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Virginia Woolf's Cooler Older Sister Was an Artist Who Embraced Open Marriage Virginia Woolf's Cooler Older Sister Was an Artist Who Embraced Open Marriage

"Self-Portrait" by Vanessa Bell, courtesy of Dulwich Picture Gallery

Virginia Woolf's Cooler Older Sister Was an Artist Who Embraced Open Marriage

Vanessa Bell's family ties and outrageous love life have long overshadowed her talent, but a new retrospective aims to rectify the imbalance.

When I entered the Vanessa Bell exhibit at the Dulwich Picture Gallery, my eye was first drawn not to the paintings but to a line of bright blue blazers. Four students in uniform stood in front of a portrait of the celebrated painter Duncan Grant. Each held identical oversized drawing pads and packets of thick pastels. In the portrait they copied, Grant is looking into a mirror, with a towel draped over his head. The moment is intimate and coy, a domesticated reversal of the Rokeby Venus. The accompanying caption speculates that Grant may be in the process of steaming a head cold.

These young students—overseen by a passive art teacher, who stood in the corner of the room—seemed completely absorbed by Bell's paintings. I don't think it occurred to them that they were sketching anything scandalous, as they worked over their pastels with focus. They were, I imagine, unaware of the scandalous associations that Bell's name carries: her open marriage to the art critic Clive Bell, the nude photographs she took of her friends and children, her unorthodox affair with Duncan Grant (who mostly slept with men), her progressive free-love ethos, and her reputation as the "grounding domestic goddess" of the queer world of Bloomsbury.

The same could not be said of the adults in the gallery. "Why do you think she's been overlooked?" one older woman loud-whispered to her younger companion, "Is it because she's a woman, or because she's average?"

"I think it's because of her life," the other woman replied.

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And what a life it was. Bell was born Vanessa Stephen, and raised in Hyde Park as the eldest daughter of respected scholar Leslie Stephen and Pre-Raphaelite muse Julia Stephen. Being born into such privilege perhaps allowed her to break free of tradition; in her writings, Bell describes how at an early age she sought to undo her stuffy Victorian surroundings at home, hiding family heirlooms and enlisting her brother to help her take down the gaudy chandelier in the foyer. In 1904, after her parents' deaths, Vanessa struck out to Bloomsbury with her sister Virginia, to build a world on their own terms.

One year later, inspired by her travels in Paris, Bell established the legendary Friday Club, an artists' group whose members over the years included the most influential Modernist artists in Britain. Bell built a reputation for her love of artistic collaboration and elaborate dinner parties. At Bloomsbury, the orbit that encircled both sisters included E. M. Forster, economist John Maynard Keynes, and, of course, the art critic Clive Bell and the writer Leonard Woolf, their respective husbands.

"Virginia Woolf, née Stephen" by Vanessa Bell. Courtesy of the Dulwich Picture Gallery

Shrugging off Victorian principles of chasteness and fidelity, Clive and Vanessa Bell entered an open marriage, and each took lovers over the course of their long partnership. (Though they stopped living together around the start of World War I, they remained close friends and never divorced.) This was a marriage open in spirit as well as in principle: a portrait of one of Clive's lovers, Mary Hutchinson, a married woman known for her beauty, hangs in the exhibit; in another room hangs a headboard that Bell herself designed for Hutchinson.

In 1918, Bell moved to Charleston in Sussex, with her two sons, Bloomsbury's gay heartthrob Duncan Grant, and his bisexual lover David Garnett. Despite Grant's usual preference for men, he and Vanessa grew close as lovers as well as friends, creating a kind of familial love triangle at Charleston. When Bell and Grant conceived their daughter Angelica—Bell's third child—Clive Bell raised her as his own along with her two older brothers. (Angelica would go on to marry Garnett, which was, for Grant and the Bells, a step too far even for their open-minded tastes, and a source of ongoing hurt between Angelica and her biological father.)

She was anti-war, she was queer-positive in the sense that she had an open marriage and unconventional child-rearing practices.

Bell was passionate about curating her surroundings, and alongside painting, she poured herself into designing and decorating her homes. This was not a case of compromising her art for her domestic duties: She took her roles as mother, lover, and homemaker as facets of her role as artist, adapting those identities to suit her creative life, and discarding the past century's ideals wherever they impeded her own convictions.

