Written by Thomas Macdonald
Edited by Émilie Perring
Active between 1906 and 1961, Vanessa Bell was a prolific painter, interior designer, and one of the most consequential members of the Bloomsbury Group of artists, which included her sister Virginia Woolf, her husband Clive Bell, Duncan Grant, Roger Fry, and Dora Carrington. Despite her influence, critical attention to her work has long been inadequate and negatively gendered. In 1922, an art critic responding positively to Bell’s work posited that “when a woman has the misfortune to have art in her, it tends to be her whole existence.” He continues: “[Bell] has given has given to her modern woman carousing…a flower-like charm, with an afterthought of the barnacle.”[i] Such clunky, gendered, and disparaging critiques of Bell are common throughout the twentieth century. Critics and scholars have conflated her femininity with superficiality to justify their lack of critical attention to her work. In discussions of the Bloomsbury Group as a whole, scholars reduce Bell to the role of neurotic “maternal” figurehead and “moral center,” informing and nurturing the work of her male colleagues, but herself boring, “maddeningly simple,” and lacking “imaginative conception.”[ii] The relegation to figurative Bloomsbury mother is a discursive fabrication. Bell certainly never styled herself as such, only thrice commenting on the dynamics of the Group, and never on her position among them. [iii] The scholarly tendency to examine Bell’s compositions according to her biography, relations and affairs with her colleagues trivializes her art and assigns credit for her work to her male counterparts.[iv] This paper aims to correct the deficiency of critical study on her work by taking it for itself. I argue that through formal and color arrangement and consistent subject material, Bell defines a space in her paintings that is subversive, feminine, and erotic. I trace this project in a selection of her abstract paintings, still-lives, landscapes, and decorative furniture. Finally, I will examine her portraits of women, by way of her Self-Portrait (1915), for implications of this latent erotic femininity. Hardly the foil by which her male colleagues measured and defined their art, Bell actively rebukes male conceptions of femininity.
In her abstract paintings, Bell betrays a concern for formal arrangement, expression, and interaction that informs her compositions in depictions of other spaces. Her Abstract Painting of 1914 (Fig. 1) in particular plays with the dynamics of color and organized space. Its colorful rectangular figures announce the deliberateness of their positions. They are in dancerly conversation with each other. The petite red figure stands coyly just off the center of the composition. The large pink square retreats, with shades of blue, to the top right. Congruous with, and in proximity to, the edge of the compositional frame, it seems suspended in a heightened state of erotic longing for the complement that the frame offers, especially in contrast to the touching forms at the opposite corner of the canvas. The shapes’ distinct right angles proclaim both the self-containment of their distinct and expressive colors, as well as their congruity with each other and the compositional frame. They seem poised for movement in the charged, yellow field, daring for rearrangement and comparison with each other. The pungent yellow background, or rather, between-ground, is not simply negative space, but shapely in itself; painted in rectangular patterns of brushwork, it reverberates with the shapes and vibrations of its inhabitants. The arrangement of form and color in the Abstract Painting, as Richard Morphet writes, “insists on its character as a pictorial structure” and demonstrates the artist’s interest in charged pictorial spaces.[v]
Bell develops this use of space in Nude with Poppies of 1916 (Fig. 2). The work is semi-abstract but almost identical in color pallet to the 1914 Abstract Painting. The relations of those abstract seem to imbue Nude with Poppies. Organized around the female body, the composition of the painting is decidedly feminine: her body determines both its height and width. She actively composes the pictorial field. Her exaggerated neck, torso, and legs point not to her constraint, but to her slinky ease at filling and stretching the pictorial space. The tenuous brown and black frame at the top and bottom edge of the composition both refers to the pictorial plane as a site of an artistic spatial composition and calls attention to her act of expanding it. The visible brushstrokes and canvas similarly point to this act of creation organized by the female figure and artist. The female figure also generates pictorial depth. Her repose is the only suggestion that she exists upon a surface and within a three-dimensional space. Her body functions as a line of horizon that structurally and visually separates the surface of her ground with the atmosphere or vertical plane behind her. The dimensionality of the pictorial space derives from the female nude. Emanating from her in rippling brushstrokes, the atmosphere behind her also takes form according to her body. The titular poppies finally prove her body’s consequences for the composition. They simultaneously mimic and respond to her figure, turning and expanding with natural ease, just as she expands the pictorial space. The flowers point to her head, breasts, stomach, and groin to accentuate her body, its curves, and her femininity. She defines the space she inhabits. Bell’s abstracts offer a schematic for her conception of erotic and feminine compositions.
