The Charleston Attic

Tag: Bloomsbury Group

Duncan Grant and Henri Matisse

In August, the curatorial team began cataloguing the larger works on paper and canvas of the Angelica Garnett Gift. The discovery of a dynamic pencil drawing depicting four frantically moving figures encircling a fifth immediately bring Matisse’s famous work Dance to mind.

The rough sketch is undated and unsigned, and like so many of the quick ephemeral drawings by Grant in the Gift, it is in perfect condition. Was this sketch a design for a larger, more detailed work on canvas, perhaps? Had Grant directly been inspired by Matisse’s Dance?

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CHA/P/3004 Recto. Artist Unknown (Likely to be by Duncan Grant), study of moving figures in a circle, pencil on paper. Photograph © The Charleston Trust.

 

We have found several items in the archives that indicate an interest on the part of Bloomsbury in Matisse and his career. There are two records of Matisse exhibitions; one, a card for ‘The Exhibition of Contemporary French Painting’ (undated), and the other, a poster advertising a show at the Musee Matisse in 1955. We also found a commercial print of the work ‘Nu Bleu’, bought by Duncan Grant in 1968 after visiting the ‘Matisse 1869-1954’ Retrospective Exhibition at the Hayward Gallery by the Arts Council.

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CHA/E/222 Recto. Exhibition advertisement card, for Henri Matisse exhibition, date and place of exhibition unknown. Card © The Estate of Duncan Grant. . Photograph © The Charleston Trust.

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CHA/P/83 Recto. Print,  of Henri Matisse’s work ‘Nu Bleu’, purchased by Duncan Grant in 1968. Print © The Estate of Duncan Grant. . Photograph © The Charleston Trust.

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CHA/P/317  Recto. Poster, for Henri Matisse exhibition in Nice, France, in 1955. Poster © The Estate of Duncan Grant. Photograph © The Charleston Trust.

Nasturtiums, or Nasturtiums with the Painting ‘Dance’ I, as it was later named, features a memorable motif from the most well-known early modernist work by Matisse, ‘Dance’. In both works, the nude figures depicted form a circle, linked by their hands’ their bodies bowed in the joyful movement of dance. The scene is a celebratory one: the figures have shed their clothes with gay abandon, and are embracing all that is natural within and around themselves.

‘Here was a possible path,’ wrote Vanessa Bell of the first Post-Impressionist exhibition in 1910 in which Matisse’s work featured. ‘A sudden liberation and encouragement to feel for oneself, which were absolutely overwhelming.’[1] The desire to paint, then, matches the desire of Matisse’s nude figures to dance.

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Duncan Grant, ‘Dancers’, 1910, oil paint on canvas. Photograph © Tate.

Looking at Duncan Grant’s 1910 work Dancers , one can see straight away how Grant had been inspired by the bright colours, and the bold and dynamic figures caught in flowing movement that Matisse depicted in his Dance series. ‘It is as if Duncan had suddenly learnt to diminish the emphasis on materiality, on textures, light and shade, in order to allow for a more vibrant use of line, interval, structure and movement,’ writes Frances Spalding of Grant’s work. ‘Matisse helped liberate him from the tyranny of appearances.’

[1]Frances Spalding, Vanessa Bell, p.101

 

PS. It may be of interest to regular readers that we will shortly be bidding a sad farewell to the Charleston Attic. What a rewarding 6 months working as Curatorial Interns it has been- from the fascinating discoveries we have made to the in-depth research carried out, not forgetting our involvement with the Festival.

We would like to welcome our new Intern, Dr. Anne Stutchbury, to the Attic, and wish her the best of luck with her work.

A big thank you to our followers- your readership has been greatly appreciated! Keep following The Charleston Attic Blog for new and exciting archival discoveries and research insights…

 

Philippa Bougeard and Emily Hill

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This week a team from Dulwich Picture Gallery visited Charleston for the day in order to photograph objects and interiors for the upcoming exhibition ‘Vanessa Bell 1876-1961’.

A Bloomsbury Centenarian: On Anne Olivier Bell’s 100th Birthday

This week, Charleston celebrates a very special birthday – the 100th birthday of Anne Olivier Bell (née Popham) – Charleston’s President, and a prominent editor . In her 98th year, Mrs Bell received an MBE in honour of her longstanding services to art and literature, and looking back at her remarkable career, it is not difficult to see why.

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Anne Olivier Bell, pictured on her centenary birthday party at her Sussex home; Sunday 19th June 2016. Photograph, © The Charleston Trust 

 

Anne Olivier Popham trained as an art historian at the Courtauld Institute in the 1930s. The family had an artistic background; her father, Arthur Ewart Popham, was Keeper of the Department of Prints and Drawings at the British Museum. .

During the second world war, all women were expected to do work of national importance, and Anne Popham was no exception. She was employed by the Ministry of Information as a research assistant in the Photographs and Public Divisions. . In 1945, after the war had ended, she was recruited to join the so-called ‘Monuments Men’, a group of men and women from thirteen different nations who formed the Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives branch of the German Control Commission:

‘Many were museum directors, curators, art historians, architects and educators. Together they worked together to protect monuments and other cultural treasures from the destruction of World War II. In the last year of the War, they tracked, located, and in the years that followed returned more than five million artistic and cultural items stolen by Hitler and the Nazis. Their role in preserving cultural treasures was without precedent.’

