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A lesser known member of the influential Bloomsbury Group, Vanessa Bell’s paintings are subtle wonders rather than bombastic projections. Airy medleys of the passing world around, which, through their suggestions of the multiplicity of perspectives possible within a single view, signal a kinship to the work of her sister, Virginia Woolf.
‘On the Seine’ – 1921
In tones of deep sepia that never threaten to get above a mild brightness; this meditative, progressively hypnotic as you look at it painting, finds Bell playing expertly with reflection and depth. ‘On the Seine’ is a Matryoshka doll of a thing, a picture that peels deeply off into compelling inner segments through its weaving of bridges. The first of which giving way beneath its simple eaves to a second with an intriguing set of hollowed circles supporting the curve.
This insular, kaleidoscope effect, in which one bridge loops over another (and presumably another further on), evokes a real sense of levity. The water, imagined wonderfully through stammered brushwork, holds still, with the bridges seemingly floating weightless atop their own reflections rather than being cemented through the Seine. Even the leaves appear disembodied, hovering branchless above the crossing.
By reflecting the bridges against themselves this way, the delineation between what is surface and what is mere reflection becomes difficult at the forefront of the work and near impossible at its rear. The effect is one of second-guessing, a peaceful scene that is still abstracted slightly through an interesting visual twist.
Regardless of this however, there’s a real serenity to behold here. I especially love the fact that Bell posits the Seine not as the iconic Parisian river meandering past monuments, but a simple flow, one passing beneath bridges of nowhere in particular.
‘Frederick and Jessie Etchells Painting’ – 1912
From an earlier period of Bell’s career when she was attempting to expunge as much detail as possible in favour of color and design, there is restrained Fauvist element to this painting. Whilst nowhere near as wild as that group, (Click HERE for an earlier article about a forgotten Fauvist, Raoul Dufy), the exaggerated palette succeeds in drawing our attention to the fact that is very clearly a painting, one of which is of people who are very clearly painting.
Frederick in an eased pose as he jots, his suit and beard more standout than his non-existent eyes. Jessie far more stooped, her canvas leant up against the bag for support. Though their own images are away from view, a picture behind Jessie suggests a previous work, one of either a man beneath a streetlamp or an ostrich.
It is the body language though that I love most about this work, the fact that without any facial expressions at all Bell still manages to imbue the two busy artists with so much character. Perhaps this was possible as Vanessa Bell knew the two personally. Whilst living in Asheham House, near Lewes in Sussex, in the summer of 1912, artists came to stay including, briefly, Frederick Etchells and his sister Jessie. Bell supposedly thought Jessie ‘a nice character…and very silent’ but found Frederick difficult, and their visit was a strain. Something unintelligible in this soothing image of inward contemplation.
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