Her Painted Omega Screen (Tents and Figures) of 1913 (Fig. 3) furthers the excavation of erotic feminine space by countering a vision of femininity offered by Cézanne in his Grandes Baigneuses of 1906 (Fig. 4). Cézanne’s influence on Bell’s style is well documented, but her depictions of mythic, leisurely women specifically recall Cézanne’s Bathers series.[vi] The grand, triangular forms of the Painted Omega Screen and the abstract women that sit among them, in particular, evoke Les Grandes Baigneuses. But while Cézanne’s baigneuses mimic in form the natural scene behind and among them, Bell has displaced the female nudes into a landscape of basic form and color: white, pale blue, burgundy, gold, and verdigris triangles and curves. The landscape seems less to instruct the position of the figures, as in Cézanne, than it does echo and complement their forms. The muted green triangular shape on the bottom right of the composition rises to meet the legs of the figure sitting before it, the large tent twists simperingly with the head of the figure sitting below it at center. In their resemblance to the female figures and their movements, the basic forms that compose the pictorial space become feminine in themselves. Yet Bell denies the visual satisfaction that Cézanne locates in the unity of female body and landscape. Her women are grotesque and rigid. They do not perform for the voyeur as Cézanne’s figures do. The triangular form of trees and women at the center of his composition becomes the humble tent in Bell’s screen. Tamar Garb notes in Cézanne’s vulvic triangular frame the construction of femininity as “a lack, a gap, a whole, a wound…and absence.”[vii] Bell’s tent reconfigures that femininity and female anatomy as a habitable site of shelter. The tent constructs a space in the composition that is definitively feminine and erotic. The screen itself, as an instrument that functions to divide physical space, underlines the creation of feminized and erotic space in the pictorial field.
In The Tub of 1917 (Fig. 5), Bell furthers the association between space, viewing, and the female body. The composition is stark in its minimalism. But, as Lisa Tickner writes of Studland Beach (1912), that artist’s tangible “impulse to strengthen the sense of structure and design by tightening [her] forms exerts an influence in shaping meaning.”[viii] In The Tub, the expansive floor and simple walls that frame the scene on three sides call attention to its voluminous space. The nude female figure stands timidly in a self-contained posture on the right. Yet the room formally reflects her body and psychology. The two walls on the top right and left mirror her long, sturdy legs; the line between floor and posterior wall intersect and visually bisect her at the hip. This fragmentation estranges her from the lower half of her body and demonstrates her diffidence. The flowers in the mural on the back wall droop from their tenuous stems that sprout from their bulbous vase. Against a blank blue expanse, they endow the scene with a precariousness and “gravity” that pervades the voluminous space of the scene.[ix] The titular tub and the space it occupies within the parameters of its walls emphasize the grave atmosphere of the depicted scene. Tilted and almost level with the pictorial plane, it calls attention to the act of viewing this space. “Itself a distillation of silence and reflection,” it symbolically offers the psychological state of the female figure and the potential for its “fullness and stability.”[x] The space it holds is synonymous with her body, position, and introspection. Straddling the center of the composition, the tub and the figure do not merely stand as passive reflections of each other. Rather, they engage in conversation. Their juxtaposition in the composition looks forward to their interaction. The female figure’s relation to the tub and space around her is anticipatory. The formal arrangement of the scene and the visual space it creates are latent with the femininity and psychology of the female figure. The artist constructs a visual architecture that houses and reflects femininity.
Bell’s landscapes, by contrast, display masculine architectonics that obstruct and restrict. The Haystacks in Italy of 1912 is the most phallic of her landscapes. In contrast to the space of The Tub, compositional constriction here is suffocating. Phallic stacks and towers crowd the pictorial space and make visual penetration into the scene impossible. The narrow section of sky between towers suggests the depth that the phallic forms deny. Built structures conceal the horizon line, thus refusing a logical, visual organization of space. The Haystack, Asheham (1912) (Fig. 6) features a similarly phallic structure. At the center of the composition, it is the object of undivided attention and renders the space around it visually unnavigable. The enclosure on the left of the haystack prevents visual passage. The path in the center foreground, which echoes the fence on the left in color, structures a visual entrapment. Turning around the haystack and off the composition, the path fails to bypass it. Outlined in black and obstructing the house in the background, the stack seems to impose itself on the landscape. The potency of other vertical forms, the chimneys and trees in the background, the spokes along the path in the foreground, heighten the haystack’s menace. The irony of that position points to the insecurity of the masculinity that Bell imbues in her landscape. Masculine constructions of space, according to her, obstruct vision and deny knowledge.