[Robert Edsel, Founder and Chairman of the Board for the Monuments Men Foundation for the Preservation of Art]

In November that year, Miss Popham was posted to the MFAA Branch of the Control Commission based in Bünde, Westphalia in the British zone, where she co-ordinated the Branch Officers’ work. Her diaries from this two-year period, now preserved in the Imperial War Museum, chart the purposeful pace in which she and her colleagues carried out this stressful work.. As she recalls: ‘There was always a great deal of tension between the needs of the Military and the requirements of the Monuments Officers, especially in the invasion of France…’

In 1947 Popham returned to London, where she worked in the Exhibitions Department of the Arts Council of Great Britain (formed after the Second World War by John Maynard Keynes, who was appointed the first official Chair). Here, her proven flair for scholarship proved useful in her editing of exhibition catalogues.

It was not long afterwards that Olivier met Quentin, the son of the renowned art critic Clive Bell, , and Vanessa Bell, one half of the Bloomsbury painterly duo, who invited her to Charleston to sit for a portrait.

Quentin Bell was a painter and ceramicist who would later become Professor of Art History at Leeds University, and Professor of History and Theory of Art at Sussex University. In the 1960s Anne Olivier Bell worked with her husband on the first authorised biography of Virginia Woolf, published in 1972. This was followed by the publication of Woolf’s five-volume 1915-19 diaries, which she edited over the years between 1977 – 1984. These diaries, in their published form, have become a primary resource for the study and appreciation of Woolf and Bloomsbury.In recognition of this work Olivier Bell has received honorary doctorates from Sussex and York universities.

 

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CHA/E/41 Recto. Poster, a 1978 poster of Virginia Woolf advertising the publication of Volume 2 of her letters by the Hogarth Press, edited by Anne Oliver Bell. Photograph © The Charleston Trust

 

Anne Popham’s only encounter with Virginia Woolf was fleeting; she recalls noticing ‘this beautiful lady in a red silk dress’ at a Bloomsbury party. Vanessa Bell’s painting, ‘The Garden Room at Charleston’, captures perfectly the atmosphere of Anne Olivier Popham’s early visits to Charleston. The French windows are open to the garden, bright and lush, and one can sense the warmth of the afternoon. Miss Popham is the figure depicted sitting in a chair, turned towards the garden. In picturing this summery scene, it is easy to imagine the draw of the idyllic countryside to a London girl. Although she remembers feeling slightly daunted by the witty intellectuals with their interesting talk, she formed a good relationship with the artists Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant. Quentin Bell was also charmed by her, and asked her if he could model her head in clay. They were married in 1952.

 

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CHA/P/1567 Recto. Vanessa Bell, The Garden Room at Charleston, painting. Photograph © The Charleston Trust

 

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CHA/SC/22 Recto. Quentin Bell, Bust, ‘Head of Olivier Bell’, terracotta. Photograph © The Charleston Trust

 

In 1953, Vanessa Bell painted Anne Olivier Bell’s portrait again. The new Mrs Bell holds herself upright, her gaze directed thoughtfully into the distance. She is smartly dressed and looks dignified, and the same can be said about the recent photograph of her, taken 63 years later in the garden of her Sussex home at her centenary birthday party. Some things are timeless.

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CHA/P/1567 Recto. Vanessa Bell, Portrait of Olivier Bell, ‘Olivier Bell’, circa 1953, painting. Photograph © The Charleston Trust

 

Queer Heritage at Charleston

Lives and loves at Charleston have always aroused interest. The Bloomsbury group famously ‘loved in triangles’ often swapping friends for lovers and then back again, though part of its history that garners less space in its extensive writing is Bloomsbury’s queer heritage.

Virginia Woolf, although married to Leonard Woolf, had a relationship with English poet and novelist Vita Sackville-West.  A writer who wrote openly about queer relationships within in her novels, Woolf has been retrospectively labelled one of the most influential queer authors of the early 20th century. Woolf’s Orlando (1928) is a story about a young man who wakes up to find himself in a woman’s body and features two married women who embark on a long and romantic affair.  Orlando is believed to include five queer characters and discusses thoughtfully and importantly, sexual and gender ‘nonconformity’.

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 CHA/P/2655 Recto. Duncan Grant, study of a male nude seated, pencil on paper. Photograph © The Charleston Trust

Duncan Grant had sexual relationships with Lytton Strachey, Maynard Keynes, Arthur Hobhouse, David Garnett and Adrian Stephen (though this is certainly not an exhaustive list). His sexuality informs much of his art, often portraying strong male nudes, many post-coital and occasionally erotic in nature. These images are beautiful evidences of his sexual and aesthetic desires.

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 CHA/P/2656 Recto. Duncan Grant, study of a male nude lying on back, pencil on paper. Photograph © The Charleston Trust

Grant’s appreciation of the male (and female) form is evident in his work, much of his artistic oeuvre is absorbed in the human body and its movement. His creative production was one of the ways Grant expressed his identity at a time when established assumptions about gender and sexuality were both discriminatory and dangerous. Consequently, Grant is to be featured in a ‘Queer British Art’ exhibition at the Tate Britain in 2017, marking the 50 year anniversary of the decriminalization of male homosexuality in England. The queer heritage of Bloomsbury is also celebrated at Charleston, whether it be through guided tours, new research, or special events. LGBTQ narratives at Charleston specifically relating to Grant are not made to define his work, but to contextualize it. Many of his sketches and paintings show significant intimacy and interpretations of these works would be impossible in ignorance of the artist’s sexuality.

