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Vanessa Bell at the Dulwich Picture Gallery

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Vanessa Bell, Studland Beach. Verso: Group of Male Nudes by Duncan Grant, c. 1912. Oil on canvas, 76.2 x 101.6 cm. Tate: Purchased 1976. © The Estate of Vanessa Bell, courtesy of Henrietta Garnett. Photo credit: © Tate, London 2016

How much context do we need to appreciate a painting? Take, for example, Vanessa Bell’s Studland Beach, 1912. We might describe it in terms of its diagonal division: a mauve-blue mass floats above; a blanched beige sits below. Two outlying forms disrupt this simple division: a rectangle of creamy-white voyages out into the upper blue region (and, in turn, it frames another island of blue pigment), and below, the beige zone is encroached upon by two rusty-red masses. So the picture is like a yin-yang; it is composed of balanced halves, each offset by an immigrant fragment from the other. Dark sits within light, light presses upwards into dark. There is a nice rhythm to it.

Of course, we tend to go further and start putting names to appearances. The beige segment is a beach, and the rusty-red blobs are sitting figures. The blue zone is sea and sky amalgamated: a preparatory study for the picture reveals that a horizon line once bisected the blue mass, distinguishing between water and air, but it has been omitted in the name of simplification, and in the pursuit of the more interesting line – the diagonal. But the brain can still try to feel this horizon line into the blue void, and the interplay between the unremittingly flat surface of the painting and the imaginative depth we project into it is what makes the viewing experience tensive and alive. The upwardly voyaging oblong is a tent, which contains within it a female figure. We start to turn our sensory impressions into a labelled landscape.

Further still, we might – if we can – name the figures. Documentary photographs suggest that the hat-wearing red blobs are Julian Bell (the artist’s son) and his Nanny. We can name the beach as Studland Beach, and the occasion as, perhaps, a family outing. How far are we to take this project? In other pictures we can identify jugs and rugs and printed hangings, giving for each vase a date and a place of production; we can guess at the specific relationship between sitter, surroundings and artist. But we might think that there comes a point in the pursuit of these details when the painting in front of us is no longer the object of our enquiry: instead it has become a prop in another exercise entirely – that of biography.

Biography, in short, is a very different exercise to art criticism. The circle of artists often dubbed the ‘Bloomsbury’ group have often been subjected to too much of the former and too little of the latter. Hardly can the names Vanessa Bell, Duncan Grant, and Roger Fry be mentioned without the invocation of some variant of Dorothy Parker’s quip that they ‘lived in squares, loved in triangles and painted in circles’. As a rule, bedhopping has always trumped brushstrokes in the analysis of their paintings: if a sitter can be identified as a sexual partner of the artist, so much the better. Vanessa Bell is typical of this sort of treatment in that, whilst her romances with Roger Fry and Duncan Grant are well documented, there has never been a major exhibition of her work (beyond the 1979 show at the Sheffield Gallery). Curators Sarah Milroy and Ian A. C. Dejardin have stepped into this breach with their exhibition Vanessa Bell in the beautiful John Soane designed Dulwich Picture Gallery. Laudably, they have set out to counter the gossip-heavy handling of Bell as a painter. That no subtitle or exhibition tagline appends the artist’s name suggests that the works will be allowed to speak for themselves. Indeed, the catalogue essays stress Bell’s own reputation for silence (which she considered ‘her defence’ against the patriarchal biases of her day). This is a much-needed corrective to the hackneyed anecdotes that tend to dominate in tired restatements of the group’s bohemianism.

The exhibition begins with a theatrical piece of curation: entering the first room, the viewer is met by three large, loud portraits, all from 1915. Among this exhibition’s insights is the importance of the period 1910-1920 in Bell’s oeuvre; it is shown to have been an era of ecstatic experimentation, following the famous Post Impressionist Show at the Grafton Gallery in 1912. The central picture, Iris Tree, is particularly striking: slabs of colour march inwards, waging war on the darkness of Bell’s Edwardian training. A number of pictures in this room show Bell grappling either with the relationship of line to coloured mass (Virginia Woolf, 1912) or with the modulation of flesh tones in chunks of luminous chalky pink and lemon yellow (David Garnett, 1915, and the tantalizingly unfinished Lytton Strachey c.1913). The room as a whole makes clear just how explosive Bell’s growth was following her stayed beginnings as a John Sergent pupil (Saxon Sydney Turner at the Piano, c.1908). And yet, to begin the exhibition with portraits – many of which depict friends and lovers – seems a dangerous move given the curatorial commitment to context-shedding. Frances Spalding’s catalogue essay on Bell’s portraits of Virginia Woolf is full of biographical speculation. For Spalding, the blanked-out faces of Bell’s portraits of her sister are invitations to the viewer to imagine vivid details of the sitter’s character and liveliness into the void. She even sees Bell as something of a prophet, who used the blank face in one 1912 portrait to ‘signify the inchoate’, the as-yet unwritten eloquence of Virginia’s future literary career (Woolf had written no novels in 1912). The theorist-critic Clive Bell, Vanessa’s husband, was dismissive of this sort of biographical engagement with art in his 1913 book, ‘art’. Those who cannot appreciate formal arrangements as pure, visual rhythms, he claimed, resort to the projection of worldly cares onto them. They look at the forms but they see only the mundane, personal narratives; they are like ‘deaf people at a concert’.

