The Art of Bloomsbury
19th Century 20th Century
“The Art of Bloomsbury” was meant to be a gently engaging exhibition devoted to the work of Roger Fry, Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant, who between them made an interesting if ultimately slight contribution to early modern art in England. That was the theory, anyway. But when the show opened at the Tate Gallery in London, at the end of last year, the theory went out of the window. This apparently modest enterprise sent the English community of art critics (admittedly never the most stable group of individuals) into extraordinary paroxysms of rage and fury. Their collective delirium of disgust resulted in a peculiarly English controversy, and some of the most entertainingly hostile reviews published in recent memory.
Waldemar Janusczak, art critic for the Sunday Times, could hardly bear to write about the show he hated it so much (“Bloomsbury. Just tapping in these 10 tedious letters has brought on a severe attack of RSI”) although he was happy enough “to recap briefly the reasons why we abhor the Bloomsbury bunch. Yes, they were snobs. Yes, they had the morals of a chimpanzee. Yes, they painted like chimpanzees.” Pursuing this simian metaphor, Brian Sewell in the London Evening Standard described the Bloomsbury artists as belonging to “the monkey-see, monkey-do school of painting”. Adrian Searle, writing in the Guardian, was if anything even blunter in his disapprobation: “the Bloomsbury painters were, as we critics put it, just a bit crap”; while Tom Lubbock, in the Independent, used the same unusually forthright comparison, declaring the paintings of Duncan Grant to constitute no more than a form of pictorial excrement.
Rarely can so much mud, and worse, have been flung in the direction of so many apparently inoffensive portraits, still lifes and landscapes. It is impossible to imagine “The Art of Bloomsbury” provoking anything like the same response in America, where it made its fairly low-key appearance at The Huntington Library, San Marino in March (continues to 30 April) and where it will have its final showing at the Yale Center for British Art in New Haven (20 May – 2 September). An American audience may well find it hard to understand what all the fuss in London could possibly have been about. This might not be an exhibition to set the world alight, with its assembly of mostly lightweight and derivative English pictures, clearly inspired by the art of Matisse and the Fauves, but what on earth could there be to detest about it? Just what does lie behind the strange English love-hate relationship with Bloomsbury and all its works?
Puzzling over it all has been Julian Bell, grandson of two of the original Bloomsberries, Clive and Vanessa Bell. Himself a painter and writer about painitng, Bell confesses to having been “really shocked by the press response in England”. The exhibition seemed to act as a kind of catalyst for a whole range of English social and moral attititudes and hang-ups. It was, in his eyes, a cultural phenomenon of an unusual but fascinating kind: an exhibition which provoked the British to make an exhibition of themselves. As he expressed the matter in a recent piece written for the London Review of Books:
“Bloomsbury makes a strong salepoint because it’s a story with a strong mix of ingredients. Sex, friendships, betrayals, glam connections, nice locations, eccentric personalities, the odd suicide, a touch of politics, more sex… Functioning as an haut-bourgeois soap, it affords a conventional cue for moralising – ‘he shouldn’t have done that’, ‘she should have done this’ – and, particularly for an English audience, it offers the nagging fascinations of class twitchiness: we half relish their snobbery and elitism, half revel in the righteous disdain these provoke in us.”
The Bloomsbury Group, so the old joke goes, “lived in squares and loved in triangles.” Formed in the early years of the twentieth century, this loose affiliation of mostly upper middle-class writers, philosophers, economists, painters, diarists, belle-lettrists and serial adulterers remains bewilderingly difficult to pin down. The painters may have been attracting most attention recently, but Bloomsbury’s best known figures probably remain the writers Virginia Woolf, E.M. Forster and Lytton Strachey. The group also included among its number the economist John Maynard Keynes, his wife the Russian ballet dancer Lydia Lopokhova, Freud’s first translator James Strachey, as well as the impressively prolific Frances Partridge, now 100, who is the last of them all still alive (and still publishing, with six volumes of her diaries in print to date). Despite the extreme heterogeneity of the different members all have become “Bloomsberries”: part of the sexy, sybaritic soap which in many people’s minds, as Bell says, Bloomsbury has become.
