Bloomsbury Show a Bust, Made of Minor Artists

We have been made to wait a long time–almost a century–for the visual art produced by the Bloomsbury Group in England to be given a comprehensive exhibition of its pictorial accomplishments. Now that a show called The Art of Bloomsbury has at last been mounted on a major scale–it currently occupies two spacious floors of the Yale Center for British Art in New Haven–we can better understand why it had never been done before. We can also understand why it is unlikely that it will ever need to be done again.

For The Art of Bloomsbury is, from a strictly aesthetic perspective, a museological oddity: a very large exhibition, numbering hundreds of items, many of them of purely archival interest, devoted to a distinctly minor artistic accomplishment. Whatever its other achievements may have been, the Bloomsbury Group failed to produce a single first-rate painter. In the absence of any world-class master, the principal burden of this Bloomsbury exhibition falls upon two middling talents, Vanessa Bell (1879-1961) and Duncan Grant (1885-1978), plus a third–Roger Fry (1868-1934)–who was certainly a first-rate art critic, but as a painter failed to rise even to the modest levels attained by Bell and Grant.

Surrounding the plethora of small-scale pictures and decorative objects by this trio of minor talents is a selection of works by other minor artists who came to be associated with the Bloomsbury artists and writers–among them, the French portrait sculptor Marcel Gimond, the English portrait sculptor Stephen Tomlin and the French painter Simon Bussy. And all of this material is accompanied by a voluminous selection of letters, manuscripts, books, journals, snapshots and sundry other documents that have much more to tell about what the press office at the Yale Center for British Art describes as “the lives, loves, and intrigues of the artists, writers, and intellectuals associated with the Bloomsbury Group” than about anything resembling a solid artistic achievement.

It is for all these reasons that The Art of Bloomsbury is best understood to be a sort of historical pageant or documentary designed to celebrate the lifestyle–which in this case also means the snobberies and vanities–of the Bloomsbury Group’s leading personalities. These personalities are now, of course, the subject of a vast biographical literature, and for readers familiar with this literature The Art of Bloomsbury provides, in effect, an illustrated tour of their social life, their romantic and domestic arrangements, their travels–mainly working holidays in France–as well as documentation of their professional pursuits.

Foremost among these personalities in intellectual accomplishment were Virginia Woolf (1882-1941), whose novels and nonfiction prose and career are now the focus of an international cult; the economist and art patron John Maynard Keynes (1883-1946), who was an immensely influential figure in the world of public policy in his day; Roger Fry, whose writings on art, especially his book Vision and Design (1920) and his monographs on Cézanne and Matisse, were sacred texts for several generations of Modernists on both sides of the Atlantic; and Lytton Strachey (1880-1932), whose mocking biographical portraits of Victorian and other British eminences set the style for popular biography in the English-speaking world in the period between the two world wars.

Theirs was by no means a small accomplishment, but it was never matched in quality or scale by the Bloomsbury painters, who, in appropriating the superficial mannerisms of modern French painting, invariably transformed the heroic innovations of the School of Paris into something cozier and more domesticated–an art that was itself more an expression of lifestyle than of a compelling artistic vision.

Hence the priority given to portraits, self-portraits and domestic interiors in the paintings of Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant. They were forever painting themselves, each other, and their other friends and lovers, but their interest in subjects beyond their own group was practically nil. When they ventured into landscape, the result was seldom more rewarding.

The Bloomsbury painters prided themselves on their commitment to Modernism, for it was this–their advocacy of the Paris avant-garde–as well as their own emancipated lifestyle (one that Keynes frankly described as “immoralist”), which set them apart from the despised philistines who presided over the institutional life of art in the England of their day. And their efforts in championing the modern French school, beginning with the exhibition Manet and the Post-Impressionists, which Fry and his Bloomsbury friends organized in London in 1910, was indeed a heroic endeavor.

Yet, as one studies some of the pictures which the Bloomsbury painters produced before their conversion to French Modernism, one can only wonder if their talents really lent themselves to the kind of avant-garde innovations they embraced with such militancy. Duncan Grant’s early portraits John Maynard Keynes (1908)and James Strachey (circa 1909-10) are far superior as paintings to any of his subsequent Modernist portraits; and Roger Fry’s early landscape, Blythburgh, the Estuary (1892), is similarly superior to any of his later Modernist landscapes.

It is significant, in this respect, that Vanessa Bell’s attempt to produce some purely abstract paintings around 1914 was quickly abandoned. She simply could not bring the requisite conceptual imagination to bear on a painting that was not directly related to her personal affairs. And the bulk of her paintings that did derive from her personal affairs tended to sentimentalize not only their subjects but the Modernist manner in which they were painted. This was true of Duncan Grant as well. As a consequence, there is an awful lot of Modernist mush to be seen in The Art of Bloomsbury , which remains on view at the Yale Center for British Art, 1080 Chapel Street, New Haven, Conn., through Sept. 3.