My grandmother was the painter Vanessa Bell. She died aged 81 when I was eight. I loved my grandmother, but 39 years later I have few memories of her. If, that is, a ‘memory’ is some kind of private mental property. The picture I have of her may be faintly tinted by first-hand experience, but its contours come from public documentation. Through biographies, critical writings and the tourist phenomenon of her home at Charleston, Vanessa has become a cultural commodity, and it’s this commodity I chiefly address if I think of her. Perhaps this is more or less the pattern of memory for anyone growing up in a home with a well-thumbed photo album. Looking over the snapshots of your childhood, it becomes virtually impossible to distinguish the savour of your primary experience from all the parental talkovers that have developed and transmuted the family story. With Vanessa, with Charleston, I’m not sure how to peel away the private colouring from the public lines, and to date I’ve felt no great urge to try.
Maybe one private half-image comes to mind. A polka-dot sleeve and billows of a polka-dot dress, and the rest of her obscured. She is in an armchair facing mine, and an easel and canvas come between us; I am being paid to sit for her. I’m puzzled: why, when I look up, is she always face to the canvas, never seeming to look at me? Well, I go on being puzzled, in a sense; I have never quite understood how it felt to be holding that brush on the far side of that canvas, even though I’ve followed her into the family trade of painting. Familiar as I am with her markings, fond as I am of them, I have never felt my way into them.
So perhaps there was an element of personal curiosity as I approached a show of Vanessa’s paintings at the Tate last winter, presented along with those of Duncan Grant and Roger Fry as The Art of Bloomsbury. On another level, I approached a show of that name as one does a walk down a rainswept trunk road: however close you pull your coat, you know you’re going to get soaked. In England, ever since Wyndham Lewis fell out with Roger Fry in 1914, ‘Bloomsbury’ has been a word that raises more hackles than hopes. To suppose that 85 years later the derisive clichés it provokes might make way for a rethink is to underestimate the tenacity of cultural stereotypes and the stale-mindedness of press writers like Philip Hensher (who twice rehashed Leavis’s line that the ‘set’ were not artists but self-publicists) and Waldemar Januszczak (‘Bloomsbury. Just tapping out these ten tedious letters has brought on a severe attack of RSI’).
Yet in truth – to throw off my coat entirely – I find myself readily empathising with that last remark, more readily, possibly, than I empathise with the work of painters I knew and loved. Whatever I may owe to my ancestors, ‘Bloomsbury’ is a memory, or commodity, on which I mostly turn my back. What is it that makes this discomfiture inescapable?
Evidently, Bloomsbury makes a strong salespoint because it’s a story with a strong mixture of ingredients: sex, friendships, betrayals, glam connections, nice locations, eccentric personalities, the odd suicide, a touch of politics, more sex ... Functioning as a haut-bourgeois soap, it affords a nice cue for moralising – ‘he shouldn’t have done that’; ‘she should have done this’ – and, for an English audience especially, it offers the nagging fascinations of class: we half-relish their snobbery and élitism, half-revel in the righteous disdain these provoke.
All this is a matter of broad cultural psychology, and complaining about it is like carping at the current placings in the pop charts – harmless, but pretty futile. The thing to acknowledge is that these are the leading factors drawing an audience to look at ‘the art of Bloomsbury’, whether in the Tate or at the customary shrine of Charleston. For – pace the drift of the Bloomsbury critics, Roger Fry and Clive Bell, with their demotion of illustration in favour of ‘significant form’ – people have always liked their pictures to bear on a good story. Why not? But then there’s a subsidiary headset guide to the pictures, the art-historical one; and it’s hard to listen to that and keep a cool head, because you find yourself listening to opposing voices, one in each ear.
