When Virginia Woolf wrote that “human character” changed and “all human relations shifted” in or around December 1910, the reason was not politics, the new physics, or female suffrage, but an exhibition at London’s Grafton Galleries: “Manet and the Post-Impressionists.” The show, curated by the critic Roger Fry with help from Woolf’s sister Vanessa Bell and her husband Clive Bell, it introduced Manet, Cézanne, Gauguin, Matisse, and van Gogh to the land of the hunting print. In 1912, a second exhibition featured Picasso and Braque.
Woolf claimed that “when human relations change,” there is “at the same time a change in religion, conduct, politics, and literature.” But elsewhere she admitted that the change in conduct preceded the artistic breakthrough. On August 11, 1908, Lytton Strachey entered the drawing room, noticed a stain on Vanessa Bell’s skirt, and asked, “Semen?” Was the Bloomsbury group a revolt in art or manners? The suspicion that there was more manner than art in Bloomsbury was voiced at the time. Wyndham Lewis mocked the group as “a pleasant tea-party”—a class-bound coterie who, for all their foreign trips and French tastes, remained smugly, snobbishly provincial. Yet modernism was always a mood before it was a style, and a manner before it was an art. And though modernists, like socialists, liked to talk about internationalism, they were often most successful when drawing on local traditions.
T. S. Eliot observed that Yeats, “in becoming more Irish, not in subject matter but in expression . . . became at the same time universal.” Vanessa Bell, in becoming less French in expression and subject matter, became less universal: Her role in the legend of Bloomsbury has tended to concern English manners, not European art. Her best-known paintings are portraits of Woolf and Strachey. Charleston, the Sussex farmhouse where she lived in a ménage à quatre with Clive Bell, the painter Duncan Grant, and Grant’s lover, the writer David Garnett (with regular visits from her ex-lover Roger Fry), is now a museum of the English tea-party at its most unbuttoned.
Yet in the decade after the Post-Impressionist exhibition of 1910, Bell’s experiments in paint were as daring as her domestic arrangements. One of the first British artists to adapt Cézanne and Matisse to local conditions, she was also the first to fulfill Roger Fry’s prediction that the “logical extreme” of modern art would be pure abstraction. Vanessa Bell, now at the Dulwich Picture Gallery, is the first comprehensive exhibition of her work.
English art was not quite as isolated from French modernism, in 1910 as Virginia Woolf implied and Clive Bell and Roger Fry claimed. In 1885, a group of young English painters who had studied in Paris had established the New English Art Club as an Impressionist beachhead in London. In the 1890s, two “New Englishers,” Philip Wilson Steer and Henry Tonks, began teaching at the University of London’s Slade School; they were to train English modernists like David Bomberg, Stanley Spencer, Wyndham Lewis, Augustus and Gwen John, and Paul Nash. French pictorial values also arrived through the influence of Degas on Walter Sickert and Manet on John Singer Sargent.
Still, London lagged behind Paris. By 1910, most of the painters in “Manet and the Post-Impressionists” were dead. One successor movement, the Fauvism of Derain and Matisse, was ending. A second, Cubism, was already launched by Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907). Yet most of the London critics dismissed the “Post-Impressionist” show, some of whose paintings dated from the 1880s.
Vanessa Bell experienced the 1910 exhibition as a “sudden liberation.” The scale of her revolt is visible in the stylistic gulf between the silver and cream realism of Iceland Poppies (1908-09), painted when she was studying at the Royal Academy Schools under Sargent, and the semi-abstract Still Life on Corner of a Mantelpiece (1914).
The still life is viewed from below, a perspective that distorts the lines of the mantelpiece like the edges of a Cézanne table. A white vase breaks into two distinct forms, one square and the other cylindrical. The green stalks and yellow heads of the flowers are not naturalistic but exist as thick stripes and globes of paint in the space of the canvas, as if illustrating Clive Bell’s doctrine of “significant form.” The reflections in the mirror behind the still life are polarized shadows.
“I believe distortion is like sodomy,” Bell wrote to Duncan Grant in 1914, linking Bloomsbury’s liberations in art and manners. “People are simply blindly prejudiced against it because they think it abnormal.”
