Virginia Woolf: Art, Life and Vision (National Portrait Gallery)

Virginia Woolf by Vanessa Bell c.1912 Estate of Vanessa Bell, courtesy Henrietta Garnett. Photo credit: © National Trust / Charles Thomas

Virginia Woolf by Vanessa Bell c.1912
Estate of Vanessa Bell, courtesy Henrietta Garnett. Photo credit: © National Trust / Charles Thomas

The idea that an exhibition of assorted paintings, photographs and objects can constitute a ‘portrait’ of someone is an interesting one. Bloomsbury biographer Frances Spalding’s exhibition on Virginia Woolf has added another chapter to the interdisciplinary history of Bloomsbury by confronting the usually only vaguely acknowledged influence of the visual arts on this heroine of literary Modernism. However, it can be complacent about historical stereotype and at times its principle of selection borders on sheer miscellany.

In the first room, a photograph of a ravaged Alfred Lord Tennyson by Woolf’s aunt Julia Margaret Cameron joins other portraits of nineteenth-century luminaries. These are delightful to see, but they are of dubious relation to the subject of the exhibition. Together with a rather sadly-skied allegory by G. F. Watts, contextualised as a friend of Woolf’s parents, they represent a black-and-white, whiskery ‘Victorian period’ out of which Bloomsbury (and ‘Modernism’) miraculously appeared.

Bloomsbury members certainly reacted against their Victorian parents’ ways of writing and painting, not least Roger Fry, who went from Berensonian aesthete to Cézanne fanatic. However, I would caution against falling for Bloomsbury’s own ploy to cover up its late-nineteenth-century origins to appear cutting edge. In the excellent accompanying book, Sandy Nairne singles out an interesting statement of Fry’s that compares Woolf’s Modernist language to the verbosity of Henry James, and historical comparisons like this might have been fun to see played out through the objects on show. We are also promised an insight into Woolf’s overlooked political life, though the inclusion of a distracting Picasso drawing commissioned for an event at which Woolf happened to sit on stage compromises the show’s credibility.

T.S. Eliot and Virginia Woolf by Lady Ottoline Morrell, June 1924 National Portrait Gallery, London

T.S. Eliot and Virginia Woolf by Lady Ottoline Morrell, June 1924
National Portrait Gallery, London

One highlight is an actual portrait of Woolf by her sister, Vanessa Bell, slumped in an orange armchair and Vuillard-like hard at work with needle and wool (c. 1912). It is a provocatively gendered piece: this is an aspiring author – the artist’s sister – not writing, but knitting. In the other paintings on show, Duncan Grant appears as inconsistent. His early portrait of James Strachey against a red screen (1910) is the first in a very successful trademark genre of portraits of people reading, though his memento mori Still Life with Bust of Virginia Woolf (c. 1960) is a decidedly dodgy exercise in paragone and defuses the emotional force of Woolf’s nearby suicide note. Particularly interesting photographs of Woolf from Vogue are nice reminders of Bloomsbury’s talent for self-publicity and its privilege.

Virginia and Leonard Woolf by Gisele Freund, 1939 Estate Gisèle Freund / IMEC Images

Virginia and Leonard Woolf by Gisele Freund, 1939
Estate Gisèle Freund / IMEC Images

This small show makes an interesting case for the significance of assorted visual material in understanding an author. But that anecdotal tendency is worrying because it risks presenting, as many have done before, Bloomsbury itself as something anecdotal. The exhibition clearly makes the point that Bloomsbury occupied a very well-connected place in artistic (not to say political) milieux in the first half of the twentieth century in Britain. But did we already know that? And was Bloomsbury something more?

Thomas Hughes is a PhD student at the Courtauld working on the language of art writing in the later nineteenth century.

Virginia Woolf: Art, Life and Vision was at the National Portrait Gallery from July 16 to October 26 2014.

Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination (British Library)

Jake Chapman and Dinos Chapman, Exquisite Corpse. Etching on paper. London, 2000. Tate: Purchased 2000 (c) Jake Chapman and Dinos Chapman

Jake Chapman and Dinos Chapman, Exquisite Corpse. Etching on paper. London, 2000. Tate: Purchased 2000 © Jake Chapman and Dinos Chapman

Terror and Wonder, the latest exhibition to be presented by the British Library, is an overview of the Gothic genre from Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto (1764) to the work of Jake and Dinos Chapman, via Byron and the Blair Witch Project, Hammer and Hitchcock, and all the unimaginable tales and creatures in between.

Although the focus is largely literary, which is unsurprising in the context of the British Library, the exhibition is highly decorative in its presentation and a well-considered tribute to the genre. Dimly-lit and theatrically decorated rooms host an extensive range of objects, all framed with sound and projection elements, from the dictated diary entries of Lord Byron and Sir Brooke Boothby, to looming shadows and flashes of the awakening Frankenstein. The overall effect is fittingly phantasmagorical.

Mary Shelley, manuscript of Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus © The Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford.

Mary Shelley, manuscript of Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus © The Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford.

As an overview of the Gothic genre, in all its forms and fantastical expressions, there are occasional leaps in the curation of the exhibit that seem either under-explained or over-ambitious, leaving the viewer to fill in the gaps. Having perceived the intricacy with which Mary Shelley and Matthew Gregory Lewis weaved their Gothic narratives, the almost fanatical excitement of Walpole’s interiors at Strawberry Hill, or indeed the obsessive darkness of a look from Alexander McQueen’s ‘Dante’ collection, the flashy realism of Martin Parr’s photographs from the Whitby Goth Weekend served as a rather gauche conclusion to the exhibition. Perhaps this was the point. Though brilliantly composed, Parr’s photograph of a costumed Goth in mourning attire, sat with a seagull and a fish & chips next to a girl in a neon pink beanie hat, is a sad indictment of a genre that has given us some of our greatest works of literature and film.

The exhibition is strongest when it traces the over-arching themes and aesthetic elements of the genre across time periods, countries and authors. One of the pioneering aspects of Walpole’s Castle for Gothic literature is its mysterious origin story, for the author originally presented it as a ‘found’ manuscript, purportedly penned by an Italian in 1529 and rediscovered in the library of “an ancient Catholic family in the north of England”. This is compared to the nameless narrator of Daphne de Maurier’s ‘Rebecca’, and in the Lemony Snicket pseudonym of Daniel Handler, who includes faceless author photos and oblique dedications throughout his children’s book series.

A vampire slaying kit on loan from the Royal Armouries on display in Terror and Wonder © Tony Antoniou

A vampire slaying kit on loan from the Royal Armouries on display in Terror and Wonder © Tony Antoniou

It is these connections and comparisons that inspire the most wonder; mapping the development of a narrative style across hundreds of years, and observing the aesthetic elements as they morph and transform. Fear is a deeply perceptive barometer of a culture at any one time, and it is an emotion that seems to fuel much of our media discourse today. We frame our society in terms of what we fear most, and it is in this way that the Gothic genre plunges far beyond special effects, shock and gore, and intricate aesthetic details.

Enter if you dare. 

William Ballantyne-Reid is a third-year BA at the Courtauld, specialising in Gender and Queer theory, with a focus on Post-War and Contemporary American art.

Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination is at the British Library until 20 January 2015.