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.

Living Laboratory: Richard Pare on Le Corbusier & Konstantin Melnikov (Pitzhanger Manor)

This exhibition, showing at the gallery alongside renowned Regency architect John Soane’s pile in Ealing, features photographs of work by two 20th century architects: Konstantin Melnikov and Le Corbusier. Eloquent text panels introduce each architect and individual images. The photographer Richard Pare depicts buildings in three distinct ways in this exhibition: architecture as objects, buildings and landscapes, or rooms. People are not the subject of the photographs. There are a few individuals lurking in the backgrounds of some prints but these images are mostly forgettable.

Only one building designed by Melnikov is present. The Melnikov House, a suburban villa formed by two interlocking cylinders with hexagonal windows. Two large prints – side by side – to form a sort of interior panoramic of the house’s studio, but fail to create any sort of coherent image. Sunlight from several windows makes for a harshly lit interior –  too intense to view all at once. Another diptych, this time of the salon, is photographed diagonally from interior stairs in the left background, stacked paintings by the architect’s son, and onto a desk in the right foreground. The viewing axis of the photographs suggests a spectrum from the intensity and privacy of the desk which reduces across the room and onto the staircase: this room is connected to others and can be left freely. Diffuse light softens the lilac painted walls and reveals scars in the plasterwork where light-fittings used to be. Perhaps comfort isn’t the right word for the effect but there is certainly a lack of anxiety in this image.

Unité d'habitation, Marseilles, 1946-52 (2011)

Unité d’habitation, Marseilles, 1946-52 (2011)

A range of Le Corbusier buildings are displayed, from early projects like the Villa Le Lac, to later work such as the priory of La Tourette. Here Pare demonstrates the anxiety between landscape and building in the work of Le Corbusier. A photograph of the rooftop of the Unité d’Habitation shows the contrast between the building’s garden with the Mediterranean in the background. Photographed orthogonally, the seated enclosures of the middle-ground are reflected in a manmade pool in front of them and the coastline is reduced to mere scenery.

Ville Le Lac, Corseaux, 1924-25, (2012)

Ville Le Lac, Corseaux, 1924-25, (2012)

Another photograph, this time of Villa Le Lac, has the familiar composition of Pare’s photographs of Corb’s buildings: the landscape is photographed orthogonally with the building shown obliquely at one side of the image. But rather than portray the building an object, Pare allows us just a little portion of it: a pocket of covered space and a doorway which connects back into the open-plan villa. The lakefront wall runs along a boundary marking the threshold between site and landscape. On the left edge the wall rises up to form a garden room with a frame-less window at its centre. Underneath this opening are two chairs either side of a concrete table. Compared with the plan libre and ribbon window of the villa’s interior, this window frames a fixed subject (the landscape) where all chance is abolished. Perhaps like one of Pare’s photographs.

Matthew Wells is an MA student at the Courtauld

Living Laboratory: Richard Pare on Le Corbusier & Konstantin Melnikov is at the PM Gallery, Pitzhanger Manor, Ealing, until the 11th May 2014.