That biography has tended to receive more attention than aesthetics in Bloomsbury studies to date is therefore somewhat ironic. Clive Bell’s 1913 text is a manifesto for what later became known as ‘high formalism’: it proposes the contemplation of formal features, abstract masses, and rhythms within artworks as the only viable path towards a (rather mystical) ‘aesthetic emotion’ which could transcend humdrum worldly experience and access something essential. Vanessa’s relationship to these theories was not uncomplicated, but we find a similar privileging of form over representation in her writing:

‘It seems to me always the visual relationship that is important in painting. There is a language simply of form and colour that can be as moving as any other and that seems to affect one quite as much as the greatest poetry of words. Of course the form and colour nearly always do represent life and I suppose any allusions may creep in’.

In aiming to let the pictures speak for themselves, then, the curators are meeting Bell on her own terms. Subsequent rooms of the exhibition, with thematic focuses on abstraction, design, landscape and still-life, are better pitched in this regard, and well-capture Bell’s prioritisation of form over connections with the more mundane trappings of ‘life’. The second room suggests continuity between Bell’s early experiments with formal abstraction and the textile designs she produced during the years of the Omega Workshop (1913-19). Some of Bell’s most remarkable pictures are in the fourth room, ‘Landscape’. View of the Pond at Charleston, 1919, is a study in the play of shifting levels, of elements dancing between surface abstraction and illusionist recession. Julian Bell’s essay ‘Landscapes Near and Far’, which begins with a poetic analysis of this painting’s depiction of depth, is much the best piece of writing in the catalogue. Barns (By the Estuary), c.1915 is similarly bravura in its construction, reducing a riverside scene to an almost wholly abstract study of locking planes. Only a sliver of mast pokes above a cyan slab of pigment, suggesting an obscured ship. Some allusions ‘creep in’, but form and colour are moving in themselves.

This exhibition does succeed in prioritizing attention to form above the usual Bloomsbury intrigue. But this success is a close-run thing. The crucial room of Bell’s Omega work and abstract experiments, which proposes her as first and foremost a ‘designer’, is very well judged, for Bell and her circle saw no distinction between commercial design, domestic decoration, and fine art. But that room is preceded by the room of portraits of friends, and followed closely by a room titled ‘At Home’ (which takes as its theme Charleston’s distinctive domesticity): both of these run the risk of reverting to the Bloomsbury ‘status quo’, naming lovers and fetishizing domestic commonplace. What is lacking, from both the exhibition and the catalogue, is a thorough account of Bell’s complex relationship with theory, particularly Clive Bell’s formalism. She may have been Bloomsbury’s ‘quiet centre’, but her letters, particularly those to Duncan Grant, are littered with a telling vocabulary – discussing colour, mass, distortion and abstraction. An exhibition that managed to group paintings along these lines, the qualities that mattered to Bell herself, might begin to offer the sort of context we really need to appreciate paintings such as these.

By Robert Hawkins


Vanessa Bell (1879-1961)
Dulwich Picture Gallery
8 February – 4 June 2017
£7 – £14

Pearl by Simon Armitage

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Simon Armitage’s new translation of the fourteenth-century poem Pearl follows his energetic 2008 translation of the same anonymous poet’s Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, which enjoyed great popularity and critical acclaim. Those hoping to find in Pearl a sequel to Gawain’s rollicking quest will search in vain, for the colloquialisms that tickled the ear in the Gawain translation (‘bogeyman’, ‘flummoxed’, ‘bamboozled’) are largely missing from the more melancholic Pearl. Here, the narrator mourns the death of his infant daughter, his Pearl. Entering a dream landscape he finds her again: their dialogue, across time and death and space, forms the poem’s central consolatory section.

Like the original, Armitage’s translation is steady and meditative in character; it is moralising, and steeped in biblical allusion. Recurring words (ornament, jeweller, judgement, limit, bliss) slide in and out of focus through the twenty sections, overlapping with each other as the poem’s various preoccupations float to the surface. Suiting Armitage’s own voice, the original Middle English is profoundly alliterative, with three recurring consonants in each line. Replicating these aggregating alliterations was, Armitage tells us, among his main aims. The resulting stanzas are musical, appealing, he says, to the ear and the voice – if not to the pedantic formalist, who will notice deviation from the original rhyming pattern.

