Radical Bloomsbury, The Art of Duncan Grant and Vanessa Bell, 1905–1925

The Radical Bloomsbury exhibition took place at Brighton Museum & Art Gallery from 16th April – 9th October 2011. It looked at how Duncan Grant and Vanessa Bell, the two most significant artists in the Bloomsbury group, were radical innovators in English art during the first two decades of the 20th century. They were among the first English artists to embrace strikingly new developments in painting from continental Europe.

During the first part of the 20th century, a cultural revolution took place in England, prompted by the close-knit Bloomsbury group. It affected a wide range of activities, from literature and the work of Virginia Woolf, to economics and the theories of John Maynard Keynes.  Radical Bloomsbury traces some of the key themes explored in the visual arts by members of the Bloomsbury group, by examining the work and partnership of Duncan Grant and Vanessa Bell.  Their work during this time received a mixed response from critics.  In retrospect, it is evident how radical their work was, and how important it is in charting the development of English art in the 20th century.

The exhibition focuses on two decades in the lives of Grant and Bell, when they were open to continental styles of modernism, a way of depicting modern life by moving away from traditional realism.  Their willingness to forge new ways of representing the body, and their development of collage and abstraction, put them in the forefront of modern art before and just after World War I.  Each section of the exhibition takes a different moment in time and a different theme, moving chronologically through the dramatic changes in their art during the period from 1905 to 1925.

Bloomsbury before Bloomsbury

Vanessa Bell (born in 1879) and Duncan Grant (born in1885) were the most important painter members of the Bloomsbury group as it formed during the 1910s. They were the privileged children of social elites and Empire, brought up at the height of the Victorian era. Vanessa was raised in London, at the heart of English intellectual society. Her father, Leslie Stephen, was the compiler of the Dictionary of National Biography. Her mother, Julia Duckworth, renowned for her beauty, had been admired and painted by the Pre-Raphaelite artists. Vanessa and her sister Virginia (later Virginia Woolf) grew up in a household where writers and artists were frequent guests. Duncan Grant spent his early childhood in India and Burma as the son of a major in the British Army, returning to school in England in 1894.

By 1905 both had launched on their separate careers as artists by leaning towards the international avant-garde of Symbolism, in which realism was used to symbolise spiritual meaning. Bell’s intimate, delicate and tonal Iceland Poppies (1908-9) is an example of this. Grant moved to Paris at the beginning of 1906.  He apprenticed himself to European traditions of monumental figure painting, as in Dancers (1910-11), with its glance towards the stately Symbolist sculptures of Auguste Rodin.

The Exotic, the Oriental and the Ornamental

Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant pioneered an art in England which looked beyond conventional Western European perspectives to include references to different kinds of Eastern culture.

Exactly 100 years ago, in April 1911, Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes company gave its first performance in London. Its compelling dance style was epitomised by a new emphasis on the sensuous presentation of the body, which was a major influence on Bell and Grant.

They were at this time already gravitating towards decorative visions adapted from Eastern culture, as in Bell’s Byzantine Lady (1912) and Grant’s Bathing (1911). Grant’s formative childhood years had been spent in India and he visited North Africa in 1911, while Byzantine mosaics were also an important influence on Bell.

Alongside the formal influence of ‘orientalism’ evident in the artists’ work was the Bloomsbury group’s satirical viewpoint on the British Empire and its assumptions of military might. This attitude was evident in the case of ‘The Dreadnought Hoax’ in 1910, when Duncan Grant and others were joined on the battleship by Bell’s sister, Virginia Woolf, impersonating members of the Abyssinian royal family. The hoax can be considered as an early political performance piece.

The Encounter with Modernism

Modernism was a form of art which was developed primarily in Paris from the first decade of the 20th century, and then rapidly developed internationally. Traditional realism no longer seemed adequate to express the changing modern world; artists began to experiment with form and materials in their work. In England, Duncan Grant and Vanessa Bell were among the earliest artists to experiment with modernism.

In 1910 and 1912 the Bloomsbury artist and critic Roger Fry and Clive Bell, Vanessa’s husband, organised two ‘Post-Impressionist’ exhibitions in London. The first included work by Paul Cézanne, Paul Gauguin and Vincent Van Gogh, and the second included Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso, as well as paintings by Duncan Grant and Vanessa Bell and other English artists. The exhibitions showcased the transformations that had taken place in French and continental painting, and provided opportunities for English taste to catch up with these developments.

