Virginia Woolf viewed greatness as a “positive possession”. In her mind greatness was “a bodily presence; it has nothing to do with anything said. It exists in certain people”. Undeniably Woolf was such a person, although she herself might never have realised it. This exhibition is a testimony to the greatness that lives on with such energy in the “bodily presence” of her work. However the collection displays not merely physical copies of Woolf’s collected works but combines them with an array of objects that culminate to create a strikingly intimate portrait of the writer who often went out of her way to avoid the gaze of others.
The individual objects adorning the three conjoined rooms are the things that stand out with most visceral impact: the weathered but wonderfully coloured first edition copies of Woolf’s writing by Hogarth Press; the rushed and uneven lines from personal letters; her walking stick. These remnants of Woolf’s life highlight the wonderfully material manner in which she regarded life itself; Woolf was a collector of moments. She was a writer who watched the world and ached to record every detail, from the joy of purchasing a lone lead pencil, to the intricacies of personality and place. She herself declared the importance of the material: “We sit surrounded by objects which enforce the memories of our own experience”. Objects are imbued with meaning, and Woolf was someone who understood this acutely.
Frances Spalding has assembled an insightful and brilliantly selective variety of works. An array of old photographs detail the biographical particulars of Woolf’s growth, from her childhood holidays in St. Ives to older social explorations, both with other writers and in the comfort of her own home. We’re allowed, at least for these moments, to glimpse into the world of the young Woolf, perched on a wooden chair watching her sister paint, playing cricket, the same hauntingly large eyes looking wistfully out at us. Woolf was famous for her aversion to the camera and the artistic urges of those around her who sought to capture her in paint. A portrait by Duncan Grant appears almost as a study, a homage to the flecked brushwork of the Post Impressionists the Bloomsbury group championed. In reality the brushwork—although fine—is also hurried, flecks of base coat clamouring to the surface with colours straying from stark outlines. An attempt to capture the fleeting presence of Woolf herself who threatened the painting entirely with the constant danger that—as Grant recalls—“she might just get up and walk out”. Vanessa Bell goes further than Grant’s bold lines and obscures her sister’s face altogether in several studies, a stylistic trait but one perhaps fuelled by the restlessness of one of her original sitters.
Woolf’s relationship with her sister and with the medium of paint is something that cannot help but pervade the entire exhibit, the interrelated nature of the two arts of writing and painting tied together by Woolf herself: “One should be a painter. As a writer, I feel the beauty, which is almost entirely colour, very subtle, very changeable, running over my pen, as if you poured a large jug of champagne over a hairpin.” The device works well, particularly for an exhibition that so revels in the medium and textures of paint. The ‘silent art’ that Woolf so admired next to her own was one that dominated her life and this keen influence is recognised strongly here and brought into new light with the various works of art that line the walls.
Spalding desires us to find not one Woolf, but many, a myriad of personalities and interests, and we do. The many portraits show a kaleidoscope of perspectives, differing eyes that view the same subject and all draw out markedly differing and intriguing results. We are guided to meet Woolf the child, Woolf the writer, Woolf the fashionista; the list goes on. We see Woolf from every angle. One moment she leaps out at us in oil colour, a rosy red lipped woman, half smiling, who blends delicately into the background, her cardigan melding softly with her surroundings in Roger Fry’s portrait; we turn a corner and she’s cast in bronze by Stephen Tomlin.
“Painting and writing have much to tell each other” Woolf observed in 1934 and this dialogue between mediums runs throughout the entire exhibition. Roger Fry declared her a writer who recognised and effectively utilized “the very texture of words”, her infamously convoluted prose a parallel to the post-impressionistic works that surrounded her. This mingling of mediums allows differing pieces to play off each other, highlighting and echoing different impressions of Woolf. One moment she is an austere black and white portrait, the next an animated and frustrated voice trapped within spidery scrawls upon a page. Her presence is presented to us as a palpable form. She remains in the letters, the scribbled sketches, the half worked out ideas, even in an old copy of her childhood ‘Newspaper’ just as much as her likeness lingers in her many official portraits. The secretive snapshots from personal collections offset formal sequences from well known photographers of the 1930s such as Man Ray and Gisèle Freund along with George Charles Beresford’s famous 1902 platinum print. Her face is everywhere, but it never looks the same.
The exhibition begins and ends with the trauma of war. It starts with recollections of ‘street haunting’ in London during the bombings of WWII, opening with a large photo of the bombed exterior of Woolf’s house in Tavistock Square. The fireplace decorated by Vanessa Bell protrudes oddly out into the open air, the rubble leading up to it like a strange ghostly staircase; a scene of vulnerable uncovering and disintegration. By the final room we are shown a similar turmoil with the outbreak of the Spanish civil war. A portrait of Woolf’s nephew Julian Bell who died in the relief efforts in 1937 is placed poignantly next to Picasso’s drawings and advertisements for his famous Guernica exhibition. Woolf maintained that “Thinking is my Fighting”, and it is in these striking moments of context that the exhibition is most powerful, and most powerfully makes us think, with its subtle combinations of private and public life, the worldly sitting comfortably and illuminatingly next to the personal….
by Thea Hawlin