Bell talks poignantly about the great gap that has come to separate the people he knew and loved as members of his family and the curious larger-than-life characters into which, as part of the Bloomsbury myth, they have been transformed:
“It’s nice to keep a sense of a private memory of childhood, and maintain that private memory separate. I have in a sense, because I remember Vanessa painting me, and I remember her not long before she died – but so much of the rest of my image of her comes from the public domain, from biographies of her, critical writings and so on. To some extent a version of the same thing happens anyway in any family. You have a picture of yourself as a child in the family photo album and it comes out every Christmas, and everything becomes a developing story, so as opposed to having a primal, pristine earliest memory, you have a developed communal myth. It’s slightly like that, except that in this case the developed communal myth has become a public commodity.”
It is late February, a week after “The Art of Bloomsbury” closed at the Tate Gallery and departed for America. He is speaking in the warm, South-facing walled garden of Charleston, the farmhouse set in the rolling downs of East Sussex where Vanessa and Clive Bell, together with their friend Duncan Grant – who also, in a fairly typical Bloomsbury twist, happened to be her lover – were to spend much of their working lives after 1916. Thinner, darker and more angular than Clive, whom he remembers as bluff and forthright, with a quick turn of phrase, Julian seems to take more after his grandmother. He has Vanessa’s alert, circumspect eyes. Next to the fishpond there is a headless statue out of whose neck a hydrangea sprouts (Julian himself, who is now in his forties, is said to have been responsible for this decapitation one day during a long summer vacation back in his childhood) while on the front of the house creeping roses have begun to bud. He tut-tuts at the unnaturalness of it all. “Roses, in February! What’s going on? Help!”
Charleston has been preserved (in true English fashion) as a shrine to the memory of those who once inhabited it, and is now a popular tourist attraction. It has all been done almost disconcertingly well, and not at all tidily, so that Duncan Grant’s studio is still piled high with old newspapers and scraps of drawing paper and broken-off stumps of pastel and other bits and pieces – thus artfully creating an effect of artless clutter, as if to suggest that he and Vanessa Bell have just gone out for a walk and may return at any moment. Bell and Grant, whom many consider to have been more gifted as decorative than fine artists, treated the house as a kind of composite work of art and hardly a surface has been left untouched. They created their own painted furniture and stencilled and frescoed the walls. The fireplace in Grant’s studio is flanked by two very approximately Michelangelesque male nude figures and topped, with a nod to Matisse, by a pair of goldfish in a bowl. Julian remembers the room originally being yet more chaotic – “this whole half of it was just a mass of worked-on canvases,” he gestures – but otherwise he concedes that it very much matches the place he recalls visiting as a small child. While the garden of the house seems very different to him now – “I remember it as an unimaginably large place in which to play, but then I was a lot smaller!” – the fireplace is just as he remembers it. “These epicene nudes, the goldfish, they are just a perennial fact of my life, I suppose.”
Charleston is one of those places that instantly conjures up the idea of a certain way of life: “a certain lightness and harmoniousness in style of living,” in Bell’s words, “it’s an essentially pleasant, pleasurable place.” Most people who visit are charmed by the house, but Bell also remembers “a man passing me in his car as he was leaving, who rolled down his window and shouted out ‘I’ve never seen so much rubbish in all my life.’” This little anecdote is a reminder that the unashamed hedonism of Bloomsbury – the dedication to pleasure which seems to suffuse every colourful inch of Charleston – is just as liable to repel as it is to attract the dourer and more puritanical brand of Englishman. Bloomsberries like Bell and Grant, with their fancy modern art and fancy modern morals (or lack of them), have often tended to arouse mixed emotions in the English soul, fascination mingled uneasily with distrust. The francophilia of the Charleston aesthetic is perennially suspect too in a country where, until fairly recently, unconditional hatred of the French was considered de rigueur.