Some of Bell’s early experiments have more force than grace, what Virginia Woolf called “rough eloquence and vigor of style.” Others are a kind of reverse engineering of exotic methods and approaches. The dancing figures in Design for a Folding Screen: Adam and Eve (1913-14) are modeled on Bell’s nude photographs of Lytton Strachey’s sister Marjorie, but the entire conception is a study after Matisse’s La Danse (1910). In Conversation Piece (1912), the cluttered living room is that of a London townhouse but the lines of the furniture could be from the Arles of van Gogh, and the jauntily cocked foot of one of the conversationalists from the Paris of Toulouse-Lautrec.
Frequently, though, Bell finds what she called a “path forward” from these new influences. A photograph establishes that the farmers of Sussex built their haystacks in the same form as the farmers of Normandy, and the haystack in Landscape with Haystack, Asheham (1912) is after Monet’s Wheatstacks: Snow Effect (1891); but Bell integrates Monet’s gleaming precedent into the muddy English landscape. With similar ingenuity, she softens her abstract designs for the Omega Group workshop with the smoky lushness of Matisse’s palette.
In Bathers (1911) she returns Gauguin to the complexities of a European shore. A group of women supervise small children on a yolk-yellow beach. One stands beneath a parasol with her back to the viewer. She contemplates the sea and a patch of brooding, fruity purple revealed by the receding tide. Stranded a world away from Tahiti, her silence is more eloquent than primitive inarticulacy.
This tableau recurs in Studland Beach (1912), where a woman and child are compressed into the left-hand corner. The beach is a wide, blank chasm between them and a group of small children, grubbing in the sand. The woman supervising them turns her heavy back and looks out to sea, but her view is blocked by a white tent. Her position in the tent alludes to the pregnant Madonna in Piero della Francesca’s Madonna del Parto (1460); but now, pregnancy having been followed by birth, she is imprisoned in the tent. An oil sketch of the beach from 1910-11 shows how Bell, by discarding elements of landscape and raising the slope of the shoreline, heightened the bareness and emotional tension of the finished oil.
“The medium bends beneath her like a horse that knows its rider,” Walter Sickert wrote in 1916. Yet in the 1920s and ’30s, as the students of Steer and Tonks pushed towards the Neo-Romantic synthesis of English tradition and modernist methods, Bell did not follow. By the time she painted Studland Beach she had two sons, Julian and Quentin, from her open marriage with Clive Bell. A third pram in the hall appeared in 1918, with the birth of a daughter, Angelica, by the otherwise homosexual Duncan Grant. The work of motherhood aside, Bell now had Charleston.
The modernists emptied out the Victorian clutter, then hedged themselves in with Georgian revivalism. “Mr. Strachey is the 18th century grown up,” Aldous Huxley wrote of the character assassin of Victorian heroism, “he is Voltaire at 230.” The English country house is the heart of the village rituals in Woolf’s last novel, Between the Acts (1941). The ménage at Charleston, like Cecil Beaton’s interwar idyll at Ashcombe, was as much the last breath of Georgian libertinism as the first draft of the modern manner. Bloomsbury began as a European avant-garde movement, but it ended up as English as Marmite.
In the catalog for the second “Post-Impressionist” show, Roger Fry had claimed that modern artists “do not seek to imitate form, but to create form; not to imitate life, but to find an equivalent to life.” At Charleston, Bell created an equivalent of creativity, but it was not sufficient to sustain her art—nor, following the death of her son Julian in the Spanish Civil War, her happiness. Her eloquence lost some of its roughness, and her style much of its vigor. The exaggerated slope of the shore in Studland Beach recurs in the sloping windowsill of View of the Pond at Charleston (1919). The window frame closes down the horizon, and an ocean contracts into an English garden.
When Alexis de Tocqueville visited John Stuart Mill in 1835, he noticed that English radicals, unlike French radicals, were “recognized as gentlemen.” As the defiant conformists of Bloomsbury showed, only in Great Britain did the modern intelligentsia conform to the ruling class rather than rebel against it. Vanessa Bell took the well-travelled path of manners, and that made all the difference to her art.
Dominic Green teaches politics at Boston College.
This post originally appeared on Weekly Standard