Current exhibitions at Dulwich Picture Gallery, until June 4 2017 Paintings by Vanessa Bell (1870-1961) and Legacy: Photographs by Vanessa Bell and Patti Smith

Paint brushes

Patti Smith, Paint Brushes, Duncan Grant’s studio, 2008, Gelatin silver print, edition of 10, 25.4 × 20.32 cm. © Patti Smith. Courtesy the artist and Robert Miller Gallery

Patti Smith describes her photos as ‘souvenirs of a joyful solitude’. Her response to Bell’s personal albums is a series of contemplative black and white images of Charleston, now empty, once Bell’s vibrant home, a house filled with an extended family of friends, lovers, creatives and radical thinkers. Images of a now quiet house – Bell’s brushes, books, beds, are pages from a much bigger work by Smith, a vast body of photographic dialogues with history, art, friends, family and heroes.

As Bell’s sister Virginia Woolf puts it in The Waves:

We are creators. We too have made something that will join the innumerable congregations of past time…and make part of the illumined and everlasting road.

Photographic album page featuring photographs from Brandon Camp, August 1913- From top left: Julian Stephen, Daphne Olivier, Noel Olivier, Noel Olivier,  Roger Fry, Vanessa Bell
Photographic album page featuring photographs from Brandon Camp, August 1913- From top left: Julian Stephen, Daphne Olivier, Noel Olivier, Noel Olivier, Roger Fry, Vanessa Bell
Brandon Camp, 1913. Photographs by Vanessa Bell and others, in Vanessa Bell’s album, Tate (TGA 9020/3) © Tate Archive, London 2016.

Bell, who studied at the Royal Academy and Slade schools and counted Sargent and Sickert amongst her biggest influences, moved to Bloomsbury in 1905 after the death of her parents, to live with fellow artists and intellectuals, a group of people who became known as the Bloomsbury Group. Clive Bell who became her husband in 1907 was a member, as were Roger Fry and Duncan Grant, with whom Bell, whose artistic practice moved fluidly between fine and applied arts, founded the Omega Workshop in 1913.

The move to Charleston in 1916 was an expansion of the Bloomsbury model, and Bell’s family albums are full of images of a life embracing the same values. Here, with Duncan Grant, Bell was artist, homemaker, bohemian mother, opening the doors of their rural retreat to welcome a flow of alternative thinkers and artists, the spaces of the house providing a safe haven for gay friends, feminists, pacifists, and a place for unrestricted creativity and collaboration. Bell and Grant were the focus of a family defined by the fluidity of their relationships and their unconventional approaches to partnership, marriage, gender, sexuality and personal freedom. The photos reveal an environment full of ease, creativity and the visual noise of a perpetually full house.

Though separated by nearly a 100 years, the dialogue between Bell and Smith is timely. Bell is a pivot between the outspoken women of the Victorian era (her aunt was photographer Julia Margaret Cameron) and the new modern era of bold, boundary busting women at a time when un-propertied women under 30 were still unable to vote. Not until 1928 was the right to vote given to all women over 21 by which time Bell was already way ahead of the curve. Both were revolutionary in their lifestyles – Bell with Grant, Smith with Mapplethorpe, both also lovers of poetry, literature and visual art. Both walked the talk, creating and sustaining new frameworks for personal relationships, supporting difference and freedom. Both women pushed for outside to become inside, for the edges of experience to become the norm and made their lives into places and spaces of endless possibility, treating convention and category with the same disregard.

Patti Smith’s series of monochrome photographs, which come from her 2003 residency at Charleston, is a quiet but very intense and personal half of a long overdue conversation between two visionary and uncompromising women. Solitary objects and empty spaces untouched since 1961 invite us to start up the conversation again, to think about what they were once filled with, what they once represented, and how they fit into Smith’s bigger photographic conversation – with Brancusi, Rimbaud, Blake amongst many others.