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CHA/P/2666 Recto. Duncan Grant, study of two male nudes, pen on paper. Photograph © The Charleston Trust

Museums roles have been fundamentally changing in recent years, and now much of their value is centered as agents of social change. Museums can, in many ways, contribute to a less prejudiced society; in providing context for contemporary issues they can share a narrative of the world and the past which is more inclusive of all citizens. Finally awarding a visible history to groups that have been for generations consistently marginalized, can go some way to promote and begin a process of healing.

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CHA/P/2671 Recto. Duncan Grant, study of a male nude standing, pen on paper. Photograph © The Charleston Trust

Charleston both acknowledges and celebrates its queer heritage; within house tours this information is inseparable from the history of the place and its occupants.  In 2010 a podcast was created exploring aspects of Duncan Grant’s life as a gay man. Previously unpublished interviews with Duncan Grant from 1969, together with new recordings by gay men who visited the house in the 1960s and 1970s, investigated the history of the house at this time as well as Charleston’s place within a wider queer history. In the summer of every year Charleston holds a ‘Gay Outing’ in conjunction with Brighton pride; a popular event which holds talks, film screenings, panel discussions and tours, all with LGBTQ focus.

At Charleston, ‘The kitchen was always warm and smelt of fresh coffee.’

For those who are regular readers of the The Charleston Attic blog, and have been following our progress as the newest Attic Interns through our work with the Angelica Garnett Gift, it may be of interest to hear that we have been spending some time away from the collection and from the attic in favour of the annual Charleston Festival.

Our festival roles took us downstairs through the house and into the kitchen. In keeping with the annual Festival tradition of curatorial services-turned-catering, we became fully immersed in our duties as ‘Green Room Hosts’; preparing for, receiving and generally looking after our guests with gusto. Perhaps we could have been seen as following in the footsteps of Grace Higgens (albeit for a very brief period), who worked tirelessly for over fifty years in the kitchen at Charleston.

 

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Axel Hesslenberg, The kitchen at Charleston. Photograph, The Charleston Trust © Axel Hesslenberg

Grace, who worked for the Bell family and at Charleston as a housemaid, nurse, cook and housekeeper, was regarded by Quentin Bell as ‘being mostly in the kitchen’. Grace’s daughter-in-law, Diana Higgens, who first visited her at Charleston in 1952, also recalled; ‘Grace spen[ding] long hours in the kitchen…’ Of Grace’s kitchen duties, she recalls that she was constantly busy; ‘…the Aga was her only means of cooking and had to be stoked up night and morning with coke. The kitchen had a concrete floor that she washed most days with a mop and bucket…The sink was an old yellow stone one, with a wooden draining board and a plate rack above to drain the plates off.’

Whilst the kitchen was altered quite a bit in the 1980s during the restoration, it has nearly always been used as a working kitchen from the days that the Bell family occupied Charleston. A photograph of it after the restoration, taken by Alan MacWeeney in the late 1990s, for the book, ‘Charleston: a Bloomsbury house and garden’, shows that the post-war modern adaptations, such as the refrigerator and Aga, acquired when Grace was working there, still serve as adequate when the kitchen is used for entertaining today.

From her visits, Diana Higgens remembered that, ‘The kitchen…was warm and always smelt of fresh coffee.’ We can report that there was not a dissimilar atmosphere present in this room during the Festival! Despite the fact that this room has always been used as a kitchen, what has changed about the original function is that meals are now eaten in here as opposed to the dining room, where the family and their guests ate.

In addition to its prevailing homely and comfortable atmosphere, which Quentin Bell described as ‘cheerful and convivial’, what also remains unchanged about the kitchen at Charleston is the amount of people around the table. When she worked there, Grace always had visitors, including the postman, who would stop for a chat and a cup of tea. Virginia Nicholson pronounces it, ‘a most welcoming place to spend time.’; as a child, she and her siblings would ‘help her [Grace] bake and scrape out the bowl afterwards.’ Duncan Grant and Vanessa Bell were also not averse to entering the kitchen on a regular basis. In taking charge of the running of the household, Vanessa Bell would come down at the beginning of each day to discuss meal and other requirements with Grace, and Duncan Grant would often gather the plates after a meal and bring them in from the dining room into the kitchen for Grace to clean.

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Axel Hesslenberg, Tiled plaque situated behind the Aga cooker, made by Quentin Bell as a testimony to Grace Higgens’ devotion to Charleston;  the kitchen at Charleston. Photograph, The Charleston Trust © Axel Hesslenberg

Despite the observed formalities between the family and Grace when she worked for them, she was, according to Quentin Bell, ‘a central figure in ‘Bloomsbury…coping [within her role] in the most amicable manner with the eccentricities and vagaries of artists and their friends.’ The tiled plaque dedicated to Grace behind the Aga in the kitchen made by Quentin Bell after her retirement from Charleston is a recognition of her faithfulness to the family. It reads: ‘She was a good friend to all Charlestonians.’

 

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Tony Tree, Grace Higgens, who sits in front of her portrait painted by Vanessa Bell in 1943, Photograph © The British Library

From our time working in the kitchen at Charleston, we have gained an insight into how it was run as a household. We have also had the privilege of hosting a variety of fascinating guests; it really has been a pleasure to be a part of this year’s festival.