Sonic rhyme may be the principle technique by which the poem operates, but there is also an underlying structure of material ‘rhyme’ that Armitage brings to the fore. Material qualities – spotlessness, flawlessness, purity; earthiness, dustiness, decay – resonate between different characters and objects, allowing subtle reverberations and allegories to ring throughout the stanzas. The transient organicism of earthly things is always opposed to the glittering, wrought permanence of the heavenly. Occasionally this very medieval material landscape might seem overpowering (a broad wound is bright with blood; the body is bloodied and bruised) but this is, it might be argued, a faithful recreation of a more powerful relationship with materials (pearl, blood, dust, gold) than most of us enjoy today.

The fact that the poem measures 1212 lines, and therefore echoes the dimensions of the Heavenly Jerusalem, hints that this is a foreign and magical mode of poetic construction. First and last lines mirror each other, suggesting not only the spherical pearl stone itself, but a sort of narrative time that is preordained, prophesied, patterned, and typologically structured. The form itself is therefore a tight allegory that vibrates to the salvific message of the poem itself. In his introduction, Armitage makes the comparison between the tight, buffed structure of the compact meter and the jewelled pieces that dominate the poem’s material landscape: it cannot have escaped his notice that this metaphor makes him, as translator, the jeweller, setting the ancient pearl diligently, in a flattering setting.

He undertakes this jeweller’s task with characteristic wit. Although the colloquial flourishes of the Gawain translation are largely absent  (save for ‘slogged’, which pops up as an alliterative pair for ‘slaved’), there are punning lines of word-play which please the mind’s ear (‘wholly’ and ‘holy’, ‘manor’ and ‘manner’). The final journey into the Heavenly Jerusalem is, in Armitage’s hands, a particularly sparkling passage of ekphrasis: all is solid (‘brilliant beryl’ and ‘twin-toned topaz’) and yet the eye glides ‘through wall and structure without obstruction’. These paradoxes of the seer’s eye are beautifully captured.

Armitage felt, he says, that each decision while writing the poem was a trade-off between medieval authenticity and latter day clarity. Whilst this may well be true lexically, it is perhaps not true of the narrative. To a modern reader, the simple clarity of the medieval cosmos – with its binary oppositions of saved and damned, flawless and flawed, pearl and dust – is striking. The medieval narrative is therefore not unclear, but instead layered, recursive, ornamented. So Pearl is, if anything, a more straightforward form of consolation than that offered by modern poets: the same Christian themes are there in, for example, Eliot’s Burnt Norton ( – All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well…), but they strain, crack, and sometimes break under the weight of modernity. Re-presenting a simpler eschatology, polishing and burnishing it for today’s reader: this is Armitage’s great success as jeweller.

By Robert Hawkins


Ppearlearl by Simon Armitage, Faber & Faber, 2016, £14.99

 

Painting with Light

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Zaida Ben-Yusuf, The Odor of Pomegranates, 1899, Tate
Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Proserpine, 1874, Tate.

There is a scene in Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited in which the odious Boy Mulcaster interrogates Charles Ryder, painter and protagonist, as to why he paints pictures. Why, Mulcaster asks, doesn’t Charles simply go out and buy a camera? Charles replies: ‘a camera is a mechanical device which records a moment in time, but not what that moment means or the emotions that it evokes […] whereas, a painting, however imperfect it may be, is an expression of feeling, an expression of love: not just a copy of something.’ This juxtaposition might be said to persist today: we feel that paintings are fictive, imperfect impressions, whereas the camera documents, and never lies. Meghan Trainor’s recent dispute with her record label over their forcible Photoshopping of her image might be related to this distinction: we expect a photograph to be a truthful representation of a subject, and thus can be misled by airbrush and digital rubber in a way we would not be by paintbrush and graphite.

One of the many triumphs of the exhibition ‘Painting With Light’ is that it clearly tells the story of the early negotiation of this relationship between photography, painting, truth, and deception. Early photographs, from the Victorian and Edwardian era, are set alongside contemporaneous paintings. The curators have succeeded in capturing the complexities and symbioses of a developing relationship: rather than merely showing photographic techniques to have influenced paintings, we see seepages and imprints of influence in both directions. Like images in a darkroom, well-known paintings now loom into new focus as double-exposures, layered and tinted by their relationships with the photographic visual culture of their day. Intelligent pairings inform and permit the viewer to make formal comparisons that usually seem trivial and trite: to say that a sepia-washed landscape photograph is ‘Turner-esque’ gets close, we learn, to the terms in which it might have been conceived by its makers.

