Art Review: Virginia Woolf: An Exhibition Inspired by Her Writings, Tate St. Ives, ‘Brilliant and Thrilling’


It brings me much joy that we currently seem to be in a phase where women artists are being celebrated, and where women-specific and women-centric exhibitions are popular – both in terms of galleries putting them on and visitors attending them.

This makes me happy.,

Yet in a field that has only recently supported women artists, group shows on the theme can often end up being very contemporary art focused, with the same names (and same works) often coming around again and again. Not that I mind, I have to say, but whenever the next show comes around, I think to myself, ‘what will make this one different? Will this show bring anything new to the table as well as being just a good day out? What can I say about this show that is different from the last?’

So, what a brilliant and thrilling achievement this new show at Tate St. Ives is as it not only platforms over eighty artists (wow!) but these works cover the last 160 years and include everything from paintings and sculptures, to photographs, text works and film. The diversity it brings is mightily impressive.

So, given the huge variety, does this show actually lack a central theme, an idea that connects all these works and artists? Absolutely not! For this show centres around Virginia Woolf – her time in St. Ives, her writings and her themes.

Some of the artists included were connected with Virginia directly; others that have followed since have been inspired by her works, or have been fascinated by her ideas and questions around gender identity and expected behaviours, domesticity and the extent to which women have been confined to their homes and how these have become defined as feminine spaces, and the language of feminism and its challenge to eradicate patriarchal standards rather than for women to bend and contort themselves to fit these notions.

The result is a dynamic exhibition of fantastic women artists – from the famous and well-known to the less familiar – whose works all examine issues we are still battling with today. Such extraordinary (and frightening) continued relevance from such a wide and fascinating range of artists and output.

The exhibition is hung by theme: The Self in Public, The Self in Private, Landscapes and so on but so well curated is the show that each room, each section, seems to flow effortlessly into the next.

Vanessa Bell and Dora Carrington obviously both knew Virginia personally (indeed the exhibition starts with one of Vanessa’s portraits of her sister) yet it is the wonderful compare and contrast between Dora’s Spanish Landscape with Mountains, 1924, with the less than subtle reference to a female body, and Vanessa’s Interior with a Table, 1921, that tackle Virginia’s opinions of women being confined to ‘feminine spaces’ i.e. domestic interiors, head on.

In Vanessa’s elegant interiors, we peer through glass doors and windows into the world outside, spaces where women were not encouraged to wander. And therefore, as a result, the interiors themselves become feminine in appearance, with elegant furniture and pretty flowers, as women shape what world they are allowed to be part of to their own tastes. Similarly for Frances Hodgkins’s colourful Wings over Water, 1930, which hangs nearby.

Women artists, in the early twentieth century, were not exactly allowed to work and operate in public spaces, hence why so many paintings are views out of the window. But let the women out into the world and they will show you what they see through their eyes – hence Dora’s sensual depiction of Spanish mountains. And, this again, contrasts so well with Gluck’s austerity in her landscapes, as well as Laura Knight’s delicate romanticism of girl’s red dress billowing in the sea breeze. Difference, always same but different. And seeing that difference celebrated is galvanising stuff.

And it is that difference, a term which has only now begun to be fully embraced by contemporary feminism, that defines this show. To quote Virginia herself, “Though we see the same world, we see it through different eyes. Any help we can give you must be different from that you can give yourselves, and perhaps the value of that help may lie in the fact of that difference.”

Here, the curating team have taken that theme of ‘difference’ and run with it, and the result is a terrific exhibition that demonstrates how diverse and exciting the female lens can be, and how artists across countries and eras have responded to that.

It is always a pleasure to see Gluck’s glorious Medallion, the fearless double portrait of herself and her lover, Nesta Obermer (who just happened to be a married woman). This assertive representation of lesbian relationships. And then there’s the Queen of difference herself, Claude Cahun. Her photography still seems so new, so radical, even though we’re almost eighty years on now.

From the modern and contemporary world, we, of course, have works from Barbara Hepworth and Louise Bourgeois who have spent their careers mining the female experience in emotional, beautiful works. And these contrast brilliantly with the more on-the-front-foot works such as Hannah Wilke’s array of ceramic vaginas, Linder’s photomontage of self-portraits of herself partially obscured by cut outs of impossible beauty standards from magazines, and Nicola L’s large plastic and steel lips and eyes.

Plus we’ve also Penny Slinger’s I Hear What You Say, 1973, where red lips mix with ears and vulvas to create a surreal representation of the female body, Zanele Muholi’s hugely influential Bona, Charlottesville, 2015, a photo of the artist inspecting her own reflection in a mirror, and Birgit Jurgenssen’s terrific, Frau, where Birgit contorts herself into uncomfortable shapes to spell out F-R-A-U i.e. to fit into the box and shapes that society has predefined for women.

I loved this show very much but you must have sympathy with me as it can be so hard to convey all that I want to about group shows within a sensible word count, especially ones as good as this. There are so many individual stories and works to uncover and share even before we get to the way these works ‘talk’ to each other and interact to create a singular impression.

And I haven’t even had much time to spend on more abstract works from women such as Agnes Martin and Sara Barker.

And that’s the big success here, that so much art from so many different eras and artists have been brought together to demonstrate how so many women artists have used their work to examine the central themes of identity and society from Virginia’s works. She remains a writer who was ahead of her time, and the extent of her legacy and influence, which runs right to the present day, is testament to this.

The exhibition runs in St Ives until the end of April. But if you are unable to make it there to see the show, it will be touring to Pallant House Gallery, Chichester, 26 May – 16 September and The Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, 2 October – 9 December 2018.


Tate St. Ives, Cornwall, to April 29, 2018
Admission: Free with General Admission to the Gallery (£9.50. Concessions available).

Image Credits:
1. Wilhelmina Barns-Graham, Rocks, St Mary’s, Scilly Isles 1953 , City Art Centre, City of Edinburgh Museums & Galleries © Wilhelmina Barns-Graham Trust
2. Vanessa Bell 1879-1961, Interior with a Table 1921. Oil paint on canvas, 540 x 641 mm © Tate
3. Dora Carrington 1893-1932, Spanish Landscape with Mountains c.1924, Oil paint on canvas. 559 x 667 x 21 mm © Tate
4. Linder ‘Action Rituelle des Ancêtres’, 2011. Courtesy of Stuart Shave/Modern Art, Dependance, Andrehn Schiptjenko, Blum & Poe Linder Pretty Girls, 1977-2007 Courtesy of Stuart Shave/Modern Art, Dependance, Andrehn Schiptjenko, Blum & Poe LinderWhat I Do To Please You I Do, 1981-2008digital print from original negative on photographic paper Courtesy of Stuart Shave/Modern Art, Dependance, Andrehn Schiptjenko, Blum & Poe.
5. Installation image of France-Lise McGurn, Collapsing New People 2017. Acrylic, pearls and semi-precious stones. Courtesy the artist

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