Virginia Woolf: Art, Life and Vision

Art , Painting
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Gisele Freund ('Virginia and Leonard Woolf', 1939)
'Virginia and Leonard Woolf', 1939

© Estate GisËle Freund / IMEC Images

Lady Ottoline Morrell ('T.S. Eliot and Virginia Woolf', June 1924)
'T.S. Eliot and Virginia Woolf', June 1924

© National Portrait Gallery, London

Vanessa Bell ('Virginia Woolf', 1912)
'Virginia Woolf', 1912

© Estate of Vanessa Bell, courtesy Henrietta Garnett. Photo: © National Trust / Charles Thomas

Vanessa Bell ('Virginia Woolf', 1912)
'Virginia Woolf', 1912

© National Portrait Gallery, London

How much you enjoy this show depends on two things. 1) A pre-existing interest in and familiarity with the life and works of Virginia Woolf, and 2) a high tolerance for the posh, neurotic ‘intellectual aristocrats’ of the Bloomsbury group. It’s hard to forgive an artistic movement which named itself after an area characterised by its very big houses, and time has not been kind to the various thinkers, painters and writers who attended its self-conscious salons.

Not that you’d know from this exhibition: apart from the Twitter handle on the poster, this show’s contents, curation and setting could have happened at any time in the last 50 years. The letters, the diary pages, the first editions: all the dry evidence of a (groan) ‘literary life’. This being the NPG, there are, naturally, some portraits. Sadly, Woolf disliked having her picture taken, and many of Bloomsbury group couldn’t paint for toffee. General fail.

Looked at another way, though, it’s really quite interesting. Woolf is a towering figure of modernism, a writer who could dissect the domestic confines of her era with a psychological ruthlessness derived from her intellect and privilege. This show reminds you what an extraordinary achievement that was. There are also touching reminders of her chronic mental health problems, including letters found after her 1941 suicide, and a crudely defaced book of poems from 1915 by one of Darwin’s grandchildren, on which she has scrawled ‘Darwins should not be allowed to paint or write, only to sit in the fields naked.’ But it’s always hard to give writers a visual treatment, and Woolf is as ill-served by her artistic coterie in death as she was in life.

Chris Waywell

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