Exhibitions 1 The Art of Bloomsbury (Tate Gallery, till 30
Stick to the wallpaper
hen I ask about English painters,' Picasso once mused, 'why does someone always start telling me about Duncan Grant?' It was a good question and, indeed, remains a reasonable one to ask the Tate Gallery. Why, at this stage in the game — a couple of months before the new millennium — have they chosen to tell us about Grant, plus his friends Vanessa Bell and Roger Fry, in their major autumn exhibition The Art of Bloomsbury?
Bloomsbury has, of course, always been controversial. It was even when it was a going concern, before it became a minor cultural industry. At the time, there were bitter accusations that the Bloomsbury artists were promoted beyond the natural level of their abilities by the Bloomsbury critics, Clive Bell and, again, Roger Fry. In other words, that Bloomsbury was a clique, presenting its members as progres- sive, modern and so forth, while simultane- ously being ruthlessly self-serving and snobbish (the combination has a contem- porary ring).
Against that, defenders — notably Quentin Bell, loyal son of Vanessa and Clive and a delightful man — argued that the way they were seen by outsiders was scarcely the fault of the artists, who merely got on with their work in their civilised, herbivorous way. Perhaps so. Still, one is entitled to ask about Bloomsbury, crudely, 'Where's the beef?' It is not clear that the novels — as opposed to the diaries and let- ters — of Virginia Woolf are read, or indeed readable by anyone over 18. Which leaves one with the economics of Keynes, the biographical sketches of Lytton Stra- chey (fun, but scarcely great literature) and the contents of this exhibition.
The Bloomsberries, an information board announces near the start, were instrumental in the introduction of modern art into this country. That is unquestion- ably true. The Post-Impressionist exhibi- tion of 1910, organised by Fry, was a notable achievement, a Bloomsbury tri- umph. It was greatly to their credit that Fry, Bell and Grant recognised the impor- tance of azanne, Picasso and Matisse at a time when few others in this country did (Walter Sickert, for example, the most important English painter of the day, was still attached to an earlier phase of French painting, especially to Degas).
But introducing modern art is not the same thing as producing it. Sickert, despite being ruffled by modernism, remained a painter of significant stature. Among artists slightly junior to Bell and Grant, Stanley Spencer and David Bomberg were the major figures, originals, even though Spencer was completely tangential to the course of modernist art.
In comparison, the Bloomsberries were minor imitators of their Continental idols. Fry — a warning to critics not to paint seldom rose above amateur status, albeit as an amateur admirer of azanne, which was unusual for the period. The story is told of Sickert examining some Frys in an exhibi- tion and muttering to himself under his breath, 'Poor Roger.' Looking at a painting such as the 1936 'Self-Portrait' one can see why.
Grant and Bell were much better than that, proper artists. And Vanessa Bell, on this showing, was the best of the three by 'Self-Portrait; 1958, by Vanessa Bell some way. Her early portraits, 'Virginia Woolf in a Deckchair' from 1912, for instance, or 'Mrs Mary Hutchinson' of 1915, are successful adaptations of the Matissean mode to the grand old British
face-painting tradition. To take an exam- ple, the blank face in the Woolf portrait hints at the subject's pyschological prob- lems, but it is, of course, derived from the great Frenchman. Grant, too, could pro- duce jolly Matissean stuff in the early days, especially still-lifes such as 'Omega Paper Flowers on the Mantelpiece, 46 Gordon Square', c. 1914-15.
But, when Bell and Grant tried to imitate the primitivist ferocity of which Picasso and Matisse were capable, the results were pre- dictably timorous. And their excursions into out-and-out abstraction, though histor- ically important, were dingy, irresolute and not carried through. The truth is, as is obvi- ous from the big central room, in which the most impressive object is a painted screen, is that Bloomsbury was most successful as a style in the decorative arts.
Their most congenial and, in a way, their most original creations were the wallpa- pers, fabrics, painted furniture, rugs and so on which were produced by Fry's Omega Workshops and after. This amounted to a genuinely individual hybrid between mod- ernism and the William Morris-ey Arts and Crafts tradition. It is what makes Charleston Farmhouse — where Grant and Bell finally settled down in a rather tor- tured monage, as he was homosexual and she was married to Bell but in love with him — a fascinating place, well worth its careful preservation. (Though there is room for two views on that: once, walking down the drive, I encountered a man in a Ford Sierra, who wound down his window to inquire, 'Did you ever see such a load of old rubbish in your life?') The reason why the wallpaper is better than the paintings in the case of the Bloomsberries is that they had succeeded in transforming modernism from a pro- foundly novel manner of seeing, thinking and feeling into a charming, civilised, eccentric manner of English middle-class existence. To use the contemporary jargon, they turned Matisse into lifestyle — which no doubt explains part of the appeal, since that is just what lots of us want (the shop, predictably, is cluttered with buyable Bloomsbury cushions and what not).
The other reason for the continuing interest in the Bloomsberries is biographi- cal. It is has been observed before, but bears pointing out again, that the Blooms- bury Group are biographically ideal. They led pro-modern lives, with plenty of com- plex bed hopping, but they retained the Victorian habit, as virtually no contempo- rary person does, of maintaining a volumi- nous correspondence, keeping a diary, and so forth. For an age obsessed by personali- ty, this makes them perfect.
This large exhibition, however, is not really kind to the Bloomsbury memory. It is, in execution, a good show, nicely hung, well-selected and so forth. There are a number of creditable works to be seen. But this level of prominence inevitably reveals that the talents of the Bloomsbury artists were minor (and, in the case of Fry, virtual- ly non-existent). One leaves with a feeling that somehow, posthumously, the Blooms- berries are still having strings pulled for them. A smaller exhibition, say, at the V&A, would have made one less grudging.
The worst of it is that it is hard to imag- ine anyone not already captivated by the Bloomsberries, their private lives and their cushions — a foreigner, for example finding any this of the slightest interest.