Olivia Scott Berry questions curatorial decisions and a lack of intersectionality in the recent exhibition inspired by Virginia Woolf’s writings. In the words of poet Rebecca Wilcox, Berry asks ‘what about the transformational potential of discourse?’ when returning to the oeuvre of Woolf.
The clear aim of Virginia Woolf: An Exhibition Inspired By Her Writings is to engage with questions such as that posed by its focalising subject in ‘Professions for Woman’ (1930), as quoted by curator Laura Smith in her introductory catalogue essay:
You have won rooms of your own in the house hitherto exclusively owned by men […] But this freedom is only a beginning: the room is your own, but it is still bare […] With whom are you going to share it, and upon what terms?
Virginia Woolf, ‘Professions for Women’ (1931), in The Death of the Moth and Other Essays (Harcourt Brace and Co., 1974), p.242.
By presenting works by women artists from before, during and beyond Woolf’s time, it tries to illustrate both the process of room-winning and the continuing one of asking and answering these harder questions of their furnishing. Indeed, these linked themes of space and power feature strongly throughout, as organising principles to demonstrate how, in Woolf’s writing and the included works, ‘the room becomes a metaphor for autonomy and choice within patriarchal limits’, whilst landscape ‘becomes a metaphor for freedom and power beyond the realms of existing culture’. These, at least, are the exhibition’s stated aims, as set out in the accompanying catalogue and in shorter form in the wall texts. But viewing the actual works at the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge – the last leg of the show’s tour after display at Tate St Ives and Pallant House Gallery, Chichester – the case was far less strong, or rather far less radical than is claimed.
For a start, a lot of the paintings, especially in the first room, which presented mainly self-portraits by women artists, felt like illustrations for a triumphalist, simplifying narrative of the kind offered in children’s-style books about historical heroines, however complex their own circumstances and intentions might be. This is largely the fault of the generalisation the scope of the exhibition enforces, not allowing for these individual contexts to be drawn out, but it begins to impact the works themselves, whose styles then seem to enforce this picture-book imagery.
For instance, I was at first drawn to Laura Knight’s ‘A Green Sea’ (1918), which shows two women— one blonde, wearing a white shirt and perched on a pool of bold red cardigan, the other, propped up diagonally across, in plainer brown and blue – sitting by the edge of a cliff looking out at a gently ruffled plane of blue-green sea. Knight’s work clearly suggests the freedom theorised in such landscapes as posited in the catalogue. It is, then, both visually and idealistically pleasing, and yet hovers, in this flat brightness of colour that is easily seized upon, on the same easy commodification as the current waves of products themed to take advantage of the cultural current of interest in such natural and personal wilderness, with paradoxically nullifying effects (Women Who Read Are Dangerous; The Reading Woman Calendar, The Reading Woman: A Book of Postcards; The Reading Woman Diary) – its potentially powerful exploration of this theme flattened, with its planes of colour, into a toothless image.
That this is a distortion of Knight’s purpose and practice seems clear from the several other instances of her work that are included in the exhibition, each of which demonstrates a different style, from the sturdy but glamourous realism of ‘Portrait of Joan Rhodes’ (1955) to a still life of a green and red spiked cactus on a windowsill (‘Cactus’, 1940), that looks like nothing more than a David Hockney iPad drawing. This gave me a sense of a ranging need for expression in her – to capture what was seen and felt as it needed to be captured, at the time – that is entirely of a piece with Woolf’s continuous experimentation with form and style in order to convey lived experience as felt. Indeed this is seen in her sister Vanessa Bell’s experiments in collage, textiles and Post-Impressionism. Such experimentation led her to produce the intensely coloured juxtapositions of painted shapes that characterise much of her still life and portraiture, several examples of which are included here.
A good exhibition would be able to keep this dynamism alive in its own form, which is perhaps what was intended by the salon-style, non-chronological hanging – the works in each room hung together by loose themes relating back to Woolf’s texts. Such a structure should, in theory, by obviating hierarchy in favour of collage, enable the viewer to make their own, informed links between works, highlighting shared ideas and imagery and challenging fixed boundaries of thought. Unfortunately, it felt again more flattening than enlivening, with the different heights of the works, against walls densely painted with multi-coloured figures and Bell’s textiles designs (often without the clear separation into the themes attempted by the wall texts), too confusing. What the hanging does highlight instead is the seemingly dominant works among the works selected: the privilege suggested by both what they depict and the time and resources presumably afforded to do so.
It is this that creates the impression of so many greetings cards, solidifying what could be a fascinating way to convey the complexities of each case –the differences as well as the similarities, of each person’s work with its own distinct context, of each theme – into the lumpen claim that this is women’s art, this is Woman. Which is always going to be problematic, and in this case only brings out how woefully small is the exhibition’s range of selection.
