At the center of the odd, miscellaneous, brilliant, and intensely verbal coterie known as the Bloomsbury Group stands the strangely silent and enigmatic figure of Vanessa Bell. Frances Spalding, in her carefully researched biography, attempts to render Vanessa Bell less enigmatic. Ultimately Spalding does not succeed, but she does provide a serious and judicious evaluation of the art of Vanessa Bell, in conjunction with but in distinction from the art of her lifelong colleague, friend, and lover, Duncan Grant. Somewhat less successfully, Spalding presents a portrait of a remarkable and unconventional woman who managed to free herself from the constraints which governed the lives of middle-class women in the early years of the twentieth century and to build without rancor or waste of energy a life that met her needs as an artist and as a woman. Finally, Spalding’s book goes a long way toward answering the question of what held the Bloomsbury Group together, recounting as it does the life of an artist who, in her commitment to hard work and friendship and in her ability never to lose sight of what really mattered, embodied the ideals of Bloomsbury.
Spalding, an art historian and the author of a noteworthy biography of Roger Fry, is at her best discussing and assessing Bell’s artistic development and achievement. As Spalding depicts her, Bell emerges as an important painter and graphic designer who managed to break away from the lofty subjects, allegorical bent, sentimentality, and preoccupation with subject matter that characterized late Victorian art. Early in her career, Bell became fascinated with form and, later, with color, especially under the influence of Henri Matisse. Bell, however, remained a peculiarly British painter in her underlying devotion to the natural world as the source of her art and in her insistence upon an art that reflected and interpreted personal experience. She was as uneasy with abstraction as with mere representation. Unlike the French artists, her art was not based on the formulation of abstract principles but was purely empirical, the individual expression of a small and extremely private world. This private vision is best expressed in intimate indoor scenes of women talking over tea, of women and their children, of the interior of a room, of a garden seen through a window. This last example perhaps best characterizes her vision, a glance at the world outside from a secure, protected position.
In general, Bell’s is a vision of unity, as demonstrated by her preoccupation with circular forms and with the inwardness and self-containment afforded by domestic life, though her painting is very far indeed from the domestic storytelling of Victorian paintings. Her canvases exude visual delight in sensuous forms and intense colors. Just as Bell and her sister, Virginia Woolf, devoted themselves in their lives to letting light enter the formerly dark interiors of Victorian rooms, shut off from both natural forms and natural impulses, so too do Bell’s paintings abound in light, proclaiming an openness to new ideas.
Bell’s other important artistic contribution was her work for the Omega workshops. From 1913 on, these workshops, which Bell founded with Roger Fry and Duncan Grant, enabled young artists to earn some money while simultaneously encouraging them to reinvigorate English decorative design with post-Impressionist ideas. The Omega accepted a great variety of commissions, decorating all kinds of surfaces, including furniture, fabrics, rugs, carpets, pottery, and cloth as well as the walls of entire rooms. All the designs of the Omega, although executed by many artists, including Henri Gaudier-Brzeska and Wyndham Lewis, had a remarkable homogeneity: They were uniformly bold and colorful, intense and violent. These designs utterly violated English concepts of good taste, propriety, refinement, and discreetly displayed wealth. Among the strongest designs produced for the Omega workshops were those of Vanessa Bell, whose work avoided the cluttered, unfocused look of some Omega commissions, displaying instead wit, playfulness, and apparent spontaneity. These qualities were later evident in the elegant book designs which she created for the Hogarth Press, the venture...
(The entire section is 1728 words.)