This was his way of looking, different from hers. But looking together united them. Virginia Woolf, To the Lighthouse

One of the world’s most influential rock stars, and godmother of urban punk poetry, Smith’s poetic response is entirely in the same field as Bell’s aesthetic preoccupation – the focus is the link between structure and sentiment. Smith’s symbolist abstractions in her poetry (her photo of Rimbaud’s spoon and fork part of another of Smith’s photographic dialogues) mirror Bell’s constant reduction on the canvas, something Virginia Woolf, another voice in this conversation, described in the same novel as:

… a complete transmutation, a ruthless sacrifice of emotional values, even those most cherished.  She could not, she had formerly explained to William Bankes, make of Mrs. Ramsay anything but a violet shadow.  

Key 9 Virginia Woolf

Vanessa Bell, Virginia Woolf, c. 1912, oil on board, 40 x 34 cm, National Portrait Gallery, London, NPG 5933. © National Portrait Gallery, London

Compatible visions, Smith’s photos are steps along a path of pilgrimage, celebrations of a spiritual view of life, where objects become relics, take on spiritual meaning, freeze frame significant moments.

Bell’s paintings – portraits, still life, design, landscape, domestic scenes, often informed by the photos in the albums, and the concerns with form and composition are the same in both. Clive Bell used the term ‘significant form’ to explain her work, lines and colors combined in a particular way, certain forms and relations of forms, [that] stir our aesthetic emotions…, the ‘ah’ moment when form distilled from a recognisable reality becomes something ‘essential’.

For Virginia too, composition was a major preoccupation in her work, and Bell’s concerns are there too in Woolf’s novels. In To the Lighthouse, Lily, a painter, considers modifying the composition of her painting by moving a tree to the right, symbolically moving a salt cellar as she thinks about it, to a new place on the table. Later in the novel she has the ‘ah’ moment: In a flash she saw her picture, and thought, Yes, I shall put the tree further in the middle; then I shall avoid that awkward space. That’s what I shall do. That’s what has been puzzling me.

Key 104 Street Corner Conversation

Vanessa Bell, Street Corner Conversation, c.1913, Oil on board, 69 x 52 cm, Private Collection. © The Estate of Vanessa Bell, courtesy of Henrietta Garnett. Photo credit: Colin Mills

Describing further the link between structure and sentiment, Virginia adds: For at any rate, she said to herself, catching sight of the salt cellar on the pattern, she need not marry, thank Heaven: she need not undergo that degradation. She was saved from that dilution. She would move the tree rather more to the middle. Virginia Woolf

Form tickles the emotional response, its simplicity pointing to a familiarity, a closeness of subject, underlining at the same time the impossibility of knowing another’s subjectivity – faces are gone, spaces are taut and loaded. There is no revelation, scant narrative structure, but there is ‘relationship’ through shape and colour, subliminal ties to the world, to each other, made real through pared down composition.

Woolf described Bell’s work better than anyone, her conversation with her sister writ large in the pages of all her novels. Driven by their need to create, to question, to exchange, they both forged new frameworks, continuously assessing and reassessing where they might stand in relation to the world and to their work.

Smith’s response to the same conversation, and to her relationship with Mapplethorpe, asks the question again.

He raises his hand, as if in carefree salute
Shading eyes that contain the thread of God.

But who will sing of him?

Take your pick from any one of Bell’s paintings or leaf through Woolf’s novels to find the answer.

How strange to feel the line that is spun from us lengthening its fine filament across the misty spaces of the intervening world. He is gone; I stand here, holding his poem. Between us is this line. Virginia Woolf, The Waves


Patti Smith, Meet Sylvia Plath: Rock stars who write poems by Meghan O’Rourke, (2006)
A Look at Patti Smith’s First Major Photography Exhibition, ‘Camera Solo’ by Emily Temple, (2011)
On Show by Anna Bonita Evans, Black and White Photography magazine (March 2017)
An Intrepid Painter: Vanessa Bell (1879-1961) by Sarah Milroy, In View, Dulwich Picture Gallery Magazine (2017)

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