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.
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.
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.