Her work was itself a rejection of Victorian femininity, narrow-minded visions of beauty, and conventional ideas of family, and this defiance extended into her politics. Bell was, throughout her life, staunchly anti-war, and viewed the senseless killing of World War I as "idiotic." Her views on sexuality would be deemed progressive even by the conservatives of our time. In letters cited by curator Sarah Milroy in her introduction to the new Vanessa Bell monograph, Bell rails against the social mores and judgments of the upper class she was born into, mocking the "respectable rich" and their ideas of a "conventional home." Critic and fellow artist Roger Fry once told Bell, "You have a genius in your life as well as your work." The trick was that for Bell, there was no distinction.

Vanessa Bell. Photo courtesy of Dulwich Picture Gallery

For male artists, like Bell's friend Picasso, a rich and scandalous personal life only serves to increase interest in the artist's work; it is seen as an overflow of the male artist's sensibility and a demonstration of his lust for life, rather than a lack of seriousness. For women artists, it is a liability, and Bell's unorthodox life has served as a fat, distracting watermark across her work. Individual Bell paintings have been displayed in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Tate, and the National Portrait Gallery, as well as in exhibits about the Bloomsbury crowd as a whole, but unlike her companions Grant and Fry, Bell has never been afforded the attentive honor of a show in her name alone.

Milroy and Ian Dejardin's retrospective is defiant in its presentation of Bell as artist, not muse. In an interview with Broadly, Milroy said that she and Dejardin did not want to "shoot people down the same old rabbit hole: Vanessa as muse, Vanessa as beauty, Vanessa as the grounding domestic goddess. It all skirts around her judgment, her intelligence, her wit, her grasp of art history. These are the things we really wanted to assert."

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And there is much to celebrate in Bell's style, which takes the best elements of Modigliani, Sargent, and Matisse and transforms them through a certain joyfulness of touch, the rough playfulness of a painter for whom painting was not a discipline apart from life but one set within it. With her manipulations of color and texture, Bell can show us one portrait subject's myopia through muted teal dashes, another's devotion to piano-playing through fast dashes of taupe for his hands. In a portrait of her sister Virginia, Bell gives us, in a smudge, the distracted look of a depressive lost in thought.

When I asked Milroy about the choice to create this exhibit now, she described the timing as "fortuitous," as the exhibit opened in the wake of Brexit's shockwaves and the election of an openly misogynist American president. "Beyond her artmaking, she was anti-war, she was queer-positive in the sense that she had an open marriage and unconventional child-rearing practices, she was very open to the Continent," Milroy said. "There's a way in which her circle of British artists and thinkers was very open to the world as well as to each other. That's a lighthouse to sail towards in these troubling times."

"The Other Room" by Vanessa Bell, courtesy of Dulwich Picture Gallery

Looking back at Bell's life and art, it is hard not to feel that we have, in some sense, not made much progress in our views of womanhood. We still ask "Can women have it all?" rather than "Can women have what they want?" We still often view the domestic as a space of diminished intellect, motherhood as a detriment to work, and womanhood itself as a burden.

Some of the most powerful paintings in the Bell exhibit are the most domestic and "womanly" in their subject matter. In particular, her 1914 Oranges and Lemons, which shows the visceral delight Bell took in a bright bouquet from Grant, and her 1935 Interior with the Artist's Daughter, which shows her daughter Angelica reading in the family library filled with surfaces, textiles, and household goods designed and decorated by Bell herself. Interior with the Artist's Daughter encapsulates so much of what is striking in Bell's work: her ability to elevate the denigrated work of motherhood and home-making through her creative practice. Bell does not give the sense of being a mother who finds ways to make art, or an artist who takes time to be a mother. She is both, simultaneously, and gloriously.

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"Why is there a very male assumption that women aren't using their real brain in domesticity, that somehow you have a brain for work and you have a brain that you raise your children with, and they're not related to each other?" Milroy asked. "These things cross-pollinate and percolate and intermingle and change each other. That's one of our great strengths: We have our feet in the mud of life, and that informs the way we understand everything from art to politics to everything. Bell embodies that."

Wandering back through the rooms of the gallery, I realized I'd passed through one without taking stock. Between two parts of the exhibit, there is a mausoleum, with tall pillars and a single quince-yellow stained glass window at the top, spilling golden light onto the gray stones. There are no Bell paintings in the mausoleum, but as I entered I saw two blue-blazered schoolchildren huddled off to the side, hunched over their sketchpads. I couldn't tell what they were sketching, until one looked up at the center of the room, where a toddler in a bright orange top and hot pink leggings was reaching for a doll she had dropped on the floor. The student looked back down at her pad, and continued.

Vanessa Bell (1879-1961) is showing at the Dulwich Picture Gallery through June 4.

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