In the shopping street in Chichester there was bunting and a huge banner, a most populist way to advertise a very refined subject: VIRGINIA WOOLF: AN EXHIBITION INSPIRED BY HER WRITING. I was in Chichester to visit the Pallant House Gallery. I wanted to know what art had been inspired by one of the most important writers of the twentieth century. And to look at it.
The celebratory street presence of Virginia Woolf wasn’t the only thing that surprised me about the exhibition. After my first tour around the gallery I realised that I was experiencing a very strange sensation. This must be what it feels like to be a man, to have the world reflected back to you as you see it through men’s eyes. Most exhibitions, anyway. But here were 80 artists and every one of them was a woman. Everyone. I recognised the world they showed me, the faces, the landscapes, the portraits, the interiors, the conflicts. This was my territory.
This is what the organisers say about the exhibition:
Virginia Woolf: An exhibition inspired by her writings
A major exhibition featuring 80 female artists from 1854 to the present day, centred on the pioneering writings of celebrated author Virginia Woolf. Through a wide range of work by artists including Barbara Hepworth, Vanessa Bell, Gwen John, Eileen Agar, Claude Cahun and Louise Bourgois, the exhibition shows how Woolf’s perspectives on feminism and creativity have remained relevant to a community of creative women across time: visual artists working in photography, painting, sculpture and film who have sought to record the vast scope of female experience and to shape alternative ways for women to be.
You may be wondering how art and words go together, different art forms that use different media. I remind you that it was ballet that revealed so much about three of Virginia Woolf ‘s novels in WoolfWorks.
The ideas expressed by Virginia Woolf in her novels and essays found echoes and development in the art on display in this exhibition. Identity, what moulds it? What is its function? How is it different in public and private spaces? In what ways can and do women relate to landscape and to the ideas of home? What is it, to be a woman?
Some artists were already familiar: Laura Knight, Dora Carrington, Winifred Nicholson and others who often show us women and children in the landscape, an inhabited space where woman can now be as free as men always have been. Not confined by or limited to the home.
The portraits showed women experimenting with different ways of representing themselves to others in self-portraits and portraits. Gwen John’s confident, confronting self-portrait; Dod Proctor turned away from our gaze, and other portraits, especially of and by Vanessa Bell. In pride of place, almost an object of veneration, there was her portrait of Virginia Woolf among her books, writing, in her home. At the entrance to the show there was a working sketch for the place setting for Virginia Woolf at Judy Chicago’s The Dinner Party.
There were more paintings of interiors, still lifes mostly, often with no people present. These often related the interior of the home through a window to the outside, or referred to the residents through their furnishings and belongings, or because it was a woman’s view. I want to find out more about Jane Simone Bussy. Her use of colour was subtle and very engaging.
Quotations reminded us how important a room of one’s own is, especially to women writers. And so there were the designs of household objects, fabrics, china and book covers by her sister and others.
You have won rooms of your own in the house hitherto exclusively owned by men. … This freedom is only a beginning. With whom are you going to share it and on what terms? [from Professions for Women, an essay by Virginia Woolf published in 1931]
I am still thinking about what I saw, how magnificent Virginia Woolf was and how her influence is deep in me, and happily deep in our culture too. I have reviewed most of her novels on Bookword, by the way.
Congratulations to Laura Smith, who created the show for Tate St Ives, Pallant House Gallery, and the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge.
Virginia Woolf: An exhibition inspired by her writings is at Pallant House Galleryuntil 16thSeptember 2018.
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