‘Such Friends’:  Vanessa Bell’s Six Rooms of Her Own

Back in 2002, I went to see the fabulous Picasso Portraits exhibit at the Tate Modern. While eating the brownie with ice cream and fudge sauce in the café, I filled out the museum’s feedback card, which asked,

‘What other events would you like to see at the Tate?’

Always seizing the opportunity for shameless self-promotion, I wrote something to the effect:

‘Why don’t you have me give a talk about my early 20th century writers and artists?’

and

‘Why don’t you have an exhibit of Vanessa Bell’s fabulous paintings which are mostly locked away in a Tate Liverpool basement?!’

Still waiting for answer to the first, but the Dulwich Picture Gallery has answered the second. The third question is now, why did it take so long?!

My research into writers’ salons exposed me to creative people I had not been familiar with before, and one of my favorites is Virginia Woolf’s painter-sister, Vanessa Bell. Partly because of the excellent biography by Frances Spalding—Vanessa Bell:  Portrait of the Bloomsbury Artist—who discovered her while researching the art critic and Vanessa’s one-time lover, Roger Fry.

So finding my way from Birmingham to Dulwich to see this exhibit has been high on my to-do list this year. As part of our new-found freedom of semi-retirement, My Husband Tony and I set aside last Tuesday for a London jaunt. Road trip!

First, we had to figure out how to get to Dulwich. Not as difficult as we thought. Train to Euston, Victoria Line to Victoria station, train to West Dulwich, lovely well-marked walk from the station thanks to the glorious weather.

How posh! The Dulwich Gallery is one of the few museums which was actually built as an art gallery, to house a private collection back in the early 19th century. It’s not terribly big, but most rooms are fantastically well lit with the skylights built in.

My timed ticket to the exhibit was for 2:15, but we got there early to have lunch in the crowded but excellent café. The woman in the box office said that the ticket timings were ‘very strict.’ Tony planned to have a look at the museum and then head off to explore nearby Dulwich.

The building itself is well worth a look, but we also spent some time in the related free exhibit, Legacy: Photographs by Vanessa Bell and Patti Smith. Singer/artist/photographer Patti Smith, 71—who, I confess, I remember most from Gilda Radner’s impersonation of her on Saturday Night Live—is a big Virginia Woolf fan, and has recorded a video at Vanessa’s Sussex home, Charleston Farmhouse. [Also a must see. Trust me. Go.]

This exhibit juxtaposed Smith’s photos over quite a few years with Bell’s photo albums of her life—a very interesting idea. Smith’s were artistically small, mostly black and white Polaroids, and a bit dark. Unfortunately, the room itself was a bit dark, and we found ourselves squinting quite a bit.

I sent Tony off—What did you think of Dulwich, honey?

‘Beautiful. I want to live there’—

with a reminder to meet up at the Tate Modern so we could take in the exhibit of Sir Elton John’s photography collection, which includes quite a few by Man Ray, from my Paris group. A doubly deductible trip.

This gave me plenty of time to explore the six rooms at Dulwich devoted to Vanessa’s work. All on her own.

Vanessa bell dulwich poster

Poster for Vanessa Bell exhibit at the Dulwich Picture Gallery

The first room, ‘Among Friends’ [missed a trick there, didn’t they?!], showcases her portraits of those in and around the Bloomsbury Group, including her own self-portrait which is the poster for the exhibit. The room has the same attraction as London’s wonderful National Portrait Gallery—all eyes are looking at you.

Here is Vanessa’s take on her friend and lover of her husband Clive Bell, Mary Hutchinson:

bells por of mary hutchinson

Mrs. St. John Hutchinson (1915)

In the ‘Design and Experimentation’ room are some of Vanessa’s early attempts at abstraction, influenced by the Post-Impressionists Fry was championing around the same time. I got the feeling Vanessa wasn’t as comfortable with abstract painting as she was with recreating the feeling of the real world and people around her—her sister, her children, her lovers, her flowers.

This room also includes fantastic examples from the Omega Workshops which Fry and Vanessa directed from 1913 to 1919. As the exhibit’s wall explanation states, the Workshops represented the pre-World War II hopes that were ‘dashed’ on the battlefields of Europe.

Screen by bell and grant

Tents and Figures (1913), painted folding screen

The ‘Still Life’ room has one of my favorites, Iceland Poppies.

iceland poppies

Iceland Poppies (c. 1908-09)

Doesn’t it look like the pattern for a Norwegian ski sweater? [To those in charge of the gift shop—you can have that idea for free. You’re welcome.]

‘At Home’ demonstrates Vanessa at her best, photographing and painting her family in their natural environments.

Angelica reading

Interior with Artist’s Daughter (1935)

Although some of the playful photos of her two sons would probably get her arrested today.

The fifth room, ‘Landscape,’ shows an interesting juxtaposition of her first painting of the pond at Charleston, done in the fall of 1916, when she had first moved there,

pond at charleston 1916

The Pond at Charleston, East Sussex (1916)

and a more chaotic version of the same scene three years later when the communal life had developed its own complications.

view-of-the-pond-at-charleston-1919

Charleston Pond (1919)

The finale, the sixth room, ‘Pictures of Women,’ includes one of my other favorites, A Conversation, which I’ve always thought would make a nice cover for ‘Such Friends.’ Girls night!

