21 July 2014

Virginia Woolf at the NPG

Novelist, essayist, biographer and critic, Virginia Woolf is the most famous and influential modernist prose writer of the 20th century. She occupied a central position within the Bloomsbury Group: that union of friends who helped rid art, design and society of the constrictions and conventions left over from the Victorian period. 
Frances Spalding 

Virginia Woolf: Art, Life and Vision at the National Portrait Gallery in London has been curated by Frances Spalding, an eminent art historian, author of several books relating to Bloomsbury and now of the NPG exhibition’s catalogue. She has selected more than 100 objects relevant to Woolf’s life including paintings, photographs, first editions of her novels and archival material such as correspondence and diaries. This material is mostly arranged chronologically but, unusually for a modern exhibition, there is no timeline presented at entry, although one taken from the catalogue is available on the NPG's website. Consequently, there is no context for the first images the visitor encounters: photographs of the devastating effect of the London blitz in 1940 on the Woolfs’ former Bloomsbury home, 52 Tavistock Square and on 37 Mecklenburgh Square where they were living at the time (when not at Monk’s House at Rodmell in Sussex). This was a year before Virginia’s death in 1941, the point at which the exhibition eventually ends.

Although their work is not universally admired for its quality, it cannot be denied that the painter members of the Bloomsbury Group, whether at Charleston Farmhouse or elsewhere, had no shortage of noteworthy subjects close at hand. Obviously this show concentrates on images of Virginia – I liked in particular Duncan Grant’s 1911 portrait and Vanessa Bell’s of 1912:

but Lytton Strachey,1904 by Simon Bussy, Mark Gertler’s Samuel Koteliansky, 1930 (below, left and right) and Vannessa Bell’s The Memoir Club c 1943 (below, lower) were all memorable (the Bloomsberries in this picture include both Bells and their son, Quentin, Leonard Woolf, the Keynes’s, EM Forster and Duncan Grant):

Among the many photographs of Virginia in the exhibition are the familiar 1902 society studies by GC Beresford, but more interesting to me were the Man Ray portrait (one of several, I believe, for a Time Magazine cover feature in April 1937), (below top, left and right) and some of the last to be taken of her, by Gisèle Freund in 1939, including one of Leonard and Virginia at 52 Tavistock Square (below, lower, left and right):

 It would be difficult to come away from this exhibition without seeing and learning something new. For example:

Virginia typeset TS Eliot’s The Waste Land (a copy is on display) during the period she and Leonard were living in Richmond-upon-Thames and had set up the Hogarth Press and Virginia was writing Mrs Dalloway. Lady Ottoline Morrell took a photograph of Eliot and Woolf (right) in 1924, the year the Woolfs returned to Bloomsbury.

Leonard and Virginia visited Sigmund Freud in Hampstead soon after his arrival from Vienna in June 1938.

Virginia was a Sponsor and Patron of the campaign led by Roland Penrose to exhibit Picasso’s Guernica and the studies for it, in London and elsewhere in late 1938/1939.

This exhibition should have a wide appeal: to admirers of Woolf’s writing, to those fascinated by the Bloomsbury Group – Dorothy Parker is said to have observed that 'Bloomsbury paints in circles, lives in squares, and loves in triangles' - and to anyone with an interest in 20th century British art. Virginia Woolf: Art, Life and Vision continues at the NPG until 26 October.

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