Vanessa Bell exhibition at Dulwich Picture Gallery review ***

B1982.16.2

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.