The Other Room, oil on canvas. Collection of Bryan Ferry. 161 x 174 cm.

The Other Room, oil on canvas. Late 1930s.

With Vanessa Bell, Dulwich Picture Gallery, which celebrates its 200th anniversary this year, continues to shed light on women artists of the last century. They include Winifred Knights, Emily Carr and this October, Tove Jansson.

Before reaching the spaces dedicated to Bell’s paintings, visitors may be surprised to discover some tiny black and white Polaroid photos by Patti Smith, tucked in amongst the Dulwich’s old masters.

So what connects legendary Punk singer, poet and performer, Patti Smith, notorious for her lyrics Jesus died for somebody’s sins but not mine? and her People Have the Power anthem, with Vanessa Bell?

Answer: they were both iconoclasts who brought together personal life and art. Smith, like so many others, was enthralled by Charleston, the Sussex farmhouse. Bell first moved there in October 1916 and stayed for some forty years.

Smith captures the intimacy of the place in strangely haunting shots of Vanessa’s bed, library and paintbrushes, as well as the nearby home of Virginia Woolf, Vanessa’s sister.

Displayed near Smith’s time-travelling images are Bell’s own family photo albums, chronicling life and times at Charleston in an equally intimate fashion. They provide a fascinating background to the painted versions of the same individuals which are captured in Bell’s family snaps.

Under her wing, Charleston became a magical place. It was a kind of artists and writers colony-cum-refuge all in one house. Here people could live differently, outside the conventions of London and society, during the traumas of World War I and after.

Bell was its beating heart, providing stability, love and inspiration.“Here was a woman,” writes curator Sarah Milroy, “who had made her way into the art world at a time when women artists were still a novelty; who had managed despite her fiercely patriarchal upbringing to take herself seriously…”

Milroy and fellow curator, Ian Dejardin, have selected from a rambling oeuvre to focus on Bell’s sense of daring and willingness to take risks.

This sprang from her own temperament and a strong connection with international movements which she experienced in frequent trips to Italy and France. Bell, her husband Clive, and lovers Duncan Grant and Roger Fry were true cosmopolitans, equally at home in Paris as in London. The Bells met Picasso in 1914. Clive was the first person in England to purchase a painting by Picasso, a 1907 still life.

Charleston nourished artistic innovation, intellectual debate and sexual freedom, providing refuge for those who bravely refused to join up to fight. Duncan Grant and writer David Garnett, both conscientious objectors, lived at Charleston while working as farm labourers.

Vanessa Bell

Vanessa Bell, Self-portrait 1915

Bell was staunchly opposed to war on principle.  Writing to her sister Virginia in 1918, she linked warmongering to capitalism: “The waste of the whole thing strikes me as more idiotic than ever,” she wrote after Armistice Day. “I haven’t time to tell you about it but I am almost become a communist. Really, the respectable rich with their dogs and their clothes and their cars all rolling in while they eat and play tennis and become soldiers is enough to make me revolt.”

Among Friends, the opening space at Dulwich, is a kind of rogue’s gallery, with Bell bringing to life her sitters, not by painstaking observation, but through quirky poses and audacious colours. Her portrait of Virginia (one of four  made in 1912) is astonishingly secretive. The face is reduced to blurred pink, red, brown and flesh-coloured brushstrokes.  Half-hidden by the sides of an easy chair, it has a remote and contemplative quality.

There is also a 1929 painting of Bell’s mother Julia Stephen, the prototype for Mrs Ramsay, the leading character in Virginia Woolf’s famous novel, To the Lighthouse, published in 1927. Julia, a famous beauty, died in 1895, when Vanessa was sixteen.

Going backwards in time, Bell’s self-portrait of 1915 throws down a challenge. Deliberately unflattering, as indeed most of her portraits are, her nose protrudes and her chin is set on a stocky neck, set against a vibrant abstract backdrop.

Whilst the thematic display is a bit confusing, Bell comes across as a true innovator. Her work from 1909 to 1914 shows her amongst the very first British artists to work in an abstract vein. Two scenes of Studland Beach from this period show her in superb form.

While she soon departed from this reductive abstraction to observation-based brightly-coloured landscapes, figures, portraits and still lives, she incorporated her acute sense for visual and colour harmonies into later work, retaining what Milroy describes as her “rough eloquence” – avoiding prettiness and sentimentality.

The grand The Other Room (late 1930s) suggests psychological tensions in active planes of colour and pattern, balanced in a poignant way. Individual reflections become physical presence. Vuillard’s tissued patterning and Matisse relaxed colours hover. Virginia Woolf’s stream of consciousness is given colour and shape on her sister’s canvas.

Don’t miss this fitting tribute to a woman who had the courage to forge new directions in life and art. And to persevere despite the tragic loss of family members and lovers, as her defiant final self-portrait attests.

Vanessa Bell and Legacy by Patti Smith are at Dulwich Picture Gallery until 4 June. Open Tuesday-Sunday, 10am-5pm.

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