Vanessa Bell, 'Self-Portrait' (c.1915)
Vanessa Bell, 'Self-Portrait' (c.1915)

Vanessa Bell is a wonderful yet frustrating artist. That is the conclusion reached at the end of the new exhibition of her work at Dulwich Picture Gallery. The curators promise to “present Bell for fresh consideration as an artist on her own terms”. But the painter’s family ties and labyrinthine love life are too fascinating to be forgotten. Bell was the sister of Virginia Woolf, wife of Clive Bell, lover of Roger Fry, long-time companion of the painter Duncan Grant, and mother of Angelica Garnett; her identity is woven into the glittering, rebellious, privileged and creatively fecund tapestry that was the Bloomsbury Group.

More importantly, her oeuvre is inextricable from her private life. Although she did turn her hand to landscapes and still lifes, Bell’s finest paintings are of people. The Dulwich show, which majors in works made before 1920 — universally recognised as Bell’s best period — is organised thematically rather than chronologically. For all its stated intention, the exhibition opens with a selection of portraits that grounds Bell in her emotional milieu from the start.

Undoubtedly, she had a gift for capturing the wayward essence of her nearest and dearest. Quite unforgettable is her small 1912 painting of Woolf. Slumped in a tangerine armchair, her body as fluid and boneless as a rag doll’s, her face a blank, shuttered oval of rose and shell pink, a swatch of fuchsia crochet in her hands, her sister is shown as the vulnerable, enigmatic introvert who once wrote: “I must be private, secret, as anonymous and submerged as possible in order to write.”

Vanessa Bell's 'Virginia Woolf' (c.1912)
Vanessa Bell's 'Virginia Woolf' (c.1912)

Painted in 1912, when Bell was 33 years old, the portrait testifies to an artist nearing her zenith. By then, she had cast off all ties to the stuffy Victorian era into which she had been born. She had a head start. Her parents, Leslie and Julia Stephen, had a Bohemian streak. (Her father was a renowned man of letters, her mother the niece of the 19th-century photographer Julia Margaret Cameron, and her step-grandfather was William Makepeace Thackeray.)

Educated at home, the Stephen girls were, by Bell’s account, never happier than when closeted together: “I painting, [Virginia] reading aloud”. But a dark machismo shadowed their youth. Bell’s mother died when she was just 15 years old. It’s said that both she and Virginia were abused by their half-brothers while her father was, in Virginia’s words, “exacting, violent . . . alternatively loved and hated”.

Little wonder that Bell described Arthur Cope’s art school in South Kensington as “separate entirely from my home life and so a great relief”. In 1901 she enrolled at the Royal Academy, where John Singer Sargent taught her, she attested, “most astonishingly well”. Steeped in the realism propounded by French Impressionism, Sargent must have been a breath of fresh air after the grandiosity of British Victorian painting.

Due to an air raid which destroyed her London studio, little of her earliest work survives. But a gorgeous still life, “Iceland Poppies” (1908), employs silky whites, china blue and cool, exact shadows to give the long-stemmed flowers and empty vase a sacramental elegance reminiscent of Chardin and Whistler. Meanwhile a small oil sketch of her sleeping baby son, “Julian Bell” (c.1908), possesses an awareness of carnal detail — the child’s full, open lips, fleshy calves and generous rump are the antithesis of infant frailty — that testifies to her determination to express truth rather than sentiment.

Bell’s life reflected her determination to stay faithful to herself rather than society’s expectations. In 1904, following her father’s death, she moved herself and her siblings into 46 Gordon Square, the house at the heart of the Bloomsbury fandango. “To have one’s own room, be master of one’s own time,” cooed Bell as she created a magnet for artists and writers including John Maynard Keynes, Lytton Strachey, Clive Bell, Roger Fry and Duncan Grant, the painter who — despite his homosexuality — would become her life-long companion and father of her daughter Angelica. In 1907 she married Bell, an art critic who was making a name for himself as a champion of modernist form. They would enjoy an open marriage. Indeed, Vanessa once said the three-way conversation about art between herself, her husband and Fry “would go on til Domesday”.

French modernism gave Bell the tools to capture her world in all its avant-garde vitality. Although London lacked the you-saw-it-here-first edge of Paris, Bell saw Cézanne, at the New Galleries in 1906, and crucially Roger Fry’s landmark exhibition Manet and the Post-Impressionists at the Grafton Galleries in 1910-11. Confronted by Van Gogh, Gauguin and Picasso, Bell described “a sudden liberation and encouragement to feel for oneself which was absolutely overwhelming”.

Here were painters relying on colour and form to express their feelings about what they actually saw rather than what the academy told them they ought to see. Armed with new confidence, Bell chronicled her own habitat which, thanks to her warm personality, was generally abundant with people. First in Bloomsbury and then in her beloved country house in Charleston, Sussex, she was an Edwardian superwoman, painting daily while surrounded by lovers and small children. (Julian was born in 1908, Quentin in 1910 and Angelica in 1918.)

A portrait of Grant (1915-19) shows the painter looking at himself in a mirror with a patterned cloth over his head. His thick-rimmed glasses rhyming with the towel’s raspberry band, a blue daub lending fragility to the back of his skull, the radiant, fluid melange of strokes renders him sensual, exotic yet profoundly elusive. Painted in 1915, David Garnett, Grant’s lover and later the husband of Angelica, is shown half-naked in high-keyed pinks and yellows that reduce him to the essence of scrubbed, public-school smugness. By contrast Lytton Strachey, painted in 1912, looks as if he never undressed in his life. With his blue tie knotted tightly above his three-piece suit, languid hand draped over the armchair, his off-centre gaze suggests some higher, less material calling.

Bell did make a foray into abstraction. From 1913 to 1918, she and Roger Fry ran the Omega Workshops, producing designs for textiles, rugs and clothing. A few purely abstract paintings also came into the world. Nothing at Dulwich suggests that it was her forte. Rug designs from 1913 to 1915 feel lightless and lethargic due to their muted tones — ochre, black, pigeon-grey, mulberry — and static forms. The experiment reminded her, she wrote, that she was “after all in love with nature”.

'Studland Beach' (1912)
'Studland Beach' (1912)

But her consideration of pure form fed her figurative work. Painted between 1912 and 1914, her finest paintings other than the portraits are gathered in Dulwich’s final room. Most powerful is Tate’s “Studland Beach” (1912), which transcends all obvious derivations. Showing a group of women and children, two in the foreground watching the others on the shoreline, all with their backs to the viewer, the spare human shapes and empty swathes of canvas — the pale parabola of sand, the polygon of ocean blue — possess a pared-down mysticism that still feels radical today.

Bell and her coterie made frequent visits to the Dorset beach. But their joyous, windswept gatherings, documented here in black-and-white photographs that show Virginia, Clive and Lytton bundled up in voluminous Edwardian costumes, were the antithesis of the painting’s Zen-calm austerity.

How fascinating that Bell’s finest work occurred when she shrugged off her predilection for realism in favour of some inner, visionary impulse. The moment didn’t last. Her later work, while worthy, shows how she returned to French-style experiments with colour and form even as such visions became passé. Did she fear a more interior pursuit would risk the psychic loneliness that besieged her beloved sister? As it was, she died at the age of 81, still ensconced with Grant, and often Clive too, at Charleston. This exhibition is a testament to a life well lived and an art that, if not the stuff of revolution, is certainly buoyant enough to do it justice.

To June 4, dulwichpicturegallery.org.uk

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