But Bell’s still lives feature her most erotic compositions. Her Oranges and Lemons (1914) exudes colorful desire. The massive vase, coyly just off the center of the composition, explodes in a playful mess of fruit and leaves. The open bottle in the background mimics both this vertical shoot of energy and the act of consumption that the hanging fruit also anticipate. Their droopy, bulbous forms complement the erect vase outlined in black. The still life exercises the pictorial space in its contrasting forms. The Still Life on Corner of Mantelpiece (1914) (Fig. 7) further reduces its components to their formal attributes. The mantelpieces, stacks of boxes, and flowers are but additive geometric forms that thrust out and upwards in a display of formal eroticism. The oblique view of the mantel from a lowered position below heightens this eroticism. The background fades away into illegible forms as the boxes rise to nearly meet the flower above them. The structure is suggestive, especially if the flower has the same implications of femininity and the female body as in Nude with Poppies and The Tub. The near contact of flower and boxes suspends the composition in a state of erotic anticipation. The yellow flowers that trail the pink flower in the composition reverberate this anticipation by echoing the upward thrust of the boxes. In her still lives, Bell proves the capacity of form and composition to contain latent desire. But scholars are reluctant to attribute this eroticism to Bell. Mary Ann Caws’ circumlocutory description of the composition as “odd” and “peculiar” but “exciting,” for example, demonstrates the problem with scholarship on Bell’s work.[xi] By avoiding the sexuality inherent in her compositions, scholars inadvertently compound the myth of Bell’s artistic reserve and ignore her efforts to construct a feminine visual poetics.
In the artist’s interior scenes, she equates femininity with the act of viewing. The viewing experiences she constructs are transgressive and suggestive. The formal arrangements of these scenes directly recall the feminine and erotic spaces of The Tub, the Painted Omega Screen, Nude with Poppies, and even the Abstract Painting. In Apples, 46 Gordon Square (1910) (Fig. 8), the central focus is not the titular fruit, but the space and narrow view outside. The walls on either side of the composition echo similar framing devices in The Tub and Nude with Poppies, where Bell employs structural devices to define a distinctly feminine space. She uses architecture to call attention to space and visual transgression through it. The double line of fences in Apples heightens that transgression: the tantalizing glimpse through the open balcony door passes through two barriers before reaching the street below. But the apples in the foreground seem a metaphor for visual appetite and consumption. They dare that transgression. The oblique view of the balcony further intensifies it. The triangular shape of the balcony corner recalls the feminine shape of the tent in the Painted Omega Screen. If, as in the Painted Screen, the vulvic space is not a space of lack, but of habitation and viewing (indeed, the balcony is a structure that functions specifically as a viewing platform), then the transgressive act of visual penetration in Apples also becomes erotic. The framing walls in the composition of the scene and the space between them become suggestive of the female anatomy. The space and view that the artist constructs in Apples is necessarily feminine and erotic.
Bell continues the conflation of interior scenes and femininity in Interior with a Table, St. Tropez (1921) and The Open Door (1926) (Fig. 9), where metaphor and metonymy charge the space with the suggestion of the female body. Both scenes also structure the visual transgression of a threshold into an exterior space. This transgression through a boundary calls attention to the act of viewing itself. While this visual penetration is erotic, it also equates femininity with active viewing from within the confines of an enclosed architectural space out into the world. Interior space here stands in for the female body and mind. Both compositions also make use of structural framing, curtains in Interior, and walls in The Open Door, and slightly oblique views to heighten their feminine eroticism. Flowers in both paintings, as in Nude with Poppies and The Tub, cue the female body. But most stark in each painting is that which is withheld. Chairs, like the tub of The Tub, refer metonymically to the bodies that would occupy them; the empty seats charge the space they hold and the area around them with the implication of the female body. In Interior, the partial view of a chair in the bottom left teasingly implies but withholds the body. This restraint not only associates the pictorial space with the body of the woman, but also demonstrates her mastery of it. Discussing Bell’s Studland Beach, Caws identifies in her work “celebrations of a certain mystery, of uninterpretable and inexpressible acts and presentations, set at a distance from the observer which stresses all the more the gap between understanding and seeing.”[xii] This is also true of Bell’s interior scenes, where references to bodies in and around the pictorial space simultaneously deny view and knowledge of the implied female subject in an erotic act of suppression, and empower her.
