Bell by Cinzia Eich
Vanessa Bell (1879-1961)
was an English artist, one of the few women painters of the
beginning of the twentieth century. Stylistically, she was influenced
by the major avant-garde of the period, but, while the latter
often used the "modernist" style to denigrate the
female body, she adopted it to give psychological depth to women.
She explored their sexuality from their own perspectives, thus
transforming them in real subjects of action rather than objects
for the (male) gaze. Her paintings do not limit to this, but
they denounce the exclusion and discrimination that women had
to face in the artistic and intellectual circles of the time
Vanessa Stephen Bell
was born in London to a well off family. In a time in which
most women were not educated, her class permitted her to study
art both in a scholastic environment and by experiencing different
European cultures. As scholar Frances Spalding reports,
between 1896 and 1901 she took art lessons from Sir Arthur
Cope in London, and between 1901 and 1904 she attended the
Royal Academy under John Singer Sargent (18-34).
Bell traveled widely throughout her life. Among the countries
she visited, she gained particular inspiration from Italy and
France. In Italy, she was able to view the works of the great
masters of the past. By frequently visiting Paris, the capital
of modern art, she learned about and was influenced by the unprecedented
artistic developments brought about by the major avant-garde
of the time.
Bell assimilated stylistic elements from different movements,
she never associated with a particular one. Yet, Spaldingís
biography of this artists reveals that, throughout her life,
she participated in different artistic circles. She organized
"The Friday Club" (1905-1914) , a group of
artists who gathered to exchange ideas and exhibit their works
together throughout London. Furthermore, she contributed to
Roger Fryís Omega Workshops (1913-1919). Later on in
her life, in 1939, she became a member of Mural Painters in
London. Most importantly, she associated with the "Bloomsbury"
group, an intellectual circle of people that gathered around
London and Charleston. The most known people of the group were
Virginia Woolf, who was Vanessaís younger sister, Clive
Bell, who married Vanessa in 1907, the critic and artist
Roger Fry, and the painter Duncan Grant.
The artistís oeuvre
is complex. Bell experimented with different techniques and
mediums. While working at Omega Workshops, she decorated and
designed furniture, fabrics and everyday objects.
she created many woodcuts and illustrated her sisterís
books. She is particularly well-known for her dust-jackets
of Virginia Woolfís texts for the Hogarth Press.
The cover for The Common Reader (1925) is one example.
Her paintings on canvas are mostly figurative, but her
artistic career saw a brief period of abstraction around
1911-14. Her favorite subjects were still lives and portraits,
especially of women. She also created several landscapes
and views of domestic life.
fascination with flowers would never cease. Poppies
and Hollyhocks (1940) is one of her mature pieces.
Studland Beach (1912) is probably her most famous and
all of her works show her passion for color. Furthermore, they
all have in common similar compositional devices. The majority
of her pieces show strong emphasis on closed curvilinear forms
which often evoke organic shapes. Most of her subjects are effectively
simplified to their essential components. Her works on canvas
show an Impressionist influence in the manipulation of light effects
and a Cezannesque brushstroke. Even though Bellís semiabstract
paintings and designs are more interesting stylistically for their
innovative quality, some of the artistís figurative works, in
particular those depicting women, are captivating for their content.
While Bell embraced the revolutionary character of contemporary
avant-garde in many respects, she criticized some of the conservative
attitudes that they perpetuated.
of the beginning of the twentieth century created a real paradigm
shift. Modern art was born. One of the basic characteristics of
modern art is the partial or total elimination of reliance on
nature, senses and realistic depictions in favor of an emotional
or intellectual response to the subject. Unfortunately, instead
of using this freedom to explore women in a fuller way, many artists
continued to reduce their female subjects to their biological
features and to passive objects. Without denying their immense
contribution to their field, many feminist writers have objected
to the absolute exaltation of many pioneers of modern art, for
example Picasso, Gauguin or Matisse. Their images of prostitutes,
"primitive" and destructive women have become canons
although they vilify the female body and in general women.
paintings show how modernism can be used to give dignity to the
representation of women in art. Unfortunately, research on Bell
is sparse. She is often studied only in conjunction with the other
two major artists of the Bloomsbury group, Duncan Grant and Roger
Fry, or with Virginia Woolf. As with so many women painters, she
is discussed in terms of her male relations and/or family ties.
Her art is often dismissed as a "copy", usually of Grant.
Even if some of the works of Bell and Grant are stylistically
similar, and even though Bell embraced stylistic devices of other
contemporary artists, her work is truly different. This is particularly
evident when analyzing one of her early works, The Tub
(1917), and comparing it with Grantís homologous 1912 painting.
As scholar Richard Shone reports, she owned it (150).