 Certainly we have more of an appreciation for Grace; for the extent of her duties and for the long hours that she must have worked. Without her services, it would have been impossible for Bell and Grant to produce the work that they did, and with that thought in mind we return to our work with the collection.

On Duncan Grant’s Male Nudes

 

In 1910, at the age of twenty-five, Duncan Grant’s career began to take off. His work was beginning to be recognized, having been shown more widely, and the period of 1908-11 is viewed as being one of rapid productivity for Grant as an artist. ‘He was always very productive,’ Douglas Blair Turnbaugh wrote, ‘[Though] at this time…in his early twenties, his creative genius was beginning to be recognized, and he was considered a leading contributor to the Post-Impressionist movement in England…he had [already] a thorough understanding of French and Italian schools of the past, and highly developed technical skills.’

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Duncan Grant, from various photographs taken by the artist in preparation for his studies, George Leigh Mallory, 1912, 46 Gordon Sqaure, Photographs © Estate of Duncan Grant

 

Richard Shone cites ‘[Grant’s] early portraits of his friends and… relations [as] encapsulate[ing] the sound technical accomplishment [that]he had achieved by his early twenties.’ In 1908, after returning from Paris where he had studied classical painting in the Louvre, Grant was residing at 21 Fitzroy Square in London. It was here that he seriously began painting portraits. As Blair Turnbaugh observed; ‘He took a studio near Belsize Park Gardens and began a series of brilliant portraits of everybody within his reach, including…new friends, and many relatives ….’ In his studio on the first floor, Grant invited friends and family to pose for his painting and drawings to save the expense of hiring professional models. He liked to photograph his models, and ‘These photographs were references for some of Duncan’s erotic drawings and paintings’, as erotic photography was back then illegal and utmost discretion was essential.

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Duncan Grant, preparatory photographs, Vanessa Bell and Molly MacCarthy, 1913, taken in the artists’ studio at 46 Gordon Square, Photographs © Estate of Duncan Grant

 

Grant also posed naked himself for photographs to be taken in his studio. Between 1909 and 1911, he produced of succession ‘youthful’ self-portraits that, in characteristic face-on, close-up style, were ‘intimate and direct’, as identified by Shone. In choosing to portray himself unabashedly, his apparent ease could be seen as a reflection of the intense pleasure he was experiencing in his personal life.

 

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Duncan Grant, Study For Composition (Self-Portrait In Turban) (1910), oil paint on canvas. Photograph © National Gallery

 

Grant and John Maynard Keynes were lovers during the early years of Grant’s initial critical acclaim, and they remained so until about 1910. Happily, this relatively brief romantic period of theirs did not deter their friendship, which prevailed until Keynes’ death. Grant’s biographer Frances Spalding thought it telling of Grant and Keynes’ relationship that, ‘…when he reminisced about th[eir] affair, Duncan gave his close friend Paul Roche the impression that Keynes ‘was closer than anyone except perhaps Vanessa [Bell], and even closer than her in some respects…in the uncluttered recognition one male can have for another.’

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Duncan Grant, Portrait of John Maynard Keynes (1917-18), oil paint on canvas. Photograph © The Charleston Trust

 

Indeed; ‘The significance of Maynard for Duncan went very deep and in old age…Before the end of [that] June [of 1914] he had fallen in love with Maynard and experienced an immediacy of rapport greater than he had ever known.’ This relationship would no doubt have heightened Grant’s sense of creativity s as he became more confident with his sexuality. As Spalding put it, ‘Maynard…liberated Duncan through his own attraction to the genuine and that which was without pretence.’ It helped greatly that Keynes himself had been in a liberal environment when he was a student, ‘[at] Kings College Cambridge [where] homosexuality ha[d] become…rampant.’ in the early 1900s.

Years later, when Roche sat as a model for Grant, Roche observed how he worked, and saw that in his style, Grant had what he saw as a ‘determination not to please [aesthetically] except by telling the truth, and telling the truth through the intransigent beauty of paint,’ Perhaps an element of the openness that Keynes had shared with Grant had found itself within Grant’s portraiture style as he captured his chosen sitters.

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Duncan Grant, Paul Roche with leg raised; date unknown, charcoal and gouache. Photograph © Christies 2015

 

In the summer of 1910, Grant and Keynes holidayed together in Greece and Turkey, and took delight in photographing each other naked against the backdrop of the aged classical landscape. Christopher Reed saw the activity of picture-taking as Keynes’ and Grants’ way of ‘enacting the links they perceived between ancient and modern homoeroticism.’, and this was therefore a kind of an affirmation of sexuality; ‘…free of the repressive structures of [their] own culture[s].’

For Grant, it would have brought into clearer focus through the lens in his mind, the image of the classical male nude; ‘out of doors,.’ Bathing (1911) captures Grant’s idealised version of the male nude, aptly classicized in following of his preferred artistic style. The work was praised; namely, The Spectator remarked that, ‘…the figure scrambling into the boat in the background is a noble piece of draughtsmanship…[the work] gives an extraordinary impression of the joys of lean athletic life.’ Grant hired a model which he photographed in his studio in preparation for the work, allowing him the freedom as well as the accuracy to produce the life-size panorama that came to be so successful.