Bell’s conception of erotic and feminine space informs her portraits of women. Her Self-Portrait of 1915 (Fig. 10) is typical of her depictions of women given the sheer size of the subject and her averted gaze.[xiii] She makes the pictorial space her own, occupying both its length and its width. She also claims pictorial depth: her slight turn of the head brings into focus the sculptural features of her face and create visual depth that derives from her body. In her occupation of the pictorial space, Bell inhabits the erotic and feminine space that she defines in her other works. The flatness of the composition completes this domination. The formal arrangement of colors in the background is a construction that is entirely her own. Her gaze outward takes daring control of the feminine viewing experience that she constructs in other paintings. Writing on Bell’s photography, Maggie Humm notes “an implied exchange of looks, preventing the closure of the photograph on itself.”[xiv] The description is apt also for this self-portrait, where Bell’s gaze draws the composition into an exchange between subject and beholder. But with the aversion of her eyes, she denies a visual grasp of her figure and thought. Thus, both a presentation and a refusal, her self-portrait exploits and complicates her conception of pictorial space.
As the self-portrait indicates, Bell’s scenes are necessarily relational. Latent with the potential for habitation, her spaces are dually accessible and retrained. They refer to both the female body that would inhabit them, and, as the self-portrait shows, the voyeur that they spurn. In this complexity, we may also imagine Bell responding to the role that critics and scholars have assigned her within the Bloomsbury Group. By staging femininity, she creates an artistic expression that is distinct from the production of her male colleagues by which scholars indefatigably measure her work. By imagining female sexuality as a structured and exclusive pictorial space, she reclaims it from the men whose own sexualities have come to dominate popular histories of her life. Hardly the sexless “moral” mother of the Bloomsbury Group, Vanessa Bell excavates a feminine and erotic artistic rhetoric that actively defies association.
[i] Walter Sickert, “Vanessa Bell,” The Burlington Magazine for Connoisseurs 41, 232 (1922): 33-34.
[ii] S.P. Rosenbaum writes: “as the eldest child of Leslie and Julia Stephen and as the first to have children, she was certainly the most maternal figure at the center of Bloomsbury. The fact that she painted rather than wrote may have added to the slightly mysterious aura that apparently surrounded her.” The Bloomsbury Group: A Collection of Memoirs and Commentary (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1995), 102. Considering “the nurturing love of family manifested in her work,” Richard Morphet writes, “it is easy to see how she represents, in a sense, a moral center in Bloomsbury Art.” “Image and Theme in Bloomsbury Art” in The Art of Bloomsbury: Roger Fry, Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant, ed. Richard Shone (Princeton: Princeton UP, 1999), 36. Richard Shone. Bloomsbury Portraits: Vanessa Bell, Duncan Grant, and Their Circle (Oxford: Phaidon Press, 1976), 15-17. Bell certainly performs the role of restrictive mother in the eyes of Morphet, who writes of Bloomsbury artist Duncan Grant’ late work: “This surprising phase is explained not only, perhaps, by the loss of constraint so often associated with extreme age but also by the greater ease of travel and the renewed contact with the avant-garde that were made possible for Grant by Vanessa Bell’s death.” “Image and Theme in Bloomsbury Art,” 35.
[iii] Rosenbaum, The Bloomsbury Group, 102, 113.
[iv] See, for example, work on the Bloomsbury Group by Bell’s own son: Quentin Bell, Bloomsbury Recalled (New York: Columbia UP, 1995).
[v] Morphet, “Image and Theme,” 23.
[vi] Mary Ann Caws, Women of Bloomsbury: Virginia, Vanessa, and Carrington (New York: Routledge, 1990), 108. See also, for example, Bell’s Design for a Screen (Figures by a Lake) (1912) and Summer Camp (1913).
[vii] Tamar Garb, “Visuality and sexuality in Cézanne’s late Bathers,” Oxford Art Journal 19, 2 (1996): 56.
[viii] Lisa Tickner, Modern Life and Modern Subjects (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2000), 121-122.
[ix] Morphet, “Image and Theme,” 36.
[x] Richard Shone, “Modern English Paintings in London,” The Burlington Magazine 117, 873 (1975): 823. Frances Spalding, Vanessa Bell (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1983), 171. Quoted in Gillian Elinor, “Vanessa Bell and Dora Carrington: Bloomsbury Painters,” Woman’s Art Journal 5,1 (1984): 32.
[xi] Caws, Women of Bloomsbury, 112.
[xii] Caws, Women of Bloomsbury, 110.
[xiii] See also, for example, Bell’s portraits of Iris Tree (1915), Mrs. St. John Hutchinson (1915), and Dr. Marie Moralt (1919).
[xiv] Maggie Humm, Modernist Women and Visual Cultures (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2003), 113.