Saturday, 8 December 2018

Why Woolf?

My problems began with the title of this show (Virginia Woolf: an exhibition inspired by her writings,). If this is an exhibition inspired by Woolf’s writings, then did all the artists shown read Woolf? I don’t think so. Were they all influenced directly by Woolf? I don’t think so either. So I questioned the justification; why choose these seemingly unrelated works? Some, but not all, of the works clearly had a family connection, or a geographical connection - Virginia Woolf had many childhood holidays in St Ives. But most of the works have no connection with St Ives. Why, then, this show?

After reading several reviews, it seems the connection is a very broad one indeed. The Times described the exhibition as “not … about her life per se. Rather, spanning the period 1850 to the present day, it will use her work as a prism through which to look at her influences. About 250 works, by 80 or so female artists … will reflect her ideas about the depictions of landscape, about domesticity and ways of representing the feminine persona.” That explains the exhibition; or at least, it gets us started.

On that basis, the exhibition is a survey of art very loosely based around Woolf’s major themes, including landscapes, the role of women, and interiors and exteriors (Laura Smith, the curator, states Woolf “is always pointing out the dichotomies between interior and exterior”). So far so good.

Male and female spaces
It is only when looking at the specific works, and what commentators say about those works, that questions arise. Of course, given Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own, it is to be expected some works will be about interior spaces; for example, the Vanessa Bell Interior with Table. But is this a specifically female space?

In what way is it feminine, without imposing stereotypes on what constitutes male or female spaces? Does this mean I, as a man, am restricted to the terraces of a football stadium? Can that interior not also be mine?

Similarly, Jackie Wullschlager, writing in the FT, attempts to characterise male and female visions of nature: “Many [of the artists here], as Woolf does in The Waves, subvert the heroic macho seascape — Courbet, Monet — into psychosexual landscape or image of interiority.” As soon as you start to provide gender labels to images of nature, you run the risk of falling into stereotypes rather than subverting or ignoring them.  For me, the sea is neither male nor female. But for this exhibition, it seems that every painting and every natural vision has to be one or the other. JW talks about “powerful feminised takes on landscape”, as if the natural world is a battlefield to be captured either by the male or the female gaze. Rachel Campbell-Johnston in The Times claims that female landscapes are simply not always from one view: “What emerges [from this exhibition] is a multifaceted patchwork of possibilities that challenges the clear divisions of the conventional — and perhaps typically masculine — viewpoint that tends to bisect the landscape with a horizon line right across the middle.” It is an unlikely claim, that there is a specifically masculine or feminine landscape.

Woolf as the inspiration for all C20 feminist art
Of course, this exhibition cannot be held responsible for some of the wilder statements by enthusiastic reviewers. For Vivienne Hopley-Jones in Varsity “Smith’s exhibition tore away any remaining misconceptions I had been fed about the historical contributions of women to the arts”. If that is the justification, that Woolf talked generally about women contributing to the arts, then any female involvement from that point on becomes fair game – fine, but I wonder why Woolf’s statement should be the key that drives all female contribution to 20th-century visual art? Is this not perhaps another example of British audiences having a rather inflated idea of the importance of British cultural figures in the history of art? To continue with Hopley-Jones, “[in this exhibition] Woolf is used as a point of access to the vast world of female art within which she is situated.” My question is, why Woolf? I have nothing against an exhibition or a gallery of women’s art, but why unite it through a wealthy aristocrat who dd not believe in equal opportunities for women and had a patronising attitude towards her own female servants? Or perhaps, quite simply, the word “Woolf” in the title brings the crowds in, even if she wasn’t even a painter?

Even Jackie Wullschlager in the FT, although her review was more balanced than any other I have read, makes claims for this exhibition that are I think unwarranted: “Unfolding like a stream-of-consciousness novel, the show explores across more than a century of women’s art Woolf’s key concerns: memories, Modernist form, sexual politics, and the relationship between them.” That’s fine. However, Wullschlager also states: “These connections [between Woolf’s writings and the paintings displayed] are vibrant, affecting and make sense biographically and art historically: here are artists like Woolf seeking in Modernism a new language for female experience”. Many of the paintings on display (as for example those by Laura Knight) are not Modernist, and in any case, I don’t think it makes sense to claim Modernism as a specific language for female experience.

Poor paintings

Jackie Wullschlager pointed out that "overall, quality is tepid". There are certainly some poor paintings, even by painters who are normally talented, such as Laura Knight's The Dark Pool. An unmemorable landscape, a solitary woman, not much of a pool, and not dark. 

As for Dora Carrington’s Spanish Landscape with Mountains, it’s just a bad painting. It belongs to that period of heavily male-dominated surrealism when artists felt encouraged to depict any non-representational shape in the hope that it might suggest some deep-seated unconscious idea. Surrealist landscapes fill the store rooms of many 20th-century collections except when dusted down, as here. The mountains may be breasts, but that hardly makes it a female vision – breasts, and breast-like shapes, are ubiquitous in Dali landscapes.

Agnes Martin

Agnes Martin seems to be a touchstone. I question how her Morning (1965) can be seen as part of Woolf’s vision, without any evidence from the painting that links it to Woolf or even to the female experience. Wullschlager links this painting to the show in the following way: “Agnes Martin’s softening of austere minimalism in “Morning” (1965), whose quivering lines and atmospheric veils evoke grey dawn by the Atlantic.” Perhaps they do, for her, but I see the achievement of Martin as what she has left out, so that the result is not male, or female, or even representational, but a kind of satisfying symmetry; Martin herself described it as “I was painting about happiness and bliss and they are simple states of mind I guess”. Not, in other words, specifically feminine (I hope). Next time I visit St Ives, and look at the sea out of the Tate St Ives window, perhaps I should remind myself that this is Virginia Woolf’s vision, not mine.

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