Both start by telling you that Fry and Bell, ferrying Cézanne, Matisse and Picasso to London with their Post-Impressionist Exhibitions of 1910 and 1912, made a beachhead for ‘Modernism’ in England. It then follows – one voice says – that their painter colleagues, Bell and Grant, were the vanguard fighting to expand this Modernist territory. The example they established of an avant-garde practice and the new artistic vocabulary they opened up proved a lasting inspiration for the authentically progressive – whoever you consider those to be, from Henry Moore to Gilbert and George – in an English art world that remained through the 20th century recalcitrantly retardataire, forever harking back to Victorian escapism and prettiness. On the contrary, goes the other voice, genuine innovation in England was stymied from the outset by these painters’ ‘lack of rigour’ and their subservience to French art; stifled, moreover, by the oppressive influence of their critic friends. ‘They poisoned the good name of Modernism for the entire century’ (Januszczak again). At this point the argument usually falls back on social and political slanging matches. The victims of this oppression were ‘individualists’; the Bloomsberries were ‘establishment’. The Bloomsberries were politically kosher, nice social democrats; their opponents (Wyndham Lewis, at any rate) were fascistic.
Running through this is a tension about the whole notion, not only of Modernism, but of art in England. How sure are we that art is an English kind of thing? And if it isn’t, is it a superfluous foreign import? Or is it what this ‘philistine’ country desperately lacks? And these artists: are we being taken for a ride by them, with their fancy Continental manners and clever self-promoting talk? Should we be indulging them, or even letting ourselves learn from them? Perhaps, on the other hand, there’s an art that really is English, authentically rooted in our culture, and we shouldn’t be attempting to ape the French. Or the Italians, or the Dutch. Or maybe we could learn a bit from the Italians; or maybe from the Germans. At all events, let’s avoid being second-hand Frenchmen.
These irresoluble national anxieties, which one could trace back through the German-inspired, anti-Latin Pre-Raphaelites and through Blake’s blasts at Rubens and Titian all the way to Hogarth’s onslaught on imported art in general, resurface querulously in the critical rhetoric of turn-of-millennium Euro-England. John McEwen’s phrase about the ‘fickle pursuit of French fashion’ catches one end of the tone. Adrian Searle’s dismay at Bloomsbury’s ‘domesticated’ and ‘palatable’ dilutions of European Modernism catches the other, hinting at the particular nightmare that haunts half the English art world, which finds the Bloomsbury example embarrassing because it suggests that whatever stand you make in this arcane matter of art will just turn out to be a way of giving yourself airs and making yourself comfortable. It underlines that nasty suspicion that you are complicit in self-indulgence. These painters have made the mistake of taking Matisse’s programme for an art that is ‘like a good armchair’ literally; they have turned something difficult and wild into mere pleasure.
‘Relax!’ it’s tempting to reply. Pleasure isn’t to be despised. Give up this tight-arsed chimera of ‘rigour’ and ease yourself into the flow of Grant’s sinuous, lyrical modelling, bask in his tropical palette. If only you could be less frantically ill at ease, you might be able to receive the loaded dab of Bell’s brush as something luscious and liberating. Yes, of course her Mrs St John Hutchinson is like Matisse. So what? If a painting by Matisse can be a good thing, a painting like a painting by Matisse can be a good thing too. Besides, the canvas quivers with its own distinctive pink and lime radiance, its own sarcastic-cum-sensual facture. In fact, if you were to take time over it, you might find that the work of these painters has, if not rigour, its own sort of integrity. Richard Morphet’s catalogue essay speaks with a fine generosity about the slow, steady, affirmative qualities of their later painting.
This sort of pleading won’t settle the issue, however. The exhibition in question was just too big: ‘pleasure’, whatever that is, however much you wish to keep it a critic-free zone, won’t stretch far enough to shield it from scepticism. Your main hope of weatherproofing the enterprise lies in a new historical voiceover, deconstructing all previously received notions of Bloomsbury. Morphet submits some suggestions: he notes the continuities between Bell and Grant and the Victorian ‘Olympians’ they were supposedly rejecting. Richard Shone goes further, asserting that ‘of course, Fry, Grant and Bell had no idea they were Bloomsbury painters or that they were producing Bloomsbury art’ – which sounds faintly implausible, especially coming from the curator of the show predicated on that concept. But he goes on, more persuasively, to note the locales they shared with all manner of contemporaries, from Stanley Spencer and Wyndham Lewis to Gaudier-Brzeska and Paul Nash. And thinking across the divides in the 1910s London art scene must be the sensible thing to do.
