A new exhibition explores the life and work of the determinedly private Virginia Woolf. Laura Macdougall throws open the curtains.
Virginia Stephen by George Charles Beresford, July 1902 ©National Portrait Gallery, London (for painting) Virginia Woolf by Vanessa Bell, c.1912 © National Portrait Gallery, London
One of the first things to emerge is Woolf’s close relationship with her elder sister, the artist Vanessa Bell. We first see them as children, playing cricket, or sitting on the steps of their childhood home.
Given Virginia Woolf’s avowed aversion to publicity and her complicated relationship with art, it’s something of a surprise to find an exhibition choosing to explore her life through a series of portraits. All the more so because the young Woolf took against the National Portrait Gallery, whose walls at that time were “entirely filled with men.”
Curated by biographer and art historian Frances Spalding, the NPG’s Art, Life and Vision seeks to shed light on a woman who sought to be as “private, secret, as anonymous and submerged as possible in order to write”. Notoriously self-conscious about her appearance (shopping, apparently, filled her with dread), Woolf’s life is celebrated through exhibits that direct our gaze at the world that informed her literary output.
Divided into six sections, the exhibition covers her childhood, her first breakdown following her mother’s death (when Woolf was just 13), her courtship with future husband Leonard, the meetings of the famous Bloomsbury Group, her life in London during WWII and her last days in Sussex before her suicide in 1941.
Woolf’s respect for her sister’s artistic talent is demonstrated here through displays of book jackets designed by Bell, and photographs of the Woolfs’ home, for which Bell provided the wall decoration. Woolf rarely sat for professional portraits, yet she often sat for her sister and many of the resulting pictures are on display here. Leonard Woolf said of one of Bell’s portraits of his wife that it was “more like Virginia in its way than anything else of her”. Interestingly, he was referring to one of a series of images of Woolf in which her facial features are almost entirely blurred or obscured. In contrast, another of Bell’s portraits from 1912 captured her sister’s beauty and luminosity. Here, the bond between the sisters and Bell’s insight into Woolf’s contradictions are wonderfully communicated.
Other portraits demonstrate that, from childhood, Woolf was surrounded by leading literary figures. Browning and Henry James, as acquaintances of her father, were visitors to her childhood home while, as an adult, she knew T.S. Eliot and Freud. John Maynard Keynes and E.M. Forster were key members of the Bloomsbury Group, the set of writers, intellectuals, philosophers and artists whose regular meetings were a source of inspiration to Woolf.
Interestingly, the exhibition also includes contemporary paintings of London – Woolf lived in the city at various times during her life, most notably in Tavistock Square from 1924-1939, a period of particular productivity for her – and work produced by Picasso during the Spanish Civil War. The latter particularly affected Woolf; her nephew died as a result of volunteering in the conflict, and she herself was a pacifist who addressed questions of war and fighting in her essay Three Guineas. The inclusion of such artworks provides a sense of how it might have felt to live through particular events, and how they might have influenced Woolf’s writing.
In addition to the paintings and portraits of Woolf, a great deal of archival material is on display. This includes a page from Woolf’s passport, personal correspondence, many first edition copies of her books and the walking stick she used to walk to the River Ouse, one last time, on 28th March 1941. In addition, the two suicide letters she wrote to her sister and to her husband that same day can be seen side by side. These pieces show Woolf’s melancholy, her fragility, but also her prodigious creative output, her sense of humour, her intellect and her passion. Captivating and absorbing, they help to recreate her life, including – without sensationalising – those moments of intense pain.
Intimate and personal, the 140 pieces that make up Art, Life and Vision present a moving, fascinating and intelligent portrait that not only offers a view of Woolf as a writer, but also as an artist, a feminist, an intellectual, a lover, a sister, a friend, a wife and a daughter. Paradoxically, the exhibition makes Woolf seem more, not less, complex and inscrutable: this too works in its favour.
Virginia Woolf: Art, Life and Vision, National Portrait Gallery, London [Until 26th October, 2014]
Laura is a London-based writer, reviewer and editor with a focus on arts and culture, feminism, lifestyle and LGBT issues.