Bell also believes that George Orwell’s highly influential belief in decency as the great defining characteristic of the English character has shaped certain prejudices against Bloomsbury. “Orwell is probably the writer who has done as much to define twentieth century feelings about Englishness as anyone else, and although he doesn’t spend any time specifically taking the Bloomsberries to task, the whole implication of what he writes – it’s somehow very opposed to the Bloomsbury phenomenon. There is a moral distrust of them, which comes back very much to the public story of who they were, the soap opera story – of sexual derring-do, and affairs with Lady Utterly Immoral or whoever. But it’s also seen as being reflected in the tenor of their art, which can seem to subscribe to some unqualified cult of pleasure.”
“I think this also explains why they tend to produce a peculiar anxiety in the arts community, the intelligentsia, whatever one likes to call it… Because the trouble is that Bloomsberries seem to be a model of that sort of intellectual elite which feeds into the suspicions the English public, to generalise, has always harboured about intellectuals, as a morally self-indulgent breed.” He quotes W.H. Auden’s lines: “To the man in the street, who, I’m sorry to say, / Is a keen observer of life, / The word ‘intellectual’ suggests straight away / A man who’s untrue to his wife.”
Such attitudes certainly coloured many of the English reviews of “The Art of Bloomsbury”, where some of the most strident complaints of the critics were levelled at the presumed snobbery, elitism and airy immorality of the artists whose work was being exhibited. In fact, many of the criticisms were really little more than attacks on an imaginary, almost ludicrously caricatured simplification of what the Bloomsbury Group stood for, and who its members were. The Bloomsberries are often painted as little more than a bunch of upper-class twits mainly interested in jumping into each other’s beds, when almost none of them were aristocratic, few of them were rich, and a remarkably high proportion of what was, all things considered, just a coterie of friends, achieved national prominence. The group’s political sympathies lay mostly to the left. Their pacifism, which led more than one to take the profoundly unfashionable course of Conscientious Objection during the Great War, and their determination to kick off the traces of prescriptive Victorian morality – none of these tally very closely with that image of a group of toffee-nosed survivors from an outmoded class system depicted by their most thoughtless modern attackers.
Duncan Grant was certainly no snob and although Vanessa Bell and Roger Fry had their moments of snootiness the most unpleasantly elitist of the Bloomsberries, by a distance, was actually Virginia Woolf (who once confided to her diary that James Joyce’s Ulysses was the unbearably coarse product of a working-class mind). In any event, charges of this kind would seem to be peculiarly beside the point when discussing pictures of the type painted by Bell, Grant et al. After all how, exactly, would a “snobbish” or “immoral” picture of a bowl of fruit or a landscape give itself away? The inappropriateness of the criticism reveals the extent to which certain preconceptions about Bloomsbury have now acquired such force – in the British Isles, at least – that they virtually rule out the kind of objective reassessment of the specific, individual achievements of individual Bloomsbury artists which the curator Richard Shone clearly hoped for when he put his exhibition together.
This is a shame, because although no one could seriously claim that Bloomsbury’s genius expressed itself most truly in the form of visual art, the exhibition was not quite the Total Disgrace it was generally said to be. The applied art looked particularly strong, offering confirmation that the creations of the Omega Workshop - which was founded by the artists of Bloomsbury to extend their aesthetic into the realm of the decorative arts, such as furniture, carpets and wallpaper - genuinely revolutionised British taste. And at her best Vanessa Bell, in particular, was by no means an inconsiderable painter. Her acerbic portrait of her husband’s lover, Mrs St John Hutchinson, painted in 1915, might be indebted to Matisse but it is a very powerful piece of sour observation – perhaps that should be character assassination – none the less. (The sitter, flatteringly, loathed it.) Julian Bell, who describes it as a canvas quivering with “its own sarcastical-cum-sensual edgy facture”, thinks it is the best picture in the whole exhibition, although he also has a soft spot for much later works of hers like her Self-Portrait of 1958:
“That is a picture which really brings back the woman I remember, who had a very beautiful face, a strong beautiful bone structure – that with a natural dignity and beauty of personality. In a sense I really prefer that painting to most of what she was doing in her youth under the influence of Matisse or the Fauves – I think because so much of her earlier painting was playing with not knowing things. Whereas that last self-portrait is a painting about knowledge, a painting of facing up, face-to-face.” The room next door to Grant’s studio is Vanessa Bell’s bedroom, where her grandson remembers seeing her for the last time, shortly before she died. The curtains are drawn today too – it is off-season and Charleston is closed to the paying public – and the only light comes from a bare lightbulb over the sink.
