The first thing that you see as you enter the Virginia Woolf exhibition at the Fitzwilliam Museum is a photograph of Woolf’s writing desk. Taken by Gisèle Freund two decades after Woolf’s death, the image ties together some of the exhibition’s themes: the relationship between writing and looking, between inside and out, between public and private space. In the photograph, we see an assortment of objects (vase of flowers, opened notebook, pen, ink pot) on Woolf’s desk; the garden of Monk’s House, her Sussex home, stretches beyond. Woolf, of course, is absent, but the photograph, with its pulled-out chair, invites us to imagine her presence. Simultaneously, the angle at which the photograph has been taken, as if from a standing position, allows us to place ourselves at the centre of the scene, perhaps about to pick up the pen and start writing. What would we say? What have subsequent artists said?
These questions are at the heart of the exhibition, which explores the effect that literature can have on visual art, and vice versa. Gesturing towards Woolf’s interest in how women navigate public space, it opens with a room exploring how artists have chosen to represent themselves, and others, in public. In keeping with Woolf’s notion that we ‘think back through our mothers’, a photograph of the writer’s own mother, the pre-Raphaelite muse Julia Prinsep Stephen, is on display here, taken by Woolf’s great-aunt Julia Margaret Cameron in 1867. Stephen’s face is half in shadow, and she stares evenly into the camera. Dod Procter’s self-portrait from the 1920s also plays with light, highlighting points of brightness on the artist’s face. While the curve of Procter’s shoulder lead’s the viewer’s eyes in a rolling motion down and out of the painting, it is to her own steady gaze, away from the viewer, that they return. Perhaps the most striking image in this part of the gallery, however, is Zanele Muholi’s Bona, Charlottesville from 2015. The black-and-white photograph shows Muholi lying naked on a bed, facing away from the viewer; the oval mirror she holds reveals her face and fierce stare. The image is a challenge, a reclaiming of nudity, a questioning of the viewer’s voyeurism, a remaking of the traditionally prone female nude, an examination of what it means to look and be looked at. In its doubling of selves, Muholi’s photograph is also attuned to Woolf’s fascination with the multiplicity of identity, with ‘those selves of which we are made up, one on top of another, as plates are piled on a waiter’s hand’, as she describes in her 1928 novel Orlando.
Other aspects of femininity are probed and questioned. Two images from Bela Kolárová’s Make-Up Drawings (1976) are featured on the gallery’s walls, the delicate smudges and patches, made with powder and blusher, reminiscent of the swatches of colour on an artist’s palette. Equally delicate is Hannah Wilke’s display of sixteen painted ceramics, entitled Sweet Sixteen (1977). Enclosed, unfurling, petal-like, these vulva-esque objects suggest the possibilities of sexual awakening; unattached to any female body, however, and laid out like sweet cakes, they also point to the treatment of women’s bodies as passive objects for consumption. Two further works from the 1970s, Penny Slinger’s I Hear What You Say and Read My Lips, explore ideas relating to the female body. Here, Slinger adopts the collage techniques of the Surrealists – in the latter work placing a mouth in a mouth in a mouth – to investigate female expression. Read My Lips is particularly alarming: the female mouth is stopped up in an over-stuffing of sensuality: where there should be a gap for words to emerge, there is only further flesh: in this sense, the work functions as a comment on the reduction of women to body parts and entry points. What does this have to do with Woolf? Well, Woolf was a pioneering feminist, with strong ties to the women’s suffrage movement, and her novels explore questions relating to selfhood and gender. In this sense, the artists might be seen as drawing on Woolf’s feminist inheritance. Another answer, though, is that the connection does not have to be explicit. Instead of considering the extent to which Woolf may have influenced these particular artists, we might use Woolf as a lens through which to view these works. As Laura Smith notes in the accompanying exhibition catalogue, the exhibition ‘traces many of the vital and fluid connections that can be drawn between Woolf, her contemporaries, and those who share an affinity with her work – whether such connections be tangible, anecdotal, geographical or imagined.’
A later part of the exhibition considers still life, the home, and A Room of One’s Own. ‘It is significant that when Virginia Woolf devises a metaphor for a new generation of creative women setting up professional lives – it is of a room’, the gallery’s accompanying notes explain. Significant, but perhaps not surprising: while for Woolf, the room might be a symbol of independence, it is also ‘symbolic of the physical and psychological constriction of women, from which liberation is necessary’, as Laura Smith points out, citing Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s haunting 1892 novella The Yellow Wall-Paper, which depicts the nineteenth-century ‘rest cure’ for women. While displaying various domestic objects, then, such as a teapot from Woolf’s house, decorated by her sister Vanessa Bell, this part of the gallery also exhibits objects that have been repurposed, and artwork that turns away from the confines of the inside world to wilder seascapes and outdoor settings. Eileen Agar’s Marine Object (1939) does both. Made of terracotta, horn, bone, and shells, the burnt, bronzed colourings of Agar’s work resonate with Vanessa Bell’s comment on the south of France, written below her painting Interior with a Table (1921): ‘it’s delicious to be in the South . . . all the colours and the light and space and everything looks so baked through’. Le Sphinx Rouge (2015) by Carol Bove is another salty sculptural assemblage: white spiny seashells balance like earrings on a steel frame, accompanied by the slim hanging threads of a peacock feather. ‘For masterpieces are not single and solitary births; they are the outcome of many years of thinking in common, or thinking by the body of the people, so that the experience of the mass is behind the single voice’, says Woolf in A Room of One’s Own. Virginia Woolf: an exhibition inspired by her writings attests to this.
Words by Suzannah V. Evans.
Virginia Woolf: An Exhibition Inspired By Her Writings. 2 October – 9 December 2018 | Fitzwilliam Museum. For more information, visit Fitzwilliam Museum.
To discover more content exclusive to our print and app editions, subscribe to The London Magazine today from just £17.
Want to win £500 and be published in the UK’s oldest literary review? Enter our Short Story Prize!