Darkling I listen; and, for many a time
I have been half in love with easeful Death,
Call’d him soft names in many a mused rhyme,
To take into the air my quiet breath;
Now more than ever seems it rich to die,
To cease upon the midnight with no pain,
While thou art pouring forth thy soul abroad
In such an ecstasy!
Still wouldst thou sing, and I have ears in vain—
To thy high requiem become a sod.
From “Ode to a Nightingale” by John Keats
In a 1930 review by Virginia Woolf of her sister Vanessa Bell’s paintings, Woolf writes, “[H]er pictures stand for something, are something and will be something which we will disregard at our peril. As soon not go to see them as shut the window when the nightingale is singing.” Virginia’s ode to her “nightingale” sister’s skill reciprocates the love Vanessa clearly felt for her sister as shown in her portrait of Virginia (above, from 1911-1912). Born May 30, 1879, Vanessa Bell found herself firmly within the artistic dervish known as the Bloomsbury group, which drove most artistic movements at the turn of the twentieth century in England. Wife of art critic Clive Bell, mother of art historian Quentin Bell, and lover of art critic Roger Fry and artist Duncan Grant, Vanessa Bell influenced and was influenced by many of the modern art theories of her time. Her portrait of Virginia Woolf pares down the details of her sister’s image to get at the bare honesty of her writings, so paradoxically forthcoming and revelatory within her obscure modernist idiom. As Virginia warns, we close the window on Vanessa’s talent at our peril.
Thanks to her association with Roger Fry, Vanessa gained a familiarity with Cubism, Futurism, Vorticism, and all the other “isms” swirling about British avant-garde art circles. Fry encouraged Vanessa to experiment in such modes against her more natural naturalist impulses. Bell’s Abstract Painting (above, from 1914) looks remarkably like one of Hans Hofmann’s “push and pull” paintings of choreographed blocks of color. Clive Bell’s theories on color and form may also have contributed to Vanessa’s conception of this startlingly abstract work, literally years ahead of its time. Vanessa knew the groundbreaking work of Picasso and Braque around this time, but even they never attempted such an abstraction of pure color and form.
In The Tub (above, from 1917), Vanessa returns to a more naturalistic subject—the bather. After seeing the bathers of Degas, Cezanne, and Matisse, Vanessa chose to tackle the female nude in the same setting. Originally, the nude woman wore a white chemise to cover herself partially. “I've taken out the woman's chemise,” Vanessa explained in a 1918 letter to Fry, “and in consequence she is quite nude and much more decent.” The idea of nudity being more “decent” than wearing clothes harks back to the idea of honesty as an ideal. Sadly, this painting was never hung and remained rolled up until being rediscovered in the 1970s. Vanessa resisted the post-World War I turn to Surrealism, choosing instead to concentrate on portraiture and a more naturalistic style. Perhaps if The Tub had been known during that time she would have received the full hearing that Virginia hoped for her.