English art historians have traditionally divided fairly neatly over the merits of the Bloomsbury painters. On the one hand there are those who see them as heroic torchbearers of an early modernist aesthetic idiom, lighting up the dark and philistine landscape of an England conservatively besotted with its own brown, overvarnished Victorian and Edwardian artistic traditions. On the other hand, there are those in whose eyes Grant and Bell and Fry, in their own art, traduced the very modernism which they sought to proselytise. According to this version of events, they misunderstood the deeper implications of the art of those painters, such as Matisse, whom they claimed to revere – and, as a result, set the whole cause of art in England back by producing a provincial English version of modernism, all pastiche and no substance. This second point of view would seem to be winning the day. Unlike so much that has been written about the art of Bloomsbury, it is at least reasoned; and it has substance.
Among the people I spoke to there was general agreement, when “The Art of Bloomsbury” opened in London, about the limitations of the paintings on display. Vanessa Bell’s reputation emerged slightly enhanced, but those of Roger Fry and Duncan Grant had been cruelly diminished. This was not just what the more vicious art critics thought, knees jerking at the very mention of the word Bloomsbury. The painter Howard Hodgkin, himself a distant cousin of Roger Fry, approached the exhibition with, if not optimism, at least a willingness to believe the Bloomsberries better than he had thought. But although he felt that Richard Shone, the curator of the show, had done an almost exemplary job, he was deeply disappointed by the paintings of the leading Bloomsbury artists, which he felt failed in a peculiarly depressing, endemically English way. “For example, Duncan Grant was a highly intelligent and sensitive artist, but the work is mostly terribly poor. It’s poor because it’s amateurish. I think he hasn’t really understood what painting is about – hasn’t understood that every mark ought to count. There have been more amateur artists in this country than any other, thanks to the nineteenth-century watercolour tradition, and I think the influence of the amateur attitude has been absolutely disastrous on English art.”
Hodgkin questions the Bloomsbury Group’s famous attachment to Matisse, arguing that “if they really had liked him, surely they would have looked rather more closely at what he did and thought about it more deeply. It’s their total inability to comprehend what they were looking at that is so dispiriting. What I’ve never been able to understand is how someone like Roger Fry could have such good taste as a collector, and yet not see what it was that he was doing himself…” This is a criticism that strikes home, and one that perhaps goes to the heart of the the Bloomsbury painters’ failure. The point is not that they were simply bad, but that they should have known better. After all, for Englishmen and women of their time, they had extremely advanced tastes. They knew what had been going on in the art of Paris, and Roger Fry staged two remarkable exhibitions of Post-Impressionist art in London, in 1910 and 1912 - which were really the first shows of advanced French art ever seen in England. Fry did this at a time when most of his contemporaries regarded the work of Matisse and Co as little more than an absurdity (the negative reviews of Fry’s Post-Impressionist exhibitions still make remarkable reading). As an evangelist for new painting, he did an extraordinary job.
The trouble came when the Bloomsberries attempted to translate their connoisseurship into their practice as painters. The results often suggest that although they were excited by French art they were also blind to much that drove it. It is as if they only saw one side of it – its hedonism, its sensuality, its bright, bright colour – and were blind to the rest. They saw Post-Impressionism as a kind of warm bath of beauty into which to immerse themselves, but failed to see that Matisse could never have been the great master that he was if it had not been for his edginess, his sense of lurking dissonance, the incipient violence of his art. Like most sweeping criticisms, this is not always and absolutely true. Vanessa Bell occasionally seems to have realised that a certain kind of nervy tension can make rather than mar a good picture. But she is very much the exception. The comedy of misunderstanding underlying Bloomsbury’s relationship with French painting is wonderfully encapsulated in a short exchange between Andre Derain and Duncan Grant recounted in the recent book Bloomsbury in France by Mary Ann Caws and Sarah Bird Wright. Derain clapped Grant on the back and told him that with a talent like his he could really tackle “des grandes problemes”. Grant repeated Derain’s remark in a letter to Vanessa Bell, confessing at the end of it that “I really don’t know what he meant” – an endearingly modest line which somehow seems to contain within it that quintessential lack of ambition, and vision, which always held the art of Bloomsbury back.