The fact that she created a work with the same subject and title
should be indicative of her reaction to Grantís version in particular
and to depictions of women overall.
version of The Tub, Grant adopted elements from Picassoís
"African" style, Matisseís colors, energetic brushwork
and flattening of the space; Bell, instead, chose surrealistic
moods, a cubist distortion of pictorial planes and Cezanne-like
brushstrokes. It is not the form that makes the two works different.
It is the content. Grant chose to use a Fauvist black outline
to emphasize the breasts of his subject, divaricated her deformed
legs and stressed the void between with a black triangular shape
that recalls her genitals. If Grantís woman lifts her arms to
show an upright breast, Bellís figure timidly covers it and shamefully
positions herself in the far right of the picture. Grantís bather
is emptied of any emotion, while Bellís has a contemplative, "real"
expression, a psychological presence. If Grant, as so many of
his male contemporary artists, used the female body as the canvas
on which stylistic experiments are tried out, Bell experimented
while giving dignity to the female nude. She explored the sexuality
of her subject, the way this woman reacts to her own nudity, and
the fact that she is being looked at by spectators. Grant, on
the other hand, compressed the space and explored only his sexual
fantasies, anxieties, etc., in respect to this "fetishist"
Researches on Bellís
The Tub are characterized by gender biases. For example,
Frances Spalding values it for its psychological depth,
but, at same time, she starts her essay by recounting Bellís
private life (how many children she had and whom she was married
to) before speaking of her as an artist (15-20).
Even worse, art historians Bridget Elliot and Jo-Ann Wallace,
who condemn the condition of women painters in modernism and
Bell in particular, dismiss The Tub as a "domestic
genre painting" (76-77).
Why is it not a psychological portrait, or a nude? As typical,
women paint "feminine" subjects, and men just paint.
As Bell must have
felt the burden of depicting female nudes that would automatically
be compared with the canons male artists established, she had
to face the problem of being a woman artist. Although she did
participate in artistic circles, the male-dominated atmosphere
of the artistic environment of her time was a problem. As Elliot
and Wallace point out, she expressed her insecurity and low
self-esteem in both her writing and painting
(76-89). These scholars notice that Bell always portrayed
male artists with references to their careers, for example in
front of the easel, or in their library. Yet, when facing the
problem of painting herself, her sister or other working women,
she almost always avoided references to their professions.
when she depicted two artists of different sex in Frederick
and Jessie Etchells Painting (1912), she positioned the
woman sitting on the floor and the man actively painting standing
(76). This work is a particularly
effective critique of gender discriminations in artistic spheres
exactly because of its modern style, which permitted Bell to
free herself from "nature". As Bell voided her characters
of a face and eliminated any superfluous detail recalling a
specific place, she universalized them. She used the same stylistic
freedom with which her contemporary male artists denigrated
women to denounce their condition.
a woman, Vanessa Bell represents a wonderful subject of research
and a model. She is a significant artist in many respects. Although
this essay focuses only on a few aspects of her art, and only
on a few pieces, it is not meant to deny other important connotations
of her work. It rather suggests that some of Bellís works are
particularly important both artistically and as social documents.
Although it is only speculative to assert that this artist intentionally
criticized her society, her pieces have a powerful voice. As
the representation of women has always been a favorite subject
throughout the history of Western art, and women have often
been excluded from the art scene, it is stimulating to see how
the few female artists of the past depicted themselves.
Bell, Vanessa. The Common
Reader. Dust-cover for Virginia Woolfís book in the
Vanessa Bell e Virginia Woolf: Disegnare la Vita. Eds.
Sibylle Pieyre de Mandiargues. Ferrara: Civiche Gallerie
díArte, 1996. 119.
---. Frederick and Jessie Etchells
Panting. Tate Gallery, London. 8 Feb. 2001. 10 Feb.
---. Poppies and Hollyhocks.
Anthony díOffay Gallery, London. Vanessa Bell. By
Frances Spalding. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1983
---. Studland Beach. Tate Gallery,
London. 8 Feb. 2001. 10 Apr. 2002 <http://www.tate.org.uk/servlet/AWork?id=909>
---. The Tub. Tate Gallery,
London. 8 Feb. 2001. 10 Feb. 2002 <http://www. tate.org.uk/servlet/awork?id=908>
Elliot, Bridget, and Jo-Ann Wallace.
Women Artists and Writers: Modernist (Im)positionings.
New York: Routledge, 1994
Grant, Duncan. The Tub. Tate Gallery, London. 8 Feb.
2001. 10 Feb. 2002 <http://www.tate.org.uk/servlet/awork?id=5592>
Shone, Richard. The Art of Bloomsbury:
Roger Fry, Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant. Princeton:
Princeton UP, 1999
--. "Vanessa Bell Pittrice."
Trans. Federica Manfredini. Vanessa Bell e Virginia Woolf:
Disegnare la Vita. Eds. Sibylle Pieyre de Mandiargues.
Ferrara: Civiche Gallerie díArte, 1996. 15-20
Spalding, Frances. Vanessa Bell.
London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1983