Getting anything out of its assemblage, then, relies on withstanding this alienating factor and looking closely at the individual works that attract you, as the friend I visited with – who in fact alerted me to the assumptions behind the greeting-card façade I myself was easily distracted by – advised. Works such as Winifred Nicholson’s ‘Glimpse Upon Waking’ (1976), which depicts either two overlapping pale pink rock formations striped with yellow as seen through a window, or a set of curtains roughly drawn to reveal the lushly forested, palely suggested scene that lies beyond them. For me, Nicholson’s work felt the closest to Woolf’s in its use of colour and shape. It conveyed not just a scene but its feeling/s, exemplifying her proposition in the essay ‘The Cinema’ (1926) that the visual arts are a different language that might be able to convey what words cannot.
Several of Ithell Colquhoun’s still more abstract, surreal landscapes also felt highly readable against Woolf’s early essay. Indeed, standing in front of ‘Stalactite’ (1962) and feeling how both its knobbly titular element, suspended along the long thin height of the painting like a measure, and the meandering irregular holes of rock and cave that it is laid alongside, seem to fluctuate and rise like wax in a lava lamp, it is hard not to recall this specific paragraph:
…at a performance of Dr. Caligari the other day a shadow shaped like a tadpole suddenly appeared at one corner of the screen. It swelled to an immense size, quivered, bulged, and sank back again into nonentity. […] For a moment it seemed as if thought could be conveyed by shape more effectively than by words. The monstrous quivering tadpole seemed to be fear itself, and not the statement ‘I am afraid’. In fact, the shadow was accidental and the effect unintentional. But if a shadow at a certain moment can suggest so much more than the actual gestures and words of men and women in a state of fear, it seems plain that the cinema has within its grasp innumerable symbols for emotions that have so far failed to find expression.
Virginia Woolf, ‘The Cinema’, published in The Nation and the Athenaeum, 1926.
Like Woolf and Bell, and indeed several other contemporaneous artists, Colquhoun had a link to Cornwall, living and painting there, and writing a book about its stones. Indeed, it is often the Cornish-situated or otherwise connected work that seems most strongly to advance the case for the exhibition’s reading of space and power. This is seen in a tiny canvas by Gluck entitled ‘Cornwall Landscape’ (1968) that is more pale blue sky than land, depicted in flat panes of light green fields bisected by dark green hedge; or her ‘Portrait of Miss E.M. Craig’ (1920), a small canvas that stands out in the first room of flattened portraits. Both have, because of their size and snapshot style (as accentuated by the portrait of Craig being mounted on three levels, like an old camera) the same intimate sense of being created among and for a linked group – a reminder of the domestic networks in which many of these works functioned.
Which is in one sense both very interesting and attractive in the context of women’s art as described by Woolf in A Room of One’s Own as constricted, in part, by ‘material difficulties’. It demonstrates a pragmatic way of making use of such circumstances to express oneself nonetheless that is borne out by many of the other works contemporary with her writing: still lives and portraits of friends that could be done from within these limits. However, it is also, as I have suggested, one enabled by great privilege, which casts the shadow of elitism over this Cornwall and London-linked network that the exhibition does nothing to address. In fact, in the accompanying catalogue as in the wall texts, its feminism is of the glorifying kind, with very little consideration of such questions of enablement, despite what the collaged style seems to aim at and should allow. Most of what is radical and critical comes from texts by Woolf and other writers (Ursula K. Le Guin, Audre Lorde) that are included in fragments – texts which the rest of the content does very little for, either to illuminate or extend, which must question the need for such a project, or at least the way it has been carried out.
For instance, in advancing the exhibition’s claim to use Woolf as a ‘lens’ to explore the highly ambiguous process of inhabiting space as depicted by women artists, Laura Smith’s introduction presents a vastly uncomplicated view of Woolf’s own feminism, treating it as active and positive, rather than the morass of doubt and uncertain intent displayed in both her writing and activities. It is the same for the other relationships and activities that are described in reductionist terms throughout the exhibition. In reality they displayed a lived ambiguity that would have informed Smith’s stated vision of a freedom that is complexly circumscribed.
Though the other essays, written by Woolf scholars in various fields, do a fine job of introducing their chosen themes in the right contexts, setting up a framework for the intended dialogue, none of the contemporary works included (with the exception of Anna Ostoya’s 2011 ‘The Tradition of Elasticity and Endurance’, a small collage of the heads of women artists that pick up Gluck’s sense of intimacy in its own scale and detail, and correspondingly dense with the suggestion of feeling and theory without being either overt or obscure) add anything to the endeavour.
In the absence of any obvious connection to not only Woolf or the other work but also to the themes supposedly drawing them together (either because there really are none or there is not enough space to explain) it has an indifferent quality that makes it seem arbitrary in conception and selection, which inevitably raises the question of why it was included and takes us back to the question of elitist networks of connection. The same is true of the new texts included in or commissioned for the catalogue, which I felt claimed too much space, in difficult to read formats and colours, without saying much of relevance, besides this provocative line in Rebecca Wilcox’s ‘Eventually’, which feels like it ought to be turned on the exhibition itself:
Feeling uniquely and commonly interested in
Addressing nature is perhaps easier
It lacks a capability to respond
The process might be therapeutic,
but, what about the transformational potential of discourse?
