Part of the Bloomsbury Group, Vanessa Bell was a domineering creative force in London in the early 20th century. Not as well remembered and loved as her sister, the writer Virginia Woolf, Bell’s career as a painter, feisty amateur photographer, and interior designer is celebrated in the latest exhibition at the Dulwich Picture Gallery, a small by London standards but perfectly formed museum. Boasting an enviable permanent collection including several Rembrandt and Murillo, the DPG recently has been featuring a few quirky and interesting exhibitions centred on less known artists including Canadian Emily Carr and Norwegian Nikolai Astrup. Both previous exhibitions were strongly centred on nature as the most powerful source of inspiration, strong in colours and emotions, wild, primordial.
Vanessa Bell’s exhibition was equally as quirky and unpredictable. From room to room we discover different sides of an artist, a free thinker, a matriarch, ranging from the sober covers for Virginia Woolf’s self-published books to wildly abstract designs for carpets and furnishings, with colours joyfully clashing in your face, much to the disapproval of her sister. The most intimate paintings are the ones depicting her loved ones, including her sister Virginia appearing in many enigmatic ways.
Not to be missed a small black and white photographic exhibition featured in an adjacent room, comparing Vanessa Bell’s intimate photos of her loved ones to a series of Polaroid pictures taken by Patti Smith. The Polaroids are tiny renditions of Smith’s pilgrimage to many memorable places: the place of rest of the poets and artists that have inspired her lifelong work including Vanessa Bell and Virginia Woolf, their places of residence, their beds, their desks, their humanity and frailty made poignantly vivid from the perspective of the admiring beholder.
11 February 2017: Vanessa Bell, 1879-1961, Dulwich Picture Gallery