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It is almost a platitude for reviewers to greet books and exhibitions about the Bloomsbury artists with the dismayed question, What new about this group can possibly be seen or said? This response is unjust. In fact, the exhibition The Art of Bloomsbury, originated in London’s Tate Gallery and circulated in somewhat reduced form through two American venues—the Huntington Library and the Yale Center for British Art—is the first comprehensive survey of the art of Bloomsbury’s central figures: Roger Fry, Vanessa Bell, and Duncan Grant.
The exhibition benefited from the knowledgeable curatorship of Richard Shone, author of the first book on these artists, the 1976 Bloomsbury Portraits. Shone assembled highlights from the easel paintings and small-scale decorative works (ceramics, painted furniture, textiles, and book jackets) produced during the Bloomsbury artists’ lengthy and prolific careers. Although there was no attempt to document the artists’ designs for commercial manufacturers or to recreate any of their elaborately painted domestic and ecclesiastical interiors, several previously unexhibited and even a few newly discovered paintings were displayed, all evidence that, at a minimum, there are still new Bloomsbury things to see.
More importantly, this exhibition reanimated familiar paintings and objects, allowing viewers to see them anew. At the Tate, judicious use of brilliant wall colors brought out unfamiliar tonal elements even in well-known paintings from before World War I, subtly suggesting the novelty and excitement of these works when they were first exhibited. Rather than relying on extensive labeling, the show suggested the context for the production of Bloomsbury art by chronological groupings titled with the name of a Bloomsbury book, “A Room of One’s Own,” “Vision and Design,” “Beginning Again,” and so forth, alluding to the artist’s literary connections without allowing that theme to dominate the work. This effect was somewhat lost in the American hangs, and the addition of more archival and comparative material was only somewhat compensatory.
The lavishly illustrated catalogue for The Art of Bloomsbury, also benefiting from Shone’s expertise, offers detailed and knowledgeable exegeses of works on show, convincingly correcting earlier errors in dating and titling and establishing it as the definitive text in the field. (It is regrettable that, although Tate Gallery Publishing produced a paperback edition in time for the British opening of the exhibition, the American publisher has elected only to offer the very expensive hardcover version). The new information here is prefaced by three very readable essays. Shone’s begins by asking viewers to attend to the differences among the artists, arguing, “The shared subject matter of Bloomsbury painting is inflected by the individuality of their response” (14). Shone’s aim is to compensate for a long-standing tendency of English critics and historians to dismiss these artists as a group, and he goes on to correct, in admirably measured tones, some of the most blatant misrepresentations of Bloomsbury. Though such correctives are long overdue, Shone risks overstatement in his claim that, “It was only from the 1960s onwards that the name [Bloomsbury] began to be used as an art-historical category in line with other named groups of the period such as Camden Town or Vorticist” (13). While probably true as an art historical category, “Bloomsbury” had long been used to describe the social and intellectual circle Fry, Bell, and Grant moved in. More importantly, however, Shone’s defensive impulse to downplay the longevity and intensity of the Bloomsbury artists’ connections with one another and with some of the leading thinkers of their day (Virginia and Leonard Woolf, John Maynard Keynes, Lytton Strachey) ends up overlooking one of the most interesting aspects of these artists’ dissent from the competitive individualism of mainstream modernism.
The second essay, by Richard Morphet, somewhat contradicts Shone’s claims, for its thesis is that, “for all the variety of its outward aspect, unchanging, shared impulses were at work that give Bloomsbury art a unity at once distinctive and enriching.” These “impulses” are described as “directness of sensuous response” signified by “exuberance of color, idiosyncrasies of artistic ‘handwriting’ and forceful simplification of appearance in the interest of insistent unity of design” (23). Rather than examine each of these characteristics, however, the essay focuses on the last, reducing it to a vague “preoccupation with harmony” that is said to relate Bloomsbury painting to “the great art of the previous centuries” (23-4). This argument is supported by ingenious—though sometimes rather fortuitous—formal comparisons to emphasize “the paradox that the very phase of Bloomsbury art that presented the sharpest offence to artistic convention also revealed close links with some of the art most approved of by such taste” (24). This approach risks degenerating into a dull rehearsal of slide-comparison art appreciation, but Morphet’s argument leads to provocative calls to rethink Bell and Grant’s late “grand machines,” long dismissed as mere pastiches, and to assess “how Grant’s large output of erotic art relates to his own work (and Bloomsbury art) as a whole” (36). None of the former and few of the latter works are included in the exhibition, however, and these arguments go undeveloped.
