Vanessa Bell exhibition at Dulwich Picture Gallery review ***


Vanessa Bell 1879-1941

Dulwich Picture Gallery, 3rd June 2017

Sun shining. Dulwich Park at play. Bit of a picnic then off to the Vanessa Bell retrospective with SO, BUD and KCK. This is London. It won’t go away.

Dulwich PG does a fine job in bringing together thoughtfully curated exhibitions of the non-blockbuster names in a concentrated way. Nothing to frighten the horses but not too stuffy either. And the location is always worth the journey. In the last couple of years I have enjoyed exploring the work of artists as diverse as Nikolai Astrup with his bold Norwegian landscapes, the under-appreciated Winifred Knights, Eric Ravilious with his exacting eye and best of all MC Escher with his unique prints (so good I saw it again in the Hague). There have been some disappointments: the Adriaen van de Velde was the final proof that I just don’t get on with Golden Age Dutch landscapes.

This, broadly, was a success. I am not utterly convinced that the talents of the leading lights of the Bloomsbury Group were as considerable as they might have imagined. Their louche lifestyles (Bell was married to critic Clive Bell, was sister to Virginia Woolf, and had affairs with artists Roger Fry and Clive’s lover Duncan Grant) and absence of home-grown competition, might have secured them a more elevated place in British cultural history than is warranted. I am probably wrong on Virginia Woolf, the SO is the expert here, though interesting to note that Woolf herself envied her sister’s talent with paint, and certainly wrong on John Maynard Keynes, who applied his massive intellect, with self-evident success, to the world of Mammon rather than the Muses. I know it is a class warrior cliche to have a pop at this lot but generally I am not sure much of the painting that come out of the key BG figures was actually up to much.

Vanessa Bell though represents the best of the rum bunch however. This exhibition, apparently the first retrospective of this scale which surprises me, does highlight though that she never seemed to shake off the influences of her Continental peers, notably all those post-Impressionists. There are traces of German Expression here, a bit of van Gogh there, some Cezanne in the landscapes, Monet haystacks, Matisse dancers, some abstract experiments, a still life that is a dead ringer for her teacher Sargeant’s style. After a while however her voice does emerge and the whole does turn out to be more satisfying than the sum of the parts. The paint is tenderly applied and the colours, which are undeniably muddy throughout, do start to push out. The subjects, whether it be her toff mates, the lovely landscapes and houses she was fortunate enough to frequent, or the well composed still lifes, are undeniably attractive even if they don’t say much beyond that to me. I just can’t see the radical painter that others identify.

So all in all a very pleasant experience. I mean that in both a good way and a not so good way. This is the document of a privileged life seen through the art of a privileged woman. They are very pretty pictures but nothing that offered any new perspectives for me. Definitely worth viewing but only as a complement to other more challenging contemporaneous artistic output.



Sussex Modernism at Two Temple Place review ***


Sussex Modernism: Retreat and Rebellion

Two Temple Place, 15th February 2017

Just a quick shout out for this interesting, compact exhibition. For those who don’t know Two Temple Place it is a neo-Gothic, late Victorian mansion on the Embankment built for an Astor and full to the brim of OTT panelling, carving and painting. It puts on occasional exhibitions at the beginning of each year and this year it is a diverting journey through key British figurative artists of the first half of the C20.

Many of the artists represented here spent sizeable chunks of their working lives at various locations in Sussex hence the theme and many were associated with the Bloomsbury Group and latterly whimsical British surrealism. Sussex no doubt because the houses are nice and the rich toffs have always liked it and it was close to the capital. But also to be fair because the landscapes did offer material to feed the muse. But don’t expect any proletarian radicalism here.

What you do get though are 120 or so works by many of the key figures in British art through the 1920s to 1950s.My favourites are the sculptures from Eric Gill (we can still appreciate the art I think), some lovely Vanessa Bell works (including a perfect still-life and fine fabrics), an Eric Ravilious interior, landscapes and studies by John Piper, Edward Wadsworth and Paul Nash, watercolours by Edward Burra and some haunting photos by Lee Miller.

All in all worth a detour or a lunchtime trip if you work close by. And it’s free. On until 23rd April.

P.S. I note that a fair proportion of the works on show here come from the Towner Gallery in Eastbourne which is one of my absolute favourites. It always has interesting exhibitions informed by its permanent collection. Like the Turner Contemporary in Margate a great excuse when the sun comes out to get on the train, scoff some chips and ice cream, take a look at some of the shops set up by the East London bearded dispora and generally promenade. Lovely.