‘The farmyards here are so good: I think I shall do farmyard scenes for the rest of my natural. I am convinced now even more than formerly that a strict adherence to nature is the only thing worth doing. “Even at the risk of being dull?” ... someone may say. But how can nature be dull? What is Cubism or anything to nature?’ In late 1914, with Fry and Bell setting the critical vogue, John Nash is beginning to feel the wind blowing against his Gloucestershire landscapes. Yet if he’d read Fry’s 1920s letters from Provence, he’d have found very similar sentiments: ‘I know quite well whenever I get back to this Mediterranean country that I ought never to leave it ... It all seems just right, the right kinds of colours and shapes everywhere.’ A passion for place and for representing it in paint unites First Friends and Bloomsbury in France, both based on the correspondence of this generation. So does the presence of Dora Carrington, friend first to John Nash and his better-known elder brother Paul, and subsequently to the Bloomsberries.
Everything else seems set to divide the books, starting with the choice of locale. First Friends is a narrative bound together by Ronald Blythe out of a trove of letters sent between the Nashes and Carrington, and discovered in a trunk in a bread-oven after John’s death. Blythe edits deftly and writes at once intimately and with a feel for the broad historical pulse, and the text is illustrated with irresistible, virtuoso ‘Here’s me: and here’s how I see you’ comic pen drawings from the correspondents. In contrast to this testimony of passion for English landscape, Mary Ann Caws and Sarah Bird Wright document their theme by trawling the letters of the Woolfs, the Stracheys, the Bells et al for French references. The result is easier to browse than to read right through (they’ve failed to strike out some tiresome repetitions), but it’s definitive in its field, handsomely produced, and has the virtue of introducing the Provençal Charles Mauron – who possessed one of the most incisive intellects associated with the group – to a hitherto unacquainted anglo-phone readership.
Blythe’s story starts in 1912, when the Nashes and Carrington emerge from the Slade School, and trails past the end of the Great War, when Carrington swaps circles and drops the correspondence, to finish with her suicide in 1932. Its most dramatic pages come with Paul and John’s letters from the trenches in 1917. The one imperious in his fury:
The rain drives on, the stinking mud becomes more evilly yellow, the shell-holes fill up with green-white water ... It is unspeakable, godless, hopeless. I am no longer an artist interested and curious, I am a messenger who will bring back word from men who are fighting to those who want the war to go on for ever.
The other fastidiously rueful, but no less affecting:
I noticed on the parapet in front of me where I stood shivering with cold and wet and not a little fear – a very small fly seated stupidly tranquil on a clod of earth. It seemed such a tiny atom and yet ... it appeared to outdo all this spectacular din by the intensity of its stillness. There are less aesthetic scenes which do not bear describing.
Blythe shows how it was only in 1917 that a generation which had backed into the war with its eyes set on ‘more aesthetic scenes’ came to have its vision brutally radicalised.
The foreground of the story, however, is the relationship between John Nash and Carrington. They meet in 1912. He falls in love, he wants to have her. He amuses her; but she does not want to have him. She draws the line from the outset, and as Nash would confide to Blythe – his friend in later life – ‘the closest he had got to her was when their knees joggled together under the rain-apron of a London bus.’ In 1916 John married Christine Kühlenthal, a fellow student who may have got rather closer to Carrington than that. But both before and after this date, either in hope of overcoming the impasse between himself and Carrington, or to defuse it, or to move it onto another plane, he pits his witty, rather winsome self-pity against her bantering replies, or lack of them: ‘Though I have written to you and you have not answered me, and though my present existence has been worthy of your compassion’; ‘Again I place my pride in my pocket, swallow my choler and choke down those feelings of emotion that will arise with the thought of your neglect of me.’ And much more in the same vein.