Rebecca Wilcox’s ‘Eventually’ in Virginia Woolf: An Exhibition Inspired By Her Writings, ed. By Laura Smith and Enrico Tassi with Eloise Bennett (Tate Publishing, 2018), p.132.
What about it?
It is not that I don’t think any contemporary work should have been included, or that what has been does not have its own merits. It’s just that none of it engaged with the themes in a way that added to the stated project, thus failing to produce the promised discourse. Perhaps part of the problem, in the catalogue at least, is that there are not any essays by younger writers who might have brought to bear newer, more critical perspectives in more experimental formats, thereby justifying the project’s revival of what are becoming pretty staid ideas. There is no attempt to do so in either exhibition or catalogue; no holding of selves to account about intent and selection, which is vital if you are claiming the kind of radical, intersectional approach to curation we should all be aiming for now: using experimental techniques to draw out the complexity of such themes through the individually complicated contexts of each work.
In the absence, then, or rather botching of such a discourse in this exhibition it is the strongest paintings that survive the set-up to speak tentatively to this intricacy. Paintings such as Wilhelmina Barns-Grahams’ ‘The Blue Studio’ (1947-8), depicting the artist’s studio in St Ives do just that. It is on first glance realist, done in the same blocks of colour as Laura Knight’s green sea and women to produce a recognisable scene worthy of the exhibition’s flattened idea of the woman artist’s room. But to spend more time with it, considering the layers of its construction, is to realise for yourself the more complex sense of inhabiting a room of one’s own that Laura Smith delineates in her essay, when discussing the writing of Charlotte Perkins Gilman and the visual artist Tina Keane:
The rooms in their works serve – as they often do in Woolf – as an examination of confinement and the need to step outside of that. […] Reminiscent of Woolf’s opposing metaphors of room and nature, these works situate their creator inside a room while defiantly looking beyond it. Both Wilhelmina Barns-Graham and Gwen John also enact this tension in depictions of their own studios – rooms in which the ambiguity of constraint and autonomy is in constant tension.Laura Smith, ‘Thinking Back Through Our Mothers: Making an Exhibition Led by the Writings of Virginia Woolf’ in Virginia Woolf: An Exhibition Inspired By Her Writings (Tate Publishing, 2018), p.24.
This ambiguous tension is there in the harsh sea right up at the window behind, one great wave looking ready to crash into the scene. But it’s also in the red table placed strangely squarely in the middle ground, as if also right up against a pane of glass, though this time the effect is to heighten the sense of the artist’s staked claim against the onslaught. The viewer is even placed behind the large blue table top spread with painterly detritus that occupies the foreground, in the artist’s position as, presumably, she looks on at her subject: the sea. This rather blurs these presumed lines of separation, or rather shows how they are differently connected, suggesting a felt relation to the raging waves that doesn’t have to be at odds with a sense of them. At the same time the table contributes to the room’s dual sense of enclosure. The same implication is effected in the painting as a whole by its further planes and colours; the bold red table both diminished and made to seem bolder by the dark background of walls and towering wardrobe, which makes everything in the crowded room appear very close together and to individually stand out, altogether giving the same sense of soaring intensity – its knife-edge of excitement and danger – as Woolf describes in terms of walking in Mrs Dalloway (1925):
She felt very young, at the same time unspeakably aged. She sliced like a knife through everything; at the same time was outside, looking on. She has a perpetual sense, as she watched the taxi-cab, of being out, far to sea and alone: she always had the feeling that it was very dangerous to live even one dayVirginia Woolf, Mrs Dalloway (Wordsworth, 2001), p.6.
If I were to point to one detail that captures this for me in Barns-Graham’s painted studio it is the red sock or tie hanging fragilely in the window against the enormity outside. These items are like a flag to the sea’s building courage. They’re a dual symbol of thrill and risk, whilst the painting as a whole conveys the sense of actually making things in this state that feels so lacking in this exhibition, with its flattened images of artists and rooms to be bought and displayed. It is a sense that is evident most prominently in Eileen Agar’s works, which again range widely in form and style, from inked-over photographs to wild collages in paper and objects, as seen in ‘Marine Object’ (1939), the sole piece my friend felt truly drawn to for herself.
An assemble of seashore detritus (including the natural – a starfish, a shell – and the human-made acted on by nature – terracotta studded with small shells, a fossilised curve of wood), that feels put together by hand in the instant, in the access of a similar sea-swept feeling, the pursuit of which was paramount. It made my friend feel that ‘I too could do this, in my own circumstances’ – that any of us could, I add now, produce something that expresses how you experience these complexes of constraint and freedom.
 Laura Smith, ‘Thinking Back Through Our Mothers: Making an Exhibition Led by the Writings of Virginia Woolf’, in Virginia Woolf: An Exhibition Inspired By Her Writings, ed. By Laura Smith and Enrico Tassi with Eloise Bennett (Tate Publishing, 2018), (pp.21-26), p.25.
Virginia Woolf: An Exhibition Inspired By Her Writings was shown at the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, from 2nd October to 9th December 2018. See here for more information.