Vanessa Bell at the Dulwich Picture Gallery

Vanessa Bell was a visionary, a modern woman always on the brink of something new.  An exhibit on her life and work opened at the Dulwich Picture Gallery on 8 February and will be running through 4 June 2017.


If you are have an interest in the 20th century’s revolutionary art history, or an appreciation for the arts in general, this exhibit will be a treat.

Bell’s life was tied to a myriad of big art names of the 20th century – like her sister, Virginia Woolf. The exhibit even mentions how she visited Picasso’s studio in 1914, and in the company of Gertrude Stein. Bell’s relationships and influences are evident in her work.

Going in, it will be helpful to have a base knowledge of the Bloomsbury Group, of which Vanessa Bell was at the center. The Bloomsbury Group were a group of artists, writers and intellectuals that met to share ideas in the London home of Vanessa Bell for three decades, beginning in 1905. A panel in the exhibition mentioned that “Bell’s household was a space of tolerance and creativity, where pacifism, atheism, homosexuality and open marriage were embraced as fundamental freedoms in step with modern times.”


Vanessa Bell, Studland Beach. Verso: Group of Male Nudes by Duncan Grant,c.1912. Oil on canvas, 76.2 x 101.6 cm. Tate: Purchased 1976. © The Estate of Vanessa Bell, courtesy of Henrietta Garnett. Photo credit: © Tate, London 2016.

The Bloomsbury Group are known both for their unconventional lifestyles and for their contributions to modern art, literature and design.

The exhibit is comprised of six rooms of her work, each organized by a theme: Portraits, Design and Experimentation, Still Life, At Home, Landscape and Pictures of Women. And while these rooms do not occupy a grand amount of physical space, they are rich, and would take hours to look at and absorb everything. That, however, would not be a waste of time. But if you are more interested in viewing only the highlights, there are some hidden gems you may not want to miss.

The Design and Experimentation room shows off Bell’s innovative accomplishments with the Omega Workshops. It is a joy to see her creativity come to life in works where she played with the “dynamics of colour and composition,” as the exhibit mentions. From early cubist-inspired paintings of women to linen patterns and book covers you’ll see the risks she took with abstract composition. In a glass display on the right side of this room are original book cover designs for her sister, Virginia Woolf’s novels.


Vanessa Bell 1879–1961,Design for Omega Workshops Fabric, 1913, Watercolor, gouache, and graphiteonpaper, Image: 53.3 × 40.7 cm, Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Fund. 3353 -B1992.14.2© The Estate of Vanessa Bell, courtesy of Henrietta Garnett.

To get the most of your visit, I recommend reading the bigger descriptive panel in each room, as well as the plaques next to the paintings that interest you. The exhibit allows you to understand the historical setting into which each work was created. The plaques often tell a story about the relationship between Bell and her subject, or about the subject’s life.

As someone interested in art history, I would have liked to know a bit more about the significance of her painting style. However, in several instances reference is made to her inspirations, such as with the piece ‘’Still Life (Triple Alliance)’’ in the At Home room. This piece is another highlight, and my personal favorite. Bell took clear inspiration from Picasso’s 1912 ‘’Bottle of Suze’’ from her visit to his studio. Her piece is a collage – a radical technique in the early 20th century – using photographs, train tickets, paint, bottle labels, newspaper and more. The title refers to the alliance of Britain, France and Russia against Germany, and the piece carries a subversive message about life during the First World War.


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

Another highlight, and the best window into Bell’s radical life, is the glass display in the At Home room. Here, view her sketchbooks, letters to friends like Roger Fry, and photos of her children and the Bloomsbury Group. The descriptive plaques and panels help bring the whole story to life.

In the Pictures of Women room, the last room of the exhibit, you can see the complexities yet completeness of who Vanessa Bell was as an artist. The paintings in this room don’t even look like they are all from the same artist – and I would say that was true of each room. The organization of the displays, by each room category, create a curiosity about the artist which the exhibit does answer.

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

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

Throughout the exhibit I had the feeling I was witnessing something revolutionary. Bell left a legacy by pushing the boundaries of style, new design, and even lifestyle. She is a female figure who should not be forgotten today.

Through a crimson hall decorated in Rubens’ and Van Dyke’s is a room with Legacy: Photographs by Vanessa Bell and Patti Smith. The photo exhibit across the hall shows how she inspired musical artist Patti Smith. Also containing family photo albums made by Vanessa Bell herself, this room offers a peek into the inner workings of these two women and what they cared about. It is the perfect way to wrap up the story of Vanessa Bell’s life that the Dulwich Picture Gallery’s exhibit so beautifully tells.

Vanessa Bell at Dulwich Picture Gallery is on until 4 June 2017.

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