Vanessa Bell by Richard Dodwell
Illustration by Elena Durey.
Richard Dodwell (b.1988) is an artist and editor of Pilot Press, a small publisher of contemporary queer art and writing. His first publication, Not here, a queer anthology of loneliness, was launched in the UK and USA in 2017. He lives and works in London.
I suppose I first encountered Vanessa on one of those grey, windy afternoons when one is skint and finds themselves walking around a large national art gallery, emblazoned with corporate advertising, feeling a certain restlessness towards others and a desire to be alone. The 1910 room at the Tate Britain has a peculiar smell to it - emotional, delicate, laced with oil paint. Perhaps it’s the floorboards or the way in which paintings emit a certain aura of tiny particles as they slowly disintegrate through time, in a thousand years to become one with the air, slowly leaking through the atmosphere, into space. I’d found myself there with an artist friend. We made a habit of wandering the grand halls of the Tate together as respite from our ailing mental health; sails against the winds of austerity, war, the remobilisation of the far-right and talk of mass casualties from aerial bombings in Syria.
In the far corner of the room, beside a work by her life-long domestic and spiritual partner, Duncan Grant, would hang Vanessa’s Studland Beach, made roughly in the year 1912 in the relatively quiet Edwardian period before the First World War, the one ‘to end all wars’. Striking in its perspective and form, now slightly faded by the light (Instagram doesn’t do it justice) - an appendage to the title ‘verso: three male nudes by Duncan Grant’, immediately alludes to something hidden; suggested; the naked male body (three of them) confined to the back of the canvas held by a lush and yet somehow modest gold leaf frame.
I think what caught my glimpse was the blue oil into which a central figure, who most critics believe is Vanessa, faces towards a blue expanse, brush strokes rushing upward, obscured by an Edwardian changing tent. She is wearing what appears to be her undergarments, possibly lace, or silk, in the intermediary stage between dressing and undressing. She appears standing, motionless, arms dropped to her sides, as if caught in the viewer’s gaze. Around her are several children and a small dog. In the foreground, in the far left bottom corner of the painting, are two figures, a woman and a child whom historians to believe to be Vanessa’s sister, the writer Virginia Woolf, and her son Julian, a poet who would be killed at the height of the Spanish Civil War, while driving an ambulance.
They look on, as if in mid-conversation, while the children encircle the standing central figure, perhaps playing with pebbles or drawing in the sand, it is unclear. There are no faces to gauge affect from, no gazes to connect who is observing, who is oblivious, just a direction which they face. It is the unknowability of the painting that is so emotionally impactful on first view. Who is the woman? Is it Vanessa? Are they her children? Are the blue brush strokes the sea or the sky? What is the verso on the back of the canvas? Why mention it? It was these questions which drew me and my friend again and again on a pilgrimage through London to bask in its seeming transience; its remarkable queerness and oddity in a room mostly dedicated to high modernist works in the years before all hell broke loose.
On one occasion I was irked out of my meditation by a tour group: the daily 2pm tour by local volunteers from the wealthy surrounds of Pimlico and Mayfair, whose leader spoke authoritatively in a posh voice of form and intention; of who the people in the painting were; pinning them down for art history; viewing the scene through the tragic events of 1937, and then again in 1942, when her sister, facing into the abyss, and rattled by German aeroplanes that roared over her Sussex house, left her walking stick on the shore of the Ouse and vanished into her own infinite blue...
There is a fetishisation in implying that women artists are driven emotionally. We like to pander to a kind of heteronormative language around queer artists in “mainstream” shows curated for the mass public: which often includes a feminising around love, spousal doting, familial scenes and a woman’s sensibility in the creative act. The recent Vanessa Bell retrospective at the Dulwich Picture Gallery, in which Studland Beach now hangs in a confused, overcrowded room, reveals just that. The way in which we speak about women artists, even queer ones, as Vanessa and her Bloomsbury friends were, if not by sexual preference then in their acceptance of multiple forms of sexuality and ways of being, appears to be strongly influenced by a subconscious desire to have women take on the role of mother, of swooning damsel, of somebody to be affected and moulded in the shape of Adam, afforded less agency in their decisions and talent as men, as the text for the exhibition highlights in its continue deference to Vanessa’s mentors and inspirations. There was one such reference to Duncan Grant’s influence on her work, which irritated me in portraying him as the shining light in which Vanessa basked in. Much of the other text is flowery, white middle-class, deferent, speaking of her more formal landscapes and still life works through the lens of those she “learned so much from”, notably her painting tutor at the Royal Academy, the notable John Singer Sargent.
Today men still seem to be afforded a different attitude to their practice and histories. There is a reason it has taken over 50 years for there to be a major exhibition on Vanessa’s work, let’s not beat around the bush, and it still resounds, sadly, in the recent Dulwich retrospective.
Anyway. A few years have passed since I first discovered Vanessa, and since then I have danced a similar knife-edge between being and not-being, that Studland Beach quietly suggests. I now have a boyfriend, I’m on good medication, I’m happier — yet I still notice her absence from the Tate’s galleries. Even though I have less reason or pangs of ice-cold loneliness to propel me there every week, I still enjoy the memory that in the far corner of the 1910 room her portrayal of the abyss; of love and life laid bare, poised for what great tsunamis lie over the horizon, hung in its own kind of solitary, magnificent slow decay.
Vanessa died in 1961 having lived a long and happy life by the sea with Duncan Grant, accepting his affairs and continuing to paint amid the rolling hills of Sussex, perhaps never clearer on what took Julian and Virginia from her. As Studland Beach suggests, there is only ever the moment, the here and now, when you are aware of your own fragility; of yourself standing, alive, gazing between the state of being and non-being, a sudden heightened awareness of all grief to come, and a divine, bitter-sweet understanding of all that is lost and fading.
Illustrator Elena Durey is an queer Irish illustrator, currently studying BA (Hons) Illustration in sunny Falmouth and would like to meet your dog.