Julia Margaret Cameron, Call, I Follow, I Follow, Let Me Die 1867, © Royal Photographic Society/National Media Museum / Science & Society Picture Library Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Beata Beatrix, c. 1864-70, Tate.
Julia Margaret Cameron, Call, I Follow, I Follow, Let Me Die 1867, © Royal Photographic Society/National Media Museum / Science & Society Picture Library
Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Beata Beatrix, c. 1864-70, Tate.

The truth-fiction dichotomy was, we discover, present right from the beginning. The Pre-Raphaelite quest for truth, which according to Ruskin demanded that the artist ‘reject nothing, select nothing’, led some artists to enshrine the dispassionate eye of the camera lens as the holy grail of faithful representation. Ruskin’s daguerreotypes of Venice palazzi are highlights of the early rooms, set opposite his drawings of the same façades, with crisp cornices emerging and retreating from the silvery mist of the print. Peach Robinson, who spliced two separate photographic plates together to create his haunting Lady of Shallot, felt the backlash of this association with ‘truth’, when he, like Megan Trainor’s record label, was castigated for deceiving his audience (as if a staged photograph of an Arthurian damsel was not deceitful enough). Ruskin was, of course, wrong to suggest that the camera does not select some elements and reject others: the process of framing a photograph is nothing if not a process of selection and rejection. And the association of photography with veracity was far from unanimous, even in the nineteenth century. Some of my favourite photographs were the costumed tableaux shot in village halls, faking historical, biblical and oriental scenes in front of photoreal backdrops, around which the clutter of real life leaks at the edges, breaking the illusion.

With a limited amount of wall-space, the curators’ task, like the photographer’s, is to select the important subjects, and reject the rest. It seems that Ruskin was wrong, in that this selection and rejection does not render the exhibition ‘untrue’. Rather, the curators have snapped an evocative and faithful portrait of the many and varied facets of the relationship between photography and painting. In the early rooms, we see photographs used as tools and aids, as preparatory studies for landscape paintings and monumental group portraits. Later, we see stereoscopic reproductions of popular paintings, and learn of the eruption of the first copyright cases around the issue of reproduction. We learn how photography was key in the diffusion of Japanese aesthetics in the West, and played a democratising role by making the British museum’s sculpture collection available nationwide, in photographic and stereoscopic reproduction. Photographic aesthetics are also shown to have been directly influenced by the idioms of painting: the camera, which tends to reproduce illusory space of the Renaissance type (recession to a vanishing point; a window into another world) could, by the use of patterned drapes and close cropping, mimic the flattened picture-plane of Pre-Raphaelite compositions. Similarly, the nocturnes of Whistler inspired photographers such as Alvin Langdon Coburn to produce bleeding tonal studies of watery reflections. The relationship is shown to have been thoroughly symbiotic.

The Bow Net
Thomas Frederick Goodall, The Bow Net, 1886, National Museums Liverpool, Walker Art Gallery
Thomas Frederick Goodall and Peter Henry Emerson, Setting the Bow-Net, in Life and Landscape on the Norfolk Broads , 1885, Private collection
Thomas Frederick Goodall and Peter Henry Emerson, Setting the Bow-Net, in Life and Landscape on the Norfolk Broads, 1885, Private collection

The curation well disrupts the categories of instantaneous snap and crafted, painted picture, but at times I wanted a more detailed explanation of the processes that produced these early photographic images. A leaf at the back of the exhibition guide gives a short summary, but perhaps more could have been done to flesh out the nomenclature of daguerreotype and albumen print, considered faithful and mysterious, respectively, by Ruskin? What of the silky platinum print? The revolutionary autochromes? What differentiates glass plate negatives and coated printed papers? In stressing the comparison between painting and photograph, the blurring of subtle differences between different photographic techniques is perhaps a necessary compromise. Generally, however, the exhibition makes its specific comparisons between media very well, and clearly demonstrates the cross-fertilisation of aesthetic approaches.

This exhibition argues for a greater appreciation of an undervalued era of photography (I was struck, for example, by Gustave le Gray’s magisterial seascapes). But it also makes a serious proposal for more genuinely inter-disciplinary exhibitions, which mine across whole strata of visual culture to more faithfully recreate a ‘period eye’. Stereoscopy, for example, appears in this exhibition as a major phenomenon that would have played a large part in the contemporary notions of illusion, delusion, and realism for a nineteenth century viewer. Freed from their usual hanging alongside Old Master paintings, and set against contemporary photographs, the Pre-Raphaelite paintings seem more thoroughly modern than usual. And the photographs emerge not as subservient to paintings, but as wrought, intricately constructed, magical things. So Charles Ryder is proved wrong, and Mulcaster right: a photograph is not just a copy of something. In fact, this could hardly be further from the truth.

by Robert Hawkins

 


Painting With Light, Tate Britain, 11 May – 25 September 2016

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