On her own terms

I sit and write this evening after an wonderfully exhilarating visit to the Vanessa Bell retrospective at Dulwich Picture Gallery.  There were over 100 oil paintings, book cover designs, fabric and rug designs, as well as photographs ranging from the early 1900s until just before her death in 1961.  The exhibition was split into themes, such as still life, portraits, and showed just how wide ranging and hugely interesting her work is.

Vanessa Bell is often subsumed as an artist into the whole Bloomsbury group, where she can feel like a shadowy figure behind Duncan Grant, rather than an equally interesting and important artist of that time.  She didn't stand still, she was influenced by the Post Impressionists and by Matisse in her early years, but she developed her own styles over time, painting subjects she was interested in, decorating her homes as she wanted, and designing fabrics that still look modern a hundred years after she designed them.

At her best she was bold and experimental, channelling her interests and passions into her art, dabbling in abstraction and new styles.  Some of her most interesting works are her portraits of her friends and family.  There is a real tenderness in many of these works, especially those of her children.  Her self portraits are rather different, almost severe and uncompromising, her gaze critical and serious.

As I walked around the exhibition, I did wonder whether some of the more dismissive of her critics would have the same opinion if she was male.  Her work is often ignored as it seems to concentrate on home and family, or stories about her private life threaten to overwhelm her achievements.

I have a real love of her still lifes, which are exquisite and warm and make me want to pick up my own paint brushes more often and to grow a wide range of flowers just in order to paint them.  In the same way, when I've been to Charleston, her home for many years, I just want to learn to make rugs, to design fabrics, to continue to make my home a place of creativity.  Perhaps that is quite a wonderful thing, for an artist to inspire people to make their own art and to take up new crafts and to be encouraged to live their life as they see fit.