‘Virginia Woolf: Art, Life and Vision’ in Portraiture

virginia woolf

The National Portrait Gallery (NPG) in London will explore the 20th century novelist, Virginia Woolf through portraiture in Virginia Woolf: Art, Life and Vision from July 10, 2014 through October 26, 2014. Guest curated by Bloomsbury biographer, Frances Spalding, the major exhibition of portraits and rare archival material will trace Virginia Woolf’s life and achievements “as a novelist, intellectual, campaigner and public figure.”

The show will highlight more than 100 works including photographs taken by George Charles Beresford and Man Ray, along with paintings and intimate images documenting her time spent with family, friends and literary peers. It will also focus on the lesser-known facets of her attraction to London, understanding of modernity, and her emerging political and feminist views. Woolf’s world will be examined through extensive research and a range of archival materials, including diaries, letters and books.

Born Adeline Virginia Stephen in London, 1882, Virginia Woolf was the daughter of renowned author-literary critic, Leslie Stephen. Although she did not receive a formal education, she was home-schooled and liberally read from her father’s vast library. She was the center of English literary culture where she was surrounded in an intellectual household that was well-connected to Victorian literary society.

Despite her Victorian upbringing, Virginia Woolf was resolved to institute new methods of criticism and creative writing. Starting in 1905, Virginia and her sister, Vanessa Bell hosted “Thursday evening gatherings” that convened at 46 Gordon Square, in Bloomsbury. It led to the development of the Bloomsbury group of writers, intellectuals and artists, of which the sisters were central figures.

Virginia woolf

Noted for their original ideas and tradition-breaking practices, the Bloomsbury circle included English notables such as art critic, Clive Bell,  Post-Impressionist-art critic, Roger Fry and biographer, Lytton Strachey to name a few. The Bloomsbury era was a remarkable period when art was assimilated into English society.

Virginia Woolf referred to December 2010 as a pivotal time in her life. It was when Roger Fry and Clive Bell brought French Post-Impressionism to London in the 1910 exhibition, Manet and the Post-Impressionists at the Grafton Galleries. Although the English were not entirely primed for the “modernist sensibilities,” it introduced the public to modern art and the developments in visual arts that had already been taking place in France.

It specifically influenced Woolf’s growth as a modernist writer. In her works, she shred time-honored conventions, and amended notions about plot, structure, and characterization.

For example, in her most notable novels – Jacob’s Room, Mrs. Dalloway and The Waves – Woolf initiated the ‘stream of consciousness’ writing style. Her writings inspire contemporary writers today and have been tailored to the stage and screen.

Woolf’s political consciousness, which was most flagrant during the Spanish Civil War, trickles into her novels such as in the Three Guineas (1938), when she asks, “What can we do to prevent war?” The English author supported fundraising events for those marked by the Spanish Civil war. The NPG exhibition will include Weeping Woman drawings by Pablo Picasso, which he had created especially for a Royal Albert Hall fundraising event in which Virginia Woolf attended.

Unfortunately, Virginia Woolf suffered from periods of mental illness, starting at age 13. In 1941, shortly before her death, she wrote to her sister, Vanessa Bell. Kept in the British Library’s manuscript collection, but to be on display for the exhibit, it said, “I feel I have gone too far this time to come back again. I am certain now that I am going mad again.” At age 59, the novelist could no longer face her demons, and committed suicide. Virginia Woolf was one of Britain’s most prominent writers and thinkers, “who played a pivotal role at the heart of modernism in the early 20th century,” noted director of the National Portrait Gallery, Sandy Nairne.

By Dawn Levesque

Dictionary of Art Historians
National Portrait Gallery
The Independent

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