The third catalogue essay, by James Beechey, is also tangential to the art on display, for it addresses the critical writings of Roger Fry and Clive Bell, focusing especially on their championing of avant-garde French painters. Though the essay briefly addresses relatively unexamined topics, such as Bloomsbury’s interest in Jean Marchand and André Derain, most of Beechey’s text repeats the oft-told tale of Bloomsbury’s pioneering promotion of Cézanne, Matisse, and Picasso. While this emphasis might be appropriate for a wide readership of museum goers, the project does not seem to have inspired the author, who falls into religious cliches—"the cult of Cézanne," “Cézanne was the household god” (39), “high priests of modernism” (39), “G.E. Moore’s Principia Ethica [was] the Cambridge bible of embryonic Bloomsbury” (40)—that obfuscate, rather than explore, the Bloomsbury atheists’ skeptical passions for certain art and ideas. Like Morphet, Beechey, uses his essay to call for an interesting project: an analysis of the Bloomsbury critics’ relationship to contemporary French critics such as Georges Dethuit. But this lead is undeveloped.
For the most part, though the catalogue essays do not themselves break new ground, they do point the way toward productive new areas of scholarship on Bloomsbury art. As Beechey suggests, one very promising line of inquiry would jump the conventional disciplinary boundaries of English art history to examine Bloomsbury art and criticism in relation to contemporary developments in France—and not just to heavy-hitters like Matisse and Picasso—but to the lesser known French artists and critics with whom Bloomsbury’s interactions were most intense. Such a study should put an end to wrong-headed but common claims, confronted by Shone in his introduction, that Bloomsbury was insular and provincial—if anything, the group’s much-resented disdain for certain trends in British art reflected its fascination with French modernism. Such a study would reveal the rich variety of the French avant-garde, in which Bloomsbury found a comfortable place among painters like not only Marchand and Derain but Simon Bussy and André de Segonzac, critics like Dethuit and Charles Vildrac, and theorists like Charles Mauron. Such a study would inform Bloomsbury scholarship by making the group appear less anomalous than it often seems in histories of English art, and would benefit modernist art history more generally by budging it away from its fixation on a small canon of French painters and critics.
Bloomsbury in France might have been such a book. Two of the final chapters on Bloomsbury’s relationship to Mauron and to the ten-day invitation-only conferences of intellectuals known as the Décades de Pontigny do new work setting Bloomsbury into the context of French intellectual history. But the book offers little analysis of the many facts it relates, as it rehearses well-known biographical details about Bloomsbury’s members interspersed with the authors’ own reminiscences and snapshots of their pilgrimages to the group’s French hang-outs. The editors, moreover, must be faulted for the persistence of numerous redundancies so easily created in co-authored texts: data and phrases are frequently repeated, and a rather lengthy quotation appears twice on facing pages (164-5).
The shortcomings of Bloomsbury in France are disappointing, for co-author Mary Ann Caws’s 1990 book, Women of Bloomsbury, contributed forcefully to feminist debates about the group. One senses, moreover, the authors’ pleasure, travelling around France, culling diaries and letters for references to specific places, imagining they shared the Bloomsbury artists’ joy in certain places and sensations. Perhaps this book should have been a travel diary analyzing the authors’ attraction to Bloomsbury; a thoughtful rumination on the passion for Bloomsbury, especially among intellectual American women, could shape discussions of the group in important ways. That book—and, of course, a serious study of Bloomsbury’s relationship to France—remain to be written, however. The first months of the year 2000 have brought us much that is new to see in Bloomsbury art; now it is time to do the work to develop promising lines of analysis and figure out what new can be said.
Lake Forest College
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