The 1910 exhibition featured paintings by Cézanne, showing his re-thinking of pictorial space. Matisse’s early version of La Danse (1909), with its flattened figures and bold use of colour, was given prominence in the second exhibition.   Duncan Grant had become familiar with Matisse and his work in Paris from around 1909, and with Picasso and his work from around 1912. Both Grant and Vanessa Bell visited Paris separately on a regular basis until the outbreak of World War I, maintaining their relationships with artists, seeing new work and on occasion buying paintings. Grant adopted the flat pattern and colour planes of Matisse and began to depict a contemporary Eden of rhythmical nudes, as did Vanessa Bell in The Tub (1917). Bell painted Adam and Eve (1912) giving them dynamic bodies, like the subjective and ultra-simplified contours of Grant’s male and female nudes at this time.

An English Expressionism

From 1913 to 1915 the paintings of Duncan Grant and Vanessa Bell continued to show their links with contemporaries in other continental European art movements, including Expressionism.

Virginia Woolf called some of the slightly younger friends and associates of Grant and Bell, such as the athletic poet and swimmer Rupert Brooke, ‘Neo-Pagan’. In England, as in Germany at this time, there was a new emphasis on the naked or near-naked body exposed to nature through the exertions of swimming, wrestling and camping, as depicted in Bell’s screen Bathers in a Landscape (1913).

The critic Roger Fry had even contemplated calling those tendencies, which were surfacing in both French and British painting in the 1912 Post-Impressionist exhibition, ‘Expressionism’. As with German Expressionist art, stark anti-naturalistic colour schemes and ‘primitivism’ were significant. English painters such as Grant and Bell used visual languages to represent the body which were derived from African and Oceanic tribal artefacts. Duncan Grant’s Head of Eve (1913) showed a style stemming from slashed linear forms apparently cut into wooden surfaces, which Bell and Grant had seen in Picasso’s work.

Collage and Abstract Adventures

One of the significant breakthroughs in modernism was the introduction of collage techniques from 1912-13, and the adoption of abstract painting around the same date. This section shows Bell and Grant as innovators at the forefront of this development in England.

Early in 1914 Duncan Grant visited Picasso’s studio in Paris and was excited by the Spanish artist’s use of pasted paper, or collage, in his pictures. Grant even offered Picasso some rolls of wallpaper to use, which he had found at his lodgings. The playfulness and humour which had been marked in Grant and Bell’s art now found a new outlet.

Vanessa Bell gave painted paper compositions a complex, mosaic-like aspect. Her Portrait of Molly MacCarthy (1914-15) simplified the sitter’s features in a Cubist style, creating geometric pattern. Duncan Grant made a large, long, non-representational scroll painting which was intended to be a performance piece, the Abstract Kinetic Painting with Sound (1914-15). Both artists produced pure abstract work between 1914 and 1916 and continued to use collage and to play with perspective throughout the war.

Homes and Carnivals

Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant responded to the enormous challenges of World War I and the peace which followed it by inventing a modernist form of Classicism, reworking the depiction of the human form with reference to antiquity.  They also concentrated on the depiction of their domestic sphere.

The contrasting topics of home and domestic life, and a renewed celebration of the erotic body, filled Duncan Grant and Vanessa Bell’s art, as in Grant’s painting Venus and Adonis (1919). The painting exemplified the rising international taste for a freestyle Neo-Classicism, which Picasso had inspired after the war with his paintings of statuesque figures. Grant’s witty, caricature-like female had an impact on the young Henry Moore. It can be contrasted with the solid male figures in Bathers by the Pond (1920) by Grant.

The Kitchen (1914-19) reflected Vanessa Bell’s role as a mother as well as portraying the unorthodox domestic space she shared with Duncan Grant at Charleston from 1916. Charleston Farmhouse, in the Sussex countryside 14 miles from Brighton, became Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant’s main home until the end of the war. Here, Grant depicts domestic life at Charleston as a kind of modern comedy. Intimate portraiture, and views from windows and homes, engaged Vanessa Bell in the post-war era.

Duncan Grant and Vanessa Bell’s decorative activities in this period were influenced by their pre-war involvement in Roger Fry’s Omega Workshop and further spurred by the need to embellish furniture for themselves and their friends. They used a range of Matisse-style, Cubist and Baroque images and patterning.




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