 

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Duncan Grant, Bathing (1911), oil paint on canvas, Photograph © Tate.

Duncan Grant’s relationships with his models have been much looked at and written about, as they are interesting and complex; they were an integral part of his work and life. Though he made studies of men and women alike; ‘Integral to his creative process…attractive men were as vital a source for Duncan ‘s creative imagination as women were for Picasso’s.”, and he drew his lovers.

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CHA/P/2630 Duncan Grant, study of female nude, charcoal on paper, Photograph © The Charleston Trust

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CHA/P/2629 Duncan Grant, study of female nude, charcoal on paper, Photograph © The Charleston Trust

 

The sitters depicted in these sketches of his that we have unearthed this week as part of the Angelica Garnett Gift are less familiar to us. Grant used numerous models in his work throughout his lifetime; some who were paid, though many were family, friends, close or acquaintances.

The two sketches of the female nudes are drawn with their heads turned away from us; their bodies twisted slightly away from the way they are facing, a pose subtly characteristic of Grant’s nudes. These two females were paid models who sat for Grant in about 1930. As a more established artist, Grant would have been able to afford to do this more than he had done so in his early career. The two sketches of the male nudes, both signed and dated, are of friends of their artist. Their inscriptions; ‘Mark, Charleston, 4th June ‘70’, and, ‘EC Farah, ‘65’, refer to the model, date and the place they were done. (Charleston, in the case of the 1970 drawing), as stylistically, we can attribute the works to Grant although he did not sign them.

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CHA/P/2629 Duncan Grant, study of male nude, charcoal on paper, (1970), Photograph © The Charleston Trust

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CHA/P/2634 Duncan Grant, study of male nude, charcoal on paper, (1965), Photograph © The Charleston Trust

From the relaxed way they hold themselves, as well as the intimate perspectives from which they are drawn, there is the sense that all of the sitters felt comfortable exposing themselves to Grant for the sake of his art, as was often the case. The sense of truth expressed in the body laid bare is heightened when it is expressed by creative means, and Duncan Grant made no secret in asserting his creativity.

 

‘Collaboration at Cambridge: Bloomsbury Heritage in Domestic Aesthetic’

Last week was #MuseumWeek 2016, and to celebrate, The Charleston Attic will once again be joining institutions all over the world by writing a blog post reflecting one of the themes trending on Twitter.

Thursday’s theme of cultural heritage, both tangible and intangible, shows the scope for discovery within the several thousand works on paper and canvas that make up the Angelica Garnett Gift.

Last week also marked our independence as the new Attic Interns as we continue with the task in hand: to photograph, catalogue and publish Grant and Bell’s works so that they may be viewed online. There is much excitement to be had in unearthing new items in the collection, and it seems like the perfect opportunity, in celebration of Charleston’s cultural heritage through the Gift, to talk about this week’s findings in relation to the theme.

We have been looking closely at two sketchbooks by Duncan Grant; dated circa 1919 and 1923 respectively. Grant, as we well know, was always drawing- his sketchbooks alone make up a large part of the Gift. The earlier sketchbook contains preparatory figurative studies for the mural that Grant and Vanessa Bell had designed for John Maynard Keynes’ rooms at Webb’s Court, King’s College, Cambridge in 1920. These were the second set of murals that John Maynard Keynes had commissioned from Grant for his Cambridge rooms; the first being in 1910. These four panels were covered some years later and the room redesigned in 1920, when a new mural was put in place.

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Duncan Grant and Vanessa Bell, Mural for John Maynard Keynes (1920), Webb’s Court, King’s College. Photograph © King’s College Archives.

Filling entire pages in the book, the figurative studies in pencil and charcoal are emphasized by the variations of shadow and shading made through the boldness of the pressed line on the faded cream paper. Looking at Grant’s sketches of these figures, his focus on certain parts of the body is apparent. His large rough outlines of hands and feet, drawn as appendages to the shapely legs and arms continuing off the pages, conveys bodily movement, as we imagine what the figures would look like as a whole.

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CHA/P/2620/19 Duncan Grant, study of feet, pencil and charcoal on paper. Photograph © The Charleston Trust

 

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CHA/P/2620/9 Duncan Grant, study of hands, pencil and charcoal on paper. Photograph © The Charleston Trust

The figures depicted on the panels are vivid; they are painted in bright colour, and are almost life-size. The poses they strike are dynamic. Although they are dominant – as painted figures they are made the focus of the space’s decoration – the poses they strike are less sexualized than the figures in the original mural by Grant, where surviving photographs show a revel of semi-nude male and female dancers cavorting in a lush vineyard, their baskets burgeoning under the weight of nature’s pleasures in the form of fresh fruit.

‘Grant’s imagery links the abundance of nature with the sensual pleasures of wine, music, and the body, so that nature is figured as sensual and sensuality is asserted as natural.’, writes Christopher Reed about the scene in the early mural in ‘Bloomsbury Rooms’. ‘These themes anticipate the subsequent half-century of Bloomsbury’s domestic iconography, and, in broadest terms, express the group’s determination to implement a domestic existence in opposition to the conventional Victorian equation of civilisation with dominion over nature and discipline over the body.’

The figures in Grant’s initial 1910 mural and in his later 1920 collaboration with Bell are classical, a decidedly  Post-Impressionist aesthetic that harks back to the Renaissance. This is as much a reflection of his painterly style as it is of Bell’s, and it marks one of their earliest artistic collaborations in interiors.

