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ART REVIEW

A taste of the communal on display

Works show Bloomsbury’s strengths, failings

Among the works in “A Room of Their Own,’’ an exhibit focusing on the artists known as the Bloomsbury group, are Vanessa Bell’s portrait of Virginia Woolf. Among the works in “A Room of Their Own,’’ an exhibit focusing on the artists known as the Bloomsbury group, are Vanessa Bell’s portrait of Virginia Woolf. (Stephen Petegorsky)
By Sebastian Smee
Globe Staff / May 2, 2010

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NORTHAMPTON — I don’t particularly care for the art produced by the members of the so-called Bloomsbury group. It gives off a feeling — like so much early modern English art — of politeness, a sense that good manners and collegiality will always triumph over true feeling.

Yet of course Bloomsbury itself — that uniquely English cluster of genius, snobbery, and incestuous relations — is endlessly fascinating. And so the remarkable exhibition at the Smith College Museum of Art, “A Room of Their Own: the Bloomsbury Artists in American Collections,’’ is well worth a visit.

It has around 160 works, many from private collections, and others borrowed from major institutions like the Metropolitan Museum in New York and The Art Institute of Chicago. Full of rare and fascinating objects, the show offers fans of Bloomsbury a sturdier, more palpable alternative to the millions of words that befog the group’s comings and goings like English weather (so many of them written by members of the group or writers with intimate links to it).

By focusing on works in American collections, the exhibition also gives a good overview of the taste for Bloomsbury in this country. The show’s weight falls equally on paintings, drawings, and the decorative designs for things like table tops, tiles, and chairs that were part of Bloomsbury’s attempts to dissolve the distinction between art and craft.

Some of the loveliest things in it are the designs Duncan Grant and Vanessa Bell made for the Omega Workshops, established by the art critic and painter Roger Fry in 1913 with the aim of producing furniture, textiles, and household goods. There are also some marvelous book covers and illustrations published by the Hogarth Press, which Leonard and Virginia Woolf founded in 1917.

The “Bloomsberries’’ (as members of the group were genially called) included the 20th century’s most influential economist — John Maynard Keynes — as well as writers of the caliber of Virginia Woolf and E.M. Forster, and one of the century’s great biographers and critics, Lytton Strachey. All these people play parts in “A Room of Their Own’’: They’re depicted in intimate portraits: sleeping, reading, drawing, smoking pipes.

But the show’s headline attractions are Bell and Grant, with Fry (once described by the art historian Kenneth Clark as “incomparably the greatest influence on taste since [John] Ruskin’’) playing a crucial supporting role.

When first their mother and then their stuffy, authoritarian father died, it fell to Vanessa Woolf, as the elder sister, to establish a house for her siblings — Virginia, Thoby and Adrian — in Gordon Square, in the London neighborhood known as Bloomsbury. That was in 1904. Vanessa was 25, and Virginia, who was prone to debilitating mental breakdowns, was 22. After Thoby’s brilliant friends from Cambridge University became regular visitors, the house became a base — half sanctuary, half headquarters — for an assortment of friends, siblings, and suitors.

“We decorated our house with washes of plain distemper,’’ Virginia wrote later. “We were full of experiments and reforms. We were going to paint, to write, to have coffee after dinner instead of tea at nine o’clock. Everything was going to be new; everything was going to be different. Everything was on trial.’’

I love that passage. Just imagine it: a clean slate. One’s own, empty house after a lifetime of domestic, Victorian clutter and years of paternal tyranny. The sense of bursting freedom in Woolf’s description is palpable.

And yet that one phrase — “coffee after dinner instead of tea at nine o’clock’’ — also exposes the limits of Bloomsbury’s artistic adventurousness. Woolf’s tone may have been fondly ironic, but the determination to switch from tea to coffee does not exactly suggest a revolutionary manifesto. I have scoured the letters of Vincent Van Gogh and Paul Cézanne and the biography of Henri Matisse (the French geniuses championed by Bloomsbury) for similar formulations, and have come up dry.

