Tomorrow, you can decorate your own Bloomsbury plate. Yesterday I heard a lecture on Bloomsbury artists.
These are some of the final activities during the final days of the final stop on the cross-country tour of the traveling exhibit, A Room of Their Own: The Bloomsbury Artists in American Collections.
The exhibit will be at the Palmer Museum of Art at Pennsylvania State University in University Park, Pa., through Sept. 26. After that, all the artwork, books, fabric and furniture will be carefully packed and returned to their owners. Artist Jasper Johns, for example, will be reunited with his Omega Workshop pottery.
When Benjamin Harvey, associate professor of art history at Mississippi State University, reviewed the exhibit for Blogging Woolf nearly one year ago, he recommended that Bloomsbury afficionados “make every effort to see it.”
Riders on the storm
Early Thursday evening, I took his advice, setting off from Ohio to Pennsylvania in a violent rainstorm — the one that brought tornadoes to the East Coast — with the expectation that we would view the Bloomsbury exhibit the next day. We did, despite the unfortunate weather that kept us on the edge of our car seat the entire way.
It was worth the trip.
I have been to Charleston Farmhouse and Monk’s House, so I have seen many original works of Bloomsbury art. But this exhibit was different. It displays a large collection of Bloomsbury art together in a gallery setting, which gave me the chance to step back and appreciate it one piece at a time without feeling overwhelmed or rushed by tour guides.
As a result, I felt a new appreciation for the artistry of Vanessa Bell. I clearly saw that her artwork stands on its own rather than in the shadow of Duncan Grant.
Giant canvas greeting
Visitors to the Penn State exhibit are initially greeted by a giant Duncan Grant painting that depicts an exuberant male nude holding cymbals. Although it dwarfs even the tallest art lover, the painting is just one part of the 1937 original oil on canvas, which was commissioned to hang over the massive fireplace in the first-class lounge of the Queen Mary, according to Christopher Reed, associate professor of English and visual culture at Penn State and co-curator for the exhibit.
Along with other commissioned designs, such as upholstery fabric of cotton velveteen patterned with an obviously Bloomsbury design, and carpeting, it was never used on the ship. Cunard, the ship’s owner, changed course and decided to use an art deco look for the first-class quarters instead.
Grant’s massive painting featuring the nude cymbal player and other elements was discovered years later in the barn of Kenneth Clark, English art historian. It was covered with pigeon droppings, so had to undergo extensive restoration before it was fit for exhibition, Reed explained.
Drawn into Bloomsbury
A multi-media display introduces visitors to the actual exhibit, and it draws them into the Bloomsbury scene with its life-size graphics of a Charleston Farmhouse bedroom. Just below the window ledge is a video screen where a slide presentation shows scenes from the early 20th-century era, photographs of Bloomsbury Group members, examples of their art and quotes that help illuminate their thinking.
Even the display tables that hold important artifacts are decorated in Bloomsbury style. They were loaned to the Penn State exhibit by Cornell. Inside the glass cases resting on the decorated display tables are letters from Leonard and Virginia Woolf, Roger Fry and others, as well as numerous volumes published by the Hogarth Press. These included Virginia’s novels with dust jackets decorated by Vanessa Bell, along with the English translations of the works of Sigmund Freud.
Influence of Bloomsbury artists
In his noon lecture, Christopher Reed, associate professor of English and visual culture at Penn State and co-curator for the exhibit, discussed the influence of Bloomsbury artists on early twentieth-century thinking about art and the art of home decoration.
He also noted their appreciation for the unique imperfections of handmade art – from Omega Workshop pottery to the utilitarian shutters painted by Vanessa Bell.
While some items that were included in earlier installations were not part of the Palmer exhibit — such as Woolf’s writing desk decorated by Quentin Bell — three paintings that did not appear in earlier exhibits are part of this one. All three were loaned by an individual who viewed an earlier exhibit and noted that he had several paintings by the same artist at home.
The three turned out to be the work of Duncan Grant. They are:
- “Still Life with Jug”
- “Paul Roche in the Bath”
Joyce Robinson, curator at the Palmer, gave visitors insight into how Vanessa and Virginia worked together. She quoted Woolf as saying the sisters had the same eyes but wore different spectacles.
In particular, she cited the edition of Kew Gardens decorated by Vanessa Bell. Robinson said Vanessa and Virginia worked on the layout together, making sure that Vanessa’s decorations and Virginia’s hand-set type complimented each other both visually and symbolically.
More on Woolf and knitting
Another interesting item from the exhibit, in light of the ongoing discussion on the VWoolf Listserv regarding Woolf and knitting, is a pencil drawing by Roger Fry depicting his daughter, titled “Pamela Knitting and Reading.”
Reed, author of Bloomsbury Rooms: Modernism, Subculture, and Domesticity, said some argue that paintings depicting Virginia knitting really show her engaged in book binding.
Welcome commodification at the museums
However, unless you make a trip to the Palmer soon, you will have no chance to get the freebies they gave out: an exhibit bookmark and a Bloomsbury 2010 temporary tattoo that features Woolf. I can’t wait to apply mine.