A conversation

A Conversation (1913-1916)

And doesn’t this 1913 portrait look like Carrie Fisher as Princess Leia in Star Wars?!

The model 1913

The Model (1913)

In addition to the paintings, one of the other highlights of this room is a letter Vanessa wrote to her daughter-in-law, Anne Olivier Bell, on the birth of her baby girl,

‘How clever of you to produce a daughter…’

After walking back and forth through the six rooms a few times, I headed back to Dulwich train station, back to Victoria, on to Blackfriars, to walk over the bridge to Tate Modern.

Along streets and through Tube stations that Vanessa, her sister and their ‘Such Friends’ would have used over 100 years ago. And probably, some days, the weather was just as good as well.

The exhibit, Vanessa Bell (1879-1961), is at the Dulwich Picture Gallery until June 4, 2017, and I would have no problem making the journey again if you would like to have your own personal tour guide. And my offer to give a talk is still open…

To walk with me and the ‘Such Friends’ through Bloomsbury, download the Virginia Woolf and the Bloomsbury Group audio walking tour from VoiceMap.

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At 31 Rue Campagne Premiere, Montparnasse, Paris, mid-February, 1930…

…Ex-patriate photographer Man Ray, 39, is going through his mail.

He’s pleased to find a letter from a fellow American, writer Gertrude Stein, just turned 56. He had recently written to her,

Dear Gertrude Stein,

I am leaving in four days and need all the money I can get together for the south.

May I ask you to send me a cheque for 500 frs. for the last serie[s] of photographs?

With many thanks,

Yours

Man Ray’

When he opens the envelope, he is disappointed to find only his own note returned to him. Gertrude has written on the same piece of paper:

Kindly remember that you offered to take the last series of portraits the first time you saw my dog. Kindly remember that I have always refused to sit for anyone to photograph me in order to give you the exclusive rights. Kindly remember that you have never been asked to give me any return for your sale of my photographs. My dear Man Ray, we are all hard up but don’t be silly about it…’

Stein and basket by Man Ray

Gertrude Stein and her dog, Basket, by Man Ray

At the website for the Yale University Library, http://brbl-dl.library.yale.edu/vufind/Record/3477184, you can see photos of the actual letters between Stein and Ray, including the two quoted above on pages 30-31.

This year, we’ll be telling stories about these groups of ‘such friends,’ before, during and after their times together.

Manager as Muse explores Scribner’s editor Maxwell Perkins’ work with F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway and Thomas Wolfe and is available on Amazon in both print and Kindle versions.

To walk with me and the ‘Such Friends’ through Bloomsbury, download the Virginia Woolf and the Bloomsbury Group audio walking tour from VoiceMap. Look for our upcoming walking tour about the Paris ‘such friends.’

At the Grantwood artist colony, in Ridgefield, NJ, autumn, 1915…

…American artist Emmanuel Radnitzky, 25, who signs his paintings Man Ray and lives here with his wife, Belgian poet Adon, 28, sees two men walking towards him.

The older man he recognizes as Pittsburgh-born modern art collector Walter Arensberg, 37. Ray has been supplementing his income by documenting the collections of wealthy New Yorkers like Arensberg and Ohio-born John Quinn, 45. Arensberg has helped his artsy friends in Grantwood start an avant-garde magazine, Others, just this past summer.

The other man, tall, nattily dressed, and definitely French, is surreal artist Marcel Duchamp, 28, who has been given a studio in Arensberg’s 67th Street apartment just across the Hudson River in New York City. Duchamp caused quite a stir two years ago at the Armory Show with his painting, Nude Descending a Staircase, described as an explosion in a shingle factory.

Nude Descending a Staircase by Marcel Duchamp

Nude Descending a Staircase by Marcel Duchamp

 

Duchamp approaches Ray, but speaks little English. Ray speaks little French. They each instantly pick up tennis racquets and proceed to play a game. With no net. As Ray described it later in his autobiography,

In order to have a conversation I would give a name to each pass […] and each time Duchamp would reply in English with a single word, “Yes”…’

They become life-long friends.

 

 

 

 

Rutherford, NJ, one year later, 1916

Rutherfor NJ 1916Front row, L-R: Alison Hartpence, Afred Kreymborg, WCW, Skip Cannell; Back row, L-R: Jean Crotti, Marcel Duchamp, Walter Arensberg, Man Ray, R.A. Sanborn, Maxwell BodenheimThis year, we’ll be telling stories about these groups of ‘such friends,’ before, during and after their times together.

‘Such Friends’ at Midnight in Paris

Thank you to those who came to my presentation ‘Such Friends’: The Americans in Paris in the 1920s, before the matinee of Woody Allen’s film Midnight in Paris at Birmingham’s Electric Cinema last week. We had a great time and lots of good questions.

If you would like the reading list, e-mail me and I’ll send it to you.

I have contacted some other local cinemas about repeating the presentation when they show Midnight in Paris, so stay in touch. You can join the ‘Such Friends’ group on Facebook for updates.

You can read the Guardian review from the Cannes Festival. Have you seen it yet? How was it for you?