There is a beautiful coupling of portraits in one of the central rooms of Dulwich Picture Gallery’s Vanessa Bell exhibition, which places together two images of Molly MacCarthy, one a painting from 1912, the other a papier collé of 1914-15, linked by a small, everyday gesture that frequently goes unremarked. Each holds her hands in a distinct gesture, fingers pyramided together as they sew. Enhanced by Bell’s abstracted style, MacCarthy sits absorbed in solitary handwork, fabric hanging from the point of the triangle her fingers form as she mends or makes, eyes cast down to inspect each detail. In each she is encased in an armchair, a domestic interior, which, at first glance reinforces her feminine work and links them to traditional ideals of women kept within the confines of the home.
Yet seen together, as creations by a woman, empathetic to her toil, and placed within the context of this exhibition, the images become a statement about life and creativity. As you move from room to room the argument that art and craft, home and work are inextricably linked becomes sharper and clearer. From the opening display of portraits of family and friends, through cases of Omega workshop textiles, Hogarth Press book jackets, and on to still lifes, landscapes and interiors, it is clear that reductive notions of femininity and the role of creativity are challenged repeatedly and successfully.
Bell was a woman born in Victorian times, with all that era implies, but who was turned towards the future, exploring and taking part in the creation of modernity, modernism and modern womanhood.
Bell’s work, with its intimacy, warm, off-toned hues and experimentation with multiple mediums provides an insight into women’s evolving role in the early 20th century, and the need to recognize all forms of ‘feminine’ creativity as art.
In the accompanying Legacy exhibition, Patti Smith’s poignant photographs of Bloomsbury icons, including Woolf’s walking cane and the pond at Charleston, set amongst Bell’s photograph albums, further this thesis. Art is shown as part of living, life as an act of continuous artistic challenge and invention, and femininity as a mutable expression of self within modernism and its continued influence.
Vanessa Bell and Legacy: Photographs by Patti Smith and Vanessa Bell are at Dulwich Picture Gallery until 4 June 2017
Sarah Milroy & Ian A. C. Dejardin, eds., Vanessa Bell (Dulwich Picture Gallery, 2017)