibition-as-portrait is the best show about a writer that I have ever seen. Woolf’s concern as a novelist was exploring the possibilities of a new 20th-century portraiture in words which would evoke the fragmented, shifting, unfixed, contradictory elements of personality. Her writing parallels the fluid, elliptical, subjective depictions developed by modernist painters in her circle, including numerous works here for the first time, is a highlight.
The show marvellously unravels varied aspects of Woolf’s life and art through manuscripts, first editions, photographs and memorabilia: documents from her Hogarth Press; contemporary fashion shoots; posters for political rallies Woolf attended; Douglas MacPherson’s 1928 depiction of Piccadilly Circus station. So we see Woolf change and age, and a social world evolve: from childhood high seriousness in the 19th-century intellectual aristocracy – she grew up with portraits of family friends Darwin, Tennyson and Browning, photographed by her aunt Julia Margaret Cameron – to Bloomsbury’s attempt to forge modernity by rejecting eminent Victorians.
The final section, recording Woolf’s meeting with Sigmund Freud – who gave her a symbolic narcissus – and 1939 colour images by the perceptive émigré Gisèle Freund, the last photographer to have access to Woolf, is a deeply moving portrait of a restless mind on the cusp of destruction.
npg.org.uk, 020 7306 0055, to October 26