Well, this new show on Vanessa Bell at Dulwich Picture Gallery is absolutely wondrous. This is the first major retrospective of Vanessa’s work – finally bringing her out of the shadows of her sister – and not only is this an important step in how we treat female creatives, but this is a terrific testament and demonstration of Vanessa’s radicalism and innovation.
The exhibition has brought together a hundred of Vanessa’s oil paintings, as well as fabrics, photographs and works on paper, and together they bear witness to how bold Vanessa was an artist, from dabbling with abstraction, to innovation in portraiture and landscapes. They show how deeply influenced she was by Post-Impressionism and new artists such as Matisse and Cezanne, but they also demonstrate how Vanessa took these influences and paved the way for change, for both British artists and female artists, in particular.
And it’s this reveal, if you will, of Vanessa as a profoundly important painter in her own right, one at the forefront of artistic change in the UK, that allows us to give the credit she so deserves. And one that should, finally, see her as just more than making up the numbers in, and a participant in the domestic dramas of, the Bloomsbury Group.
There is so much that excites in this show but it’s Vanessa’s mastery of colour that grabbed me first. Whether it’s the portrait of her sister, Virginia, reclining in her tangerine armchair, or the sensuous, fleshy pinks of her nudes, or the sunlight bouncing off the cream marble steps and bright blue waters of Venice, colour is everywhere, and sublimely used.
Through her connections, interests and her travels, Vanessa was more familiar than most with the emerging work on the Continent from the likes of Matisse, Picasso, and Gauguin. She was a frequent traveller to the Continent – even visiting Picasso’s Paris studio with Gertrude Stein in 1914. Her close friend, Roger Fry, also hosted two critical Post-Impressionism shows in 1910 and 1912, which platformed Cubist and Fauvist art, including works from Cezanne, Van Gogh and Seurat.
Fry’s shows were the first time many in Britain had seen the work of the Post-Impressionists (a term, it must be noted, that was created by Fry to try and dilute the ‘fear of the new’). Not that it worked entirely – one critic described the progression from Manet to Matisse in the display as a shock “administered by degrees,” whilst many considered the paintings to be in bad taste.
But Vanessa was not one to back away from these works; quite the opposite in fact, she surged towards them with open arms. The Bloomsbury Group’s reputation for open-mindedness is well-known, but one should not underplay how far ahead of British public opinion and British artistic styles Vanessa was.
She revelled in the freedom and innovation that these new developments in painting brought. Here, we can see her experimentations with abstraction, such as her vivid shapes and patterns in Abstract Composition, 1914, as well as her dabbling with Cubist lines and forms in works such as Portrait of Molly MacCarthy, 1912, challenging form with the angular body lines of the terrific Seated Female Nude, 1915, or the interrogation of space and placement in pieces such as Studland Beach, 1912, and The Other Room, late 1930s.
This show is an absolute joy. To revel in her primacy and mastery of colour is energising and exciting. But, most importantly, the exhibition is a fantastic testament to the fact that Vanessa Bell was at the forefront of radical change, and that is to be both applauded and admired.
Dulwich Picture Gallery, London, to June 4, 2017
Admission £14 (concessions available)
1 Vanessa Bell, Nude with Poppies, 1916, oil on canvas, 23.4 x 42.24 cm, Swindon Museum and Art Gallery. © The Estate of Vanessa Bell, courtesy of Henrietta Garnet
2 Vanessa Bell, Virginia Woolf, c. 1912, oil on board, 40 x 34 cm, National Portrait Gallery, London, NPG 5933 ©National Portrait Gallery, London
3 Vanessa Bell, The Other Room, late 1930s, 161 x 174 cm, Private Collection, © The Estate of Vanessa Bell, courtesy of Henrietta Garnett. Photo credit: Photography by Matthew Hollow