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CHA/P/2620/20 Duncan Grant, figure study, pencil and charcoal on paper. Photograph © The Charleston Trust

 

Grant’s early and later designs for these murals, conveys, in Reed’s words, ‘…[a] sensual vision’ on Grant’s part, one which ‘re-imagine[s]…a domestic environment to express [a] new way…of life [through]…sexual identity.’Reed saw Grant’s decoration of Keynes’ living space as ‘sett[ing] a modern stage for a new way of life’ for Keynes, ‘the life of a young economist [at Cambridge] who was Grant’s friend and lover.’

The expression of radical ideas through creative practises was the drive behind the Bloomsbury domestic aesthetic that led to Charleston. The interiors decorated by Bell and Grant are as much a demonstration of their artistic practises as their works on canvas. Through our work with the collection, we are gaining a rich insight into the cultural heritage at Charleston.

The objects and their surroundings provide tangible evidence of a past way of life and work. This quotidian sketchbook of Duncan Grant’s is one of many, just like all of the sketchbooks Grant tucked away in the nooks and crannies in corners of the rooms at Charleston. Today is it this particular sketchbook, filled with rough studies for the mural on Keynes’ sitting room wall, that reveals traces of the early Bloomsbury domestic aesthetic.

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CHA/P/2620/2 Duncan Grant, figure study, pencil and charcoal on paper. Photograph © The Charleston Trust

 

 

 

 

 

“Chloe liked Olivia”

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A Conversation, Vanessa Bell. 1913-1916. Photograph © The Samuel Courtauld Trust

Compiling research for her survey of contemporary women’s fiction in 1929, Virginia Woolf came across a startling line in a novel by Mary Carmichael: Chloe liked Olivia. Carmichael’s statement may appear straightforward, but it radically refuted all Woolf’s reading thus far.

Do not start. Do not blush. Let us admit in the privacy of our own society that these things sometimes happen. Sometimes women do like women.

One needn’t look far to find women in discord, their relations ruptured by jealousy; anything more nuanced has been ‘left out’, Woolf laments in A Room of One’s Own, ‘unattempted’. Novels may busy themselves endlessly over women’s relation to men, but rarely are the particulars of female friendship afforded any significant attention in literary culture.

Three women huddle by a window, deep in conversation; a bed of tulips rise from the garden beyond as if straining to catch any stray chatter. Bell’s 1913-1916 painting A Conversation precedes Woolf’s passionate polemic by nearly fifteen years, yet appears to capture precisely what Woolf saw as so lacking in fiction. Original and defiant, Bell’s piece discards the trappings of heteronormative domesticity Woolf regarded as so pervasive in the representation of her peers. Intimacy, Woolf argues, has not been authentically imagined beyond the confines of straight coupledom; however Bell’s scene boldly discards men and their concerns, celebrating rather a feminine, communal model of kinship. Maternity one of few themes in the art historical canon enabling depictions of female subjectivity is similarly shunned. Instead Bell conjures a scene of women powerfully asserting their presence, vividly breaking the silence imposed upon them by literary and artistic culture. Just as Bell can be observed adapting her bathing scenes to attenuate the more prurient, dominant gaze of the genre, she here paints women at ease in a homely environment without recourse to typical beauty or elegance. Their bodies are large, arranged in a tense formal arrangement expressive of the confidential, conspiratorial mood of the moment. Further, where a reductive vision of women’s relationships once reigned, ambiguity now holds sway: dressed in a navy smock, the woman leaning from the left of the frame is wide-eyed, perhaps anxious; the remaining pair return her gaze, but their expressions are vague, impenetrable.

Indeed, the subtleties underpinning conversation between women was especially fascinating to Woolf, who hoped for a fiction dedicated to:

those unrecorded gestures, those unsaid or half-said words, which form themselves, no more palpably than the shadows of moths on the ceiling, when women are alone, unlit by the capricious and coloured light of the other sex.

Bell’s vibrant signature palette and sensitivity to intersubjectivity illuminated her female subjects their idiosyncratic gestures, their affinities and affronts long before Woolf made these demands of her own medium. Woolf and Bell’s tireless efforts to complicate the representation of women in their chosen forms is especially pertinent today, International Women’s Day.

Vanessa Bell’s Bathers

Pierre Bonnard’s bathers – the plural is perhaps misleading, for most of his soaking or somnolent nudes were his obliging wife Marthe – lean, lie, or wilt within their enclosed, mistily realised domestic interiors, but rarely do they rise – inelegant, immodest, uneroticised – in the manner of this recently discovered Vanessa Bell nude.

bathing scene

CHA/P/2439. Vanessa Bell. Bathing Scene. Recto. 49cm x 41cm. Photograph © The Charleston Trust.

The wide lilac trimmed bathtub – notably not the narrow, murky green of the tub at Charleston – provides a backdrop for Bell’s awkwardly limbed emerging nude. One arm clutches her side, the other – and our eyes follows her downcast face in its direction – is angled for leverage of her knee. Attentive to the body’s mechanics, Bell is equally sensitive to how the body is experienced in a particular mood, how emotions are embodied. Dappled in unfleshly greens and aquamarine, her ratios radically mismatched (no accident of perspective could generate such an attenuated upper arm, so large a foot) Bell here cedes the figurative to feeling. Size is consistent with effort, suggestive of and responsive to the sensation of weight. The unusual sheens of her skin could, in turn, allude to the estrangement from one’s body elicited by these private rituals. One must temporarily regard one’s body as an object, a vessel – and a fragile one, at that – requiring cleaning, care, and attention.