How are we to explain this besetting timidity? Hodgkin believes that for all their expressions of admiration for modern French painting, the Bloomsberries were still the involuntary inheritors of a deepseated English upper-middle class prejudice against art. “One of the reasons why literary Bloomsbury was so much greater than artistic Bloomsbury was because they had such an elevated view of English literature. It was this great wide sky, and they wanted to be a few more clouds floating in it. Whereas English art by comparison seemed rather a small thing. I think they brought a different and much lower ambition to the task of being an artist. And it shows. Look even at the very best of Duncan Grant’s pictures, in comparison with a Matisse, and you will see the world of difference that lies between them.”
On the other hand, Hodgkin feels that the achievements of the Bloomsberries in decorative art have been underrated. “I think the decoration was wonderful, and in its non-pushing way was probably the best there was in Europe. What do I know? But it was superb, it was for real. When I was a child, I used to go and see my aunt, Marjorie Fry, Roger’s sister, principal of Somerville, dedicated penal reformer, head of the Howard League, very concerned by social questions, who lived in a beautiful house in Kensington – not a grand house – in which the carpets on the floor were by Duncan Grant, the inlaid tea tray on the wall was by Duncan Grant, the glass covered dining room table had flung down palm branches by Duncan Grant. And as a child, a wimpy aesthetic child, this made a deep impression on me. Unfortunately, above this rather intellectual lady’s bookshelves, which went about five feet up the walls, were rows of paintings. Double rows, in some places. And they were all by Roger. And I immediately decided, the carpet, the tea tray, the palms on the table, by Duncan, were marvellous. The rather lumpy pots, beautiful. But the pictures? Awful, awful, awful.”
But of course awfulness does not necessarily occasion outrage. So to come back to where I started: just why did the English get so visisbly, amusingly, collectively hot under the collar about the Bloomsberries? I think there was probably more to it than the general, moralised dislike of the whole Bloomsbury ethos that I tried to sketch out earlier.
In his London Review of Books piece, Julian Bell flung out a tease to the critical lynch-mob: “Relax! Pleasure’s not to be despised… If a painting by Matisse can be a good thing, a painting like a painting by Matisse can be a good thing also.” But in the end, as he himself acknowledged, there are as many good as bad reasons for why we English couldn’t be entirely relaxed about “The Art of Bloomsbury”. Mostly, I think it came down to how the show was presented. For one thing, it was huge (nearly 200 exhibits), which gave it a kind of weight, and a kind of prominence, which immediately raised hackles. But what clinched its disastrous reception was the combination of venue and timing. This was the show with which the Tate Gallery, the pre-eminent national museum of British art, had chosen to see in a new millennium? Suddenly the awful suspicion dawned that this wasn’t just another exhibition – it was the Tate’s way of summing up a whole century of English artistic endeavour. Bloomsbury was being made representative! Bloomsbury was being made representative of us!
In fact, it wasn’t. The choice of date was an oversight and of course no grand message about Bloomsbury as the great art movement of twentieth-century England was intended (no one could be that perverse). The whole affair, I suspect, was just a very English botch, leading to an equally English outbreak of Millennium fever. Julian Bell tends to agree. “If it had been done five years later,” he says, “people would have said that this is an interesting historical phenomenon, and we belong to a different age, so let’s have an objective look at it.” But how much less interesting that would have been than what we actually witnessed – a wonderfully violent storm in an Omega Workshop teacup.