Yet before we judge the diluted, derivative productions of Bell, Grant, and Fry too harshly, it would be well to remember the prevailing attitude toward the Impressionists and Post-Impressionists in England at the time. According to Clive Bell, the art historian whom Vanessa finally agreed to marry in 1906 (she had rejected him twice), “the director of the Tate Gallery refused to hang [Cézanne’s] pictures. Van Gogh was denounced every day almost as an incompetent and vulgar madman; . . . and when Roger Fry showed a Matisse to the Art Workers Guild the cry went up, ‘Drink or drugs?’ ’’

To champion the art of the Post-Impressionists and early moderns in such an atmosphere was itself heroic. Bloomsbury’s role in transforming aesthetic taste in Britain, as well as Canada, the United States, and Australia, is hard to overstate.

That said, Virginia Woolf may have been slightly exaggerating when she wrote that “on or about December, 1910, human character changed.’’ She was referring, it is widely believed, to “Manet and the Post-Impressionists,’’ an exhibition of works by Manet, Cézanne, Picasso, Matisse, Van Gogh, and others organized by Fry and Clive Bell. It opened in November of that year.

The public poured scorn on the show. The press snorted. Professors at the Slade School of Art, we’re told in an essay in the SCMA show’s catalog, “forbade their students to visit the exhibition, since the works on display ran contrary to all of the Slade’s teaching.’’

Fry, who was classically trained and had studied the old masters, was convinced that the avant-garde in France was developing a new way of seeing, a way that, despite initial appearances, was underpinned by reason and common sense. Tellingly, the qualities in the new painting he valued were its “discretion’’ and “harmony of color,’’ its “force and completeness of pattern,’’ and the “general sense of well-being’’ it entailed.

Matisse, fighting similar wars with a profoundly skeptical public at home, said comparable things about his art. But Grant and Bell were perhaps a little too ready to accept them at face value: There was no countervailing toughness, no real nose for bliss — with the result that the art they produced, even as it displayed outward daring, betrayed psychological conservatism.

Of course, conservatism and radicalism, being relative terms, are hard to measure in the context of Bloomsbury. Its members were as disparate and argumentative as they were affectionate and amorous. One famous anecdote is worth keeping in mind when strolling through this otherwise dainty and decorous show. According to Woolf, Lytton Strachey, walking into a room and seeing a stain on Vanessa’s white dress, had said simply, “Semen?’’

“With that one word,’’ Woolf continued, “all barriers of reticence and reserve went down. A flood of the sacred fluid seemed to overwhelm us. Sex permeated our conversation. The word bugger was never far from our lips.’’

It is fair to say that Bell, Grant, and Fry were ultimately more adventurous in their personal relations than in their art. In 1911, Fry began an affair with Bell. Two years later, she proceeded to fall in love with Duncan Grant, although she and Fry remained close friends. Grant and Bell moved in together, and she had a daughter, presumed to be by him, despite his active homosexuality, in 1918.

Bell’s paintings, with their brushy touch, their harmonious distillations of form, their feel for color and pattern, seem most influenced by Matisse. Grant’s, with their carefully woven tapestries of parallel brushstrokes, bear the stamp of Cézanne.

These two artists alone account for around 100 works in the show, which was organized by the Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art at Cornell University, in conjunction with the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University. It comes to Smith, its penultimate venue, after traversing the country for over a year, and is accompanied by a scholarly and approachable catalog and a useful website (www.museum.cornell.edu/bloomsbury/home).

The show also includes a dozen or so paintings and drawings by Dora Carrington, the fascinating, androgynous figure with lesbian leanings who had an affair with the homosexual Lytton Strachey, but remained on the periphery of Bloomsbury.

Perhaps the Bloomsbury artists were too mired in “relationships,’’ their ideals and aspirations too communal, to allow them to approach the individual genius of their French counterparts. Certainly, when Vanessa’s granddaughter Virginia Nicholson recalled of Charleston, the home of Vanessa and Duncan Grant, that it was a place where “Art was something everyone could do. Paint and clay, mud, glue, and matches, were all endlessly available,’’ one gets a sense, amid so much plenty, of what may have been missing.

Sebastian Smee can be reached at ssmee@globe.com

Correction: Because of a reporting error, this review mischaracterized the gender of the child artist Vanessa Bell had in 1918. She had a daughter. Also, because of an editing error, the review misstated Bell’s maiden name. It was Stephen.

A ROOM OF THEIR OWN: The Bloomsbury Artists in American Collections

At: Smith College Museum of Art, Northampton, through June 15. 413-585-2760,

www.smith.edu/artmuseum