Anatomy, for Bell, is a means of expression, not an opportunity to strive for representational accuracy; the bather’s surroundings are likewise impressionistic, unconcerned with strict verisimilitude. A hazy geometry of burnt orange, white and periwinkle blue suggest a curtain withdrawn to a pane of glass: rays of sunlight thin to a milky iridescence; pear-shaped daubs of paint smudge into the suggestion of steam. A fastidiously detailed toilette – the mirrors, brushes, and towels littering many of Bonnard’s scenes, not to mention the similar set-pieces of Edgar Degas – is set aside. A sense of privacy trespassed, of intimacy easily if unwillingly ceded – of an omnipotent, virile beholder, in short – lent the conventional bathing scene a fair amount of its appeal. Yet prying becomes almost an impossibility here, as nothing in Bell’s interior is especially familiar; all is avowedly and self-reflexively painted. Abandoning the more prurient forces underpinning the genre, then, Bell’s is a study rather of colour reduced to its optical minutiae, of paint responsive to divergent and shifting materialities.

The Bath 1925 by Pierre Bonnard 1867-1947

Pierre Bonnard, The Bath, 1925. oil on canvas. 86cm x 120.5cm. Photograph © Tate

Bathing scenes had long held a complicated erotic appeal: voyeuristic pleasures aside, these images served to both amplify and assuage anxieties over the cleanliness (or indeed the essential, irrevocable dirtiness) of the female body. Bonnard’s bathing scenes are often praised for their depictions of marital intimacy, nevertheless they remain – however gentle or loving his gaze – reiterations of masculine agency and feminine passivity so prevalent in the Western European art historical canon. Bonnard’s 1925 painting of his wife is typical, imagining her submerged to her chin, swamped by white porcelain, the lifeless nymph of his homely arcadia. Here a shimmering jaundiced blue, Bonnard’s later “Nude in the Bath” (1940) fully dissolves the female body into the bathwater. Tired tropes associating women with the elemental, fluid, and uncontrollable are deployed without compunction; for there are ways of concealing ideology by making claims about perception. Faux-naive in consistency and colour, the circular floor tiling and cross-hatched panelling allude to the visual vocabulary of Post-Impressionism; the bather’s porous and permeable body is, in this light, merely a formal consideration, an expression of fleeting tonal relations, nothing more.

pb bath 2

Pierre Bonnard, Nu Dans La Baignoire, 1940. watercolour, gouache and pencil on paper. 28cm x 32.1cm. Photograph © Christie’s.

Bell’s appropriation of the traditional scene is not without its own quiet, queer eroticism, but seems more keenly responsive to the subjectivity of the bather, and certainly less willing to essentialise in the name of aesthetics. Her gestures radiate a vulnerability – the hand on hip feels protective, and is disproportionately sized as if to bolster or shield – but are balanced against something more defiant, wilful. Note the hunched shoulder, the elbow aslant, the legs splayed. Held aloft and glossed by a sheen of white, the foot reaches beyond the bathwater and – toes touching the scribbled, unfinished outer edge of the tub – the picture plane itself. The bather is at once delicate and robust, sensual but self-commanding, with Bell’s eye trained less to the body’s allure, and more to its tension and mass, its muscle and movement.

Of course, this canvas was not Bell’s sole foray into bathing scenes, and more than likely represents a later work – the absence of dating entails a certain embrace of obscurity – to her 1917 masterpiece “The Tub”.  Originally intended for the Garden Room at Charleston (but never hung) this strikingly large work depicts a woman undressed, playing absently with her plaited hair, her bath skewed to face the viewer, agape like an astonished mouth. Generic similarities are accentuated by the broadly anti-illusionistic style the works share, most noticeable in their spare, vibrantly hued environments. Even the bathers are encountered as echoes. Neither preen nor perform for the painter; both look away, without vanity or shame, their thoughts elsewhere. Yet a uniquely acute sense of unease pervades “The Tub”: every element – from the drooping floral arrangement to the deep purple pillar – is tersely separate, static.

The Tub 1917 by Vanessa Bell 1879-1961

Vanessa Bell, The Tub, 1917. oil (?) and gouache on canvas. 167cm ×108.3cm. Photograph © Tate.

Frances Spalding has read the painting as charged with the emotional turmoil of Bell’s complex early life at Charleston, the three wilting flowers an allusion to the painful, ongoing ménage-a-trois between Bell, Grant and Garnett. However tempting, such biographical readings belie Bell’s awareness of the canon, and her especially fraught relationship with its androcentric history. “The Tub” could thus be better understood as invoking the bathing scene only to admit a profound discomfort, to concede the paralysis and emotional aridity of a genre so freighted with epistemic violence. By the time of her later painting, one can only assume Bell felt the hostile genre had been neutralised, reconciled, and able, finally, to capture an animated, agential vision of female subjectivity.

