Vanessa Bell at the Dulwich Picture Gallery

My journey through all things Modernist continues, and after ‘Sussex Modernism’ at Two Temple Place, two weekends ago I ventured with a trusty companion (my mother) to the Dulwich Gallery. The trip was long, but absolutely worth it, as we found ourselves surrounded with genuine beauty.

Vanessa Bell was the elder sister of Virginia Woolf. She did with colours what her sister did with words: she broke free from Victorian canons and feeding on the atmosphere of the Bloomsbury Group and European capitals, she started a revolution that would leave a radical mark in the history of art. The exhibition unfolds the variety of subjects Bell featured in her works, from portraits to landscapes, from still lifes to abstract canvases.

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Vanessa Bell, ‘Self-portrait’ (1912) and ‘Virginia Woolf’ (1915 ca.)

By far the most impressive trait of Vanessa Bell, which recurs with pleasurable persistency throughout her artworks, is the admirable handling of colour. Coloured panels are brushed with vigour and intensity, most of the time surpassing contour lines in importance. Faces, shapes, objects, and natural elements acquire a virtually tactile corposity in her brushstrokes. To be able to paint like that means to have a rather distinctive way of perceiving the world and of processing one’s impressions before impressing them on the canvas. As she herself remarks about her ‘Oranges and Lemons’ (1914), ‘the colour was so exciting that I couldn’t resist it’.

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Vanessa Bell, ‘Oranges and Lemons’ (1914)

The exhibition also sheds light onto the vivacious context in which Bell worked. A crucial role was played by her houshold in Charleston (Sussex), where an atmosphere of tolerance and fellowship (not to say absolute freedom and sexual liberty) dominated. There, she had the freedom to entertain important artists of her time, including Roger Fry (also her lover) and John Singer Sargent, as well as friends and relatives – all of them she portrays with energy and forthrightness. Alongside the famous portrait of her sister Virginia, at the Dulwich Picture Gallery are displayed paintings of her daughter Angelica, her son Julian, and her dear friend Molly MacCarthy – in her painterly language colour is used to evoke mood and personal relationships.

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Vanessa Bell, ‘Molly MacCarthy’ (1914-15)

Her versatile nature led her also to work with decorative arts, as director of The Omega Workshop, co-founded with Duncan Grant between 1913 and 1919. Textiles, pottery, and home furnishings are only a few of the objects onto which she poured her creativity and once again her unconditional love for colour. In the exhibition, the visitors are presented with some of her patterns for textiles, which would work just as fine as abstract paintings as they are.

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Vanessa Bell/Duncan Grant, ‘Pamela’ (1913)

By ‘attending closely to the dynamics of colour’, as curator Ian Dejardin puts it, Vanessa Bell was a true ambassador of the art of the early 20th century, without at the same time losing her personal, earthly, and colourful touch.

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