The Tate Gallery is taking us into the year 2000 with “The art of Bloomsbury: Roger Fry, Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant”. An intriguing choice, considering how extensively all these artists’ lives and work have been documented, above all in exemplary publications by Richard Shone and Frances Spalding.
In fact, it is Richard Shone who has selected this exhibition and his elegant catalogue essay offers a delicate adjustment to our vision of Bloomsbury art. Indeed he challenges the very usefulness of the label “Bloomsbury” and he sets out to demonstrate the very different beliefs and outlooks of the three main figures in the exhibition. The catalogue, nonetheless, offers us a mainstream art-historical appraisal, one which sets up a hierarchy of the arts in which fine arts dominate.
But it is surely time for an analysis which pays less attention to the fine art of Bloomsbury. This is why the Courtauld Institute’s parallel show, “Art made modern: Roger Fry’s vision of art”, should be interesting. Fry’s creation of the Omega workshops, the range of his writing, taking in subjects as diverse as medieval ceramics, letter-cutting by Eric Gill and African sculpture, had a profound impact on informed taste before World War I. Fry’s introduction of advanced French art to the British public through his Post-Impressionist exhibitions of 1910 and 1912 was important in itself, but it also can now be seen as a response to the Edwardian plutocracy whose taste Fry was to discuss, angrily, in his pamphlet Art and Commerce of 1926.
The subtlety of Fry’s thought was, I think, lost on those around him, with the exception of Virginia Woolf. The critic Clive Bell vulgarised his ideas and Vanessa Bell (Clive Bell’s wife and Virginia Woolf’s sister) and Duncan Grant, both painters, were not visionary enough to reify them. Fry’s influence was nonetheless beneficial in that their best work was produced just after they met him in 1910, inspired by the French art he showed them. Their interesting early work is fully represented at the Tate, together with Fry’s own more cautious painterly experiments.
Interestingly, Vanessa Bell may well emerge as the most powerful painter of the three; certainly, in those early years she comes closer to embodying the formal values which Fry saw as central to art. Indeed, it has been suggested that her intense relationship with Grant and their mutual retreat to Charleston in Sussex gradually cut her off from other art and artists. The fluidity of gender in Bloomsbury did not, perhaps, fully extend to all its women. Lytton Strachey saw Bell as “the most complete human being of us all”, but the price of this completeness, as mother, all forgiving lover, homemaker and consoling friend, was fruitful diversity rather than avant-gardism.
From about 1925 Bell and Grant are of interest, not because their art was progressive, but because of their eclecticism in both style and media. In particular, their creation of interiors, most now lost, can be read as a creative anti-modernism, a rejection of mainstream modernism’s masculinities, rigid social programmes and fervent anti-domesticity. A strong section at the Tate entitled “Vision and design” looks at the marvellous early design work by Bell and Grant linked to the Omega workshops. But from the 1920s onwards the exhibition appears to play rather safe and to select, as far as possible, “good” oil painting, avoiding some of the spectacularly strange failures of Bell’s and Grant’s later years. There is even an odd apologetic note in all three catalogue essays about the wayward nature of this later art.
The relevance of this Bloomsbury farewell to the millennium by the Tate remains to be seen. It will be important to cultivate an intelligent relativism about the artistic achievement, and the show is unlikely to have much impact on young students of painting. Despite the strength of all the design work linked to Omega, its direct relevance to the world of design today is also questionable. But all the early work in this exhibition will be of interest and the portraits should emerge as a moving series of truthful documents.
o “The art of Bloomsbury”, Tate Gallery, Millbank, London SW1P 4RG Tel: +44 (0)171 887 8000 (4 November-30 January 2000)