The cumulative impression that this correspondence leaves resembles that nagging hole in the mind’s appetite that opens up when film characters, about to enjoy a meal, are dragged away from the table by a twist in the plot: all that unreal food uneaten. Two bodies which no longer exist never embraced, and you are left with the gnawingly melancholy residue of the resulting substitute. Bloomsbury in France, by contrast, presents the imagination with a glut. In Auxerre, we are told, the Woolfs had hot chocolate in a tea-shop, before buying a looking-glass. At Saulieu, Virginia Woolf, writing after ‘the most delicious luncheon of her life’ in the company of Vita Sackville-West, foresaw ‘that if we stay here for two days eating caneton en croûte and crème double, washed down by Bourgogne mousseux, we shall get dyspepsia.’ After more than two hundred pages of assiduously regurgitated appreciations of good dinners, good wine, good love affairs, good landscape, good company, I got a good idea of that dyspepsia.
Is it a matter of wishing that they hadn’t had such a good time? That seems like mean-heartedness for the sake of it. Or is it that you wish that they could have had all that fun after going through the trenches with the Nashes, the fat following the lean in the same body of experience? That might be more dramatically satisfying. But no: it’s more that you close both these bodies of correspondence with a sense of the limitations of letter-writing. It seems to consist either of inadequate inducements to get something the writer wants but the reader isn’t giving, or of redundant reiterations of something the writer has already had but the reader cannot get. ‘Wish you were here’ or ‘having a lovely time’: is either of them a statement that you really want to read more than once?
You could call this a gripe about the whole business of representation, insofar as those messages are, in essence, simply the two age-old alternatives: either it’s a substitute for, or a reduplication of reality – too little or too much. And yes, it implies a restlessness with the way these letter-writers represent things pictorially. Either way, by lean or by fat, by the gaunt, pared-back lines the Nashes use for English landscape or by the fulsome fruitiness that France seems to bring out in the oils of Grant and Bell, a passion for the motif seems to be put into quotes, made into a mannerism, the sensibility rather than the specificity of the object foregrounded.
Perhaps both sets of artists are working in the broad wake of Mallarmé’s agenda of indirection, and trying to modernise their vision in its light. (‘Directly I’m told what a thing means, it becomes hateful to me’: Shone quotes Virginia Woolf.) They don’t want to name things. With the elder Nash, at any rate, the ineffabilities of Symbolism in 1910 would resurface as the ineffabilities of Surrealism in 1930, via a magnificent interlude of war painting whose importance he himself downplayed. With Bloomsbury, the abiding impulse behind the passing influences seems to be: let’s remake things as if we didn’t know what they were. Let’s translate them into an organisation of succulent dabs of colour, as if all we could report was the pleasurable sensation the object gave us, rather than its identity. The ‘form’ not the ‘illustration’ would, I guess, be Fry’s formulation.
And yet this is all an ‘as if’, a game. It only works given the rule that we know the object in question very well indeed. After an ineffectual foray c.1914, Bell and Grant quickly realised they weren’t abstractionists; their greatest hits of this era were teasing portraits of intimate acquaintances, where the ‘liberated’ colour was always on a leash. And finally, this is not a game you have to play in order to paint. You do have the option of looking things in the eye and naming them. In corners of the overstretched Tate display – in a room of portraits where the French Bloomsbury associate Simon Bussy got a look-in; and elsewhere, intermittently, in the work of the possibly fey, possibly slippery, occasionally awesome Carrington; and yet further afield, if you bring to mind Stanley Spencer at his best – the painter is Adam: he looks at things and tells you what they are.
Add to those instances the swan-songs of Fry, Grant and Bell. Contrasting with that of his colleagues, Fry’s painting feels like an instance of the hungry rather than of the bloated version of early modern representational malaise – only he completely lacks the grace and good manners of the Nashes. Yet as Caws and Wright point out (when at length they get round to art criticism they’re highly astute), one late canvas, Spring in Provence – harsh sunshine over stone and pines and olives – seems to distil his fastidious ideals of a Poussinesque arcadia into a minor masterpiece.
Duncan Grant didn’t look as good in the selection for the Tate show as I wanted him to; but I can point to his beautiful charcoals and dance sketches, and to his portraits, which get progressively nobler and more direct, of Vanessa. And finally, after the passage of so much of her habitual and dignified reticence, so much of her cautious looking through doorways and windows, I can point to her own portrait, c.1958: a certain woman facing the canvas, identifying who she is. I think I recognise her.