 

Living Art

“The Dial” opens its 1924 issue with assurance on the range and rank of work within : “It is the purpose of this folio” the editors declare “to bring together examples of the best and most characteristic work of the leading artists of this time”. Amongst a roll call of more predictable Modernist luminaries, Duncan Grant and Marc Chagall appear side by side: Chagall’s study for “A Pinch of Snuff” (1912) – “It is Written” – features alongside Grant’s 1918 watercolour “Women with Ewer”. While Bonnard, Matisse, Picasso and Derain are accredited contexts to Grant’s work, and therefore unsurprising companions to Grant’s print in the issue, Chagall and Grant are rarely aligned artistically or otherwise. This week in the gift we discovered Chagall’s print from the magazine, interspersed so seamlessly amidst Bell and Grant’s sketches we at first assumed it was a copy.

Although closer inspection revealed the piece to be a highly-wrought facsimile, the artist’s copy – as Walter Benjamin observes – was a precursor to the technological modes of reproduction that were reaching their zenith during Bell and Grant’s career. Titled “Living Art”, this issue of “The Dial” not only evidences the growing popularity of facsimile reproductions, but also gestures to the enlivening potential of the procedure. Where a museum-bound work of art offers a single, static experience, the facsimile enables multiple encounters embedded into the life of the beholder. An artwork glimpsed at an institution may linger in one’s memory, but a facsimile can become a daily means of charging one’s artistic practice with form, flavour and style. Once distantly revered, artworks became accessible, intimate, incorporated into patterns of everyday existence. Therefore, whether consciously or not, the distribution of facsimiles participated in a broader political project Benjamin summarises thus:

“Modern technological reproduction strips […] institutions and their iconic artworks of their aesthetic authority.”

Once the province solely of an elite, reproduction rendered high art common property. Chagall and Grant’s work may have been radically de-mystified by appearing in reproduction, but their relation to each other initially appears tenuous, obscure.

chagallCHA-P-2585-R

“A Pinch of Snuff” by Marc Chagall, 1912. © 2016 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. CHA/P/2585. Recto “It is Written”, watercolour on paper. Photograph © The Charleston Trust.

Marc Chagall was born in 1887 near the city of Vitbesk (once part of the Russian Empire, now Belarus) to an observant Hasidic Jewish family, a cultural tradition that would come to influence his entire oeuvre. Although undoubtedly distant both culturally and geographically in their upbringings, Chagall, Bell and Grant were all equally enamoured by the Parisian art scene nascent during the first decade of the 20th Century. Chagall arrived in Paris the year Roger Fry introduced a scandalised British public to the French capital’s avant-garde, and only a few years after Grant made his own coming-of-age trip to the city. While Grant worked under Jean-Paul Laurens (admittedly not for long; his aesthetic conservatism impelled Grant elsewhere) and later Jacques Emile Blanche, Chagall befriended the city’s Modernist visionaries, including Guillame Apollinaire, Roger Delaunay, Fernand Leger, Modigliani and Andre Lhote. Despite frequenting very different artistic coteries, Chagall and Grant were both mesmerised by Cubist and Fauvist art. Like Grant, however, Chagall experimented with the tenets of Modernism – dabbling most notably with their rich and unconventional colour palette – while retaining a visual iconography unique to his imaginative world. Indeed, Chagall’s sustained commitment to figurative and narrative art echoes Grant’s return to more traditional themes following a boldly abstract period.

Turning from the plane of abstraction, the pair each developed an idiosyncratic form of Modernism that was, nevertheless, markedly similar at times in tone. Chagall’s quirky motifs ranged from Russian folkloric figures to women in flight, pastel-hued farm animals to eccentrically-strummed musical instruments. Grant, especially in his decorative work, favoured a similarly fantastical range of imagery: nymphs preen upon panels, doors stage tumbling acrobats and a cupboard witnesses a scene of serenading lovers. One is inclined, then, to agree with Vogue who remarked in 1924 that “Mr Duncan Grant has restored fantasy to furniture”. Flirting with a whimsy and sentimentality often anathema to their own avant-garde, both have since been said to possess a curiously literary quality. Chagall, Rainer Metzger suggests, sought “the imaginative strength of the poet”; Grant courted a “free play of connotation and allusion” Christopher Reed places closer to contemporary formalist literature than any concurrent art movement.

However, “It is Written” is not the sort of dreamscape tying Chagall’s aesthetic to Grant’s, but rather an homage to his homeland, particularly the Orthodox lifestyle that so shaped his childhood. Chagall’s otherwise realist image of contemplation is lent a lyricism by an impossibly turquoise-toned Talmudic scholar and the searing yellow of his surroundings. When compared to Grant’s contribution to “The Dial” – the sensual, pastoral “Woman with Ewer” – their differences could not be more pronounced.

dg ewer

“Woman with Ewer” by Duncan Grant, 1918. © 2016 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

If not lead to Chagall’s work when allied by “The Dial”, Grant may have returned to this study following his 1966 trip to New York, where he was shown Chagall’s decorations at the Lincoln Opera House, and later his stained glass window at the United Nations building. For Chagall was equally eclectic in his talents: just as Grant worked across mediums, establishing himself as a fine artist unafraid of decorative art or commercial projects, Chagall was a painter, lithographer, etcher, ceramist and designer.

Speculation aside, this unusual find offers a reassuring counterpoint to Modernism’s often troubled relationship to Jewish culture; Grant’s preservation of the facsimile in particular indexes an admiration and respect for Chagall’s striking mediation on Jewish identity.

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