For too long, the painter Vanessa Bell has played second fiddle: to Woolf, and then to the men around her - the critic Roger Fry, her husband Clive Bell and her some-time lover, lifelong companion, the artist Duncan Grant. We think of her circle of friends, her baroque personal life, her quaint textile designs, before we do her paintings.
Thanks to a new Dulwich Picture Gallery show, though, it is her art and not her life that demands attention.
Bell was a prolific, genre-hopping artist, as the scale and depth of this long overdue retrospective suggests. We have portraiture, still life and landscape, as well as furniture, mosaic and textile and textile designs.
We find Bell's early work on canvas ablaze with the avant-garde abstraction she gleaned from as the imagined freedoms of modernity, as well as recently imported post-Impressionists. Her modernist masterpiece and perhaps best known work Studland Beach (above) is here: balanced planes of colour, radically simplified figures and tilting perspective create a strongly rhythmic whole.
Despite this abstraction though, the narrative is all there: women and children, huddled by a beach-hut, looking at the sea. A truly remarkable work. Equally radical are early portraits of writer Lytton Strachey and several of Virginia Woolf: bold use of colour and wild structural arrangements sing of Bell's power of invention.
Photograph: Richard Caspole/The estate of Vanessa Bell, courtesy of Henrietta Garnett
These early experiments are surrounded by a great many paintings in the style we've come to associate with Bell: domestic scenes, still-lives, portraits of friends, defined by a decorative harmony, and sensual use of colour. Naysayers will claim that these gentle works betray her lack of artistic talent. But walking around these rooms, you are struck by their beauty, and by their tenderness.
It isn't a perfect exhibition. A curatorial attitude of inclusion has meant that some of the works aren't as good as others. And the bolt-on photographic exhibition of Patti Smith's photographs of Charleston Farmhouse feels like an unnecessary move to sex up the whole affair.
Nevertheless, this is a wonderful show, of a woman who truly lived in art. Perhaps we can't separate her life and work after all.
|What||Vanessa Bell review, Dulwich Picture Gallery|
|Where||Dulwich Picture Gallery, Gallery Road, London, SE21 7AD | MAP|
08 Feb 17 – 04 Jun 17, Tuesday - Sunday, 10am - 5pm (Last Entry 4:30pm) Monday: closed (except Bank Holiday Mondays)
|Price||£14 Adult (Concessions Available)|
|Website||Click here for more information|