September 1, 2009

Masterpieces and Missteps

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The artists of the Bloomsbury circle were at once radical and conservative, intellectually adventurous and promiscuously imitative. The group centered around the writers and thinkers Virginia Woolf, John Maynard Keynes and Lytton Strachey, who dominated English high society around the early years of the last century; the circle sometimes included other luminaries such as T.S. Eliot, Bertrand Russell and E.M. Forster. A current exhibit at the Johnson Museum, A Room of Their Own: The Bloomsbury Artists in American Collections, features the often overlooked visual artists who informed the group’s development as a hotbed of sexual and ideological libertinage as well as the bedrock of upper-crust cultural strictures.
The curators have highlighted the group’s four main artists — Roger Fry, Duncan Grant, Vanessa Bell and Dora Carrington; despite this focus, the exhibit is a virtual rouges’ gallery of post-Impressionist techniques. Many of the canvasses can, at times, seem derivative: the product of sedentary bohemians playing in a clubby manor-house with the latest ultramodern ideas current on the continent, as if their privileged cultural position liberated them largely from labor and yet ensconced them that much more in a restless effort to take up some pet cause célèbre to alleviate their ennui in-between bouts of buggering each other.
If, as Roger Fry eloquently argues, the major post-Impressionists disconcerted their audience through their reduction of forms to explore and express the “emotional significance which lies in things” rather than “representing appearance,” then the Bloomsbury artists — including Fry himself, the elder statesman and bon vivant of the group — often produce work whose dominant emotion feels inspired by the pale light of parlor rooms and art museums. Their works are therefore simulacra which vicariously appropriate the passionate intensity found in more original artists who personally have too much at stake in their aesthetic practice to afford to be self-conscious taste-makers and connoisseurs. In other words, the searing application of pure pigments, the layering of rough impasto and the scabrous desquamation of nature into an aboriginal geometry feels authentic in its source of genius: the eroticism of Gaughin, the madness of Van Gogh, and the cantankerous individuality of Cezzane. It appears watered-down, however, in the rainy high-tea coziness of a coterie of decadent Edwardian intellectuals.
Nonetheless, each artist featured here has flashes of vivacity, in which an offhand intuition or untoward paroxysm manages to escape the good manners, polite charm and all-too-knowing judgment that can betray their lesser work. Fry, for example, has a striking portrait, “At Eleanor: Vanessa Bell,” in which the anxious-looking Bell is captured through contrasting hot pink and ultramarine tones that ironically create an anemic skin color. She lies wide-eyed, vacantly staring off into a space voided of dreams, clenching her long, spidery fingers.
“Winter Landscape,” on the other hand, absorbs the viewer in a scene of icy blues and luxurious greens with jagged, autumnal trees blazing in burnt sienna. The fauvist-inspired lushness is squared-off into shards as if the objects had been crystallized into cubists’ icicles, but with an underlying warmth and expressivity somewhat in the manner of Franz Marc or the Canadian Group of Seven. The perpendicular axis of the roof of the house, which is slightly off-center, is faintly extended with lines that bisect the canvas, giving the painting a jarring asymmetry that seems to invite the viewer to lilt down the path toward the cottage.
Duncan Grant, Lytton Strachey’s younger cousin, has an astonishing landscape, “Pond and Barn at Charleston,” that is filled with slashes of bold colors in non-representational, slapdash aggression: an almost florescent lime-green streaks the sky; squiggles of texture crust the canvas where there is only the barest child-like outline of a house and where ragged green explosions stand-in for trees. The effect anticipates the impact of de Kooning’s monstrous limit-case of mimesis by way of Turner’s dissipation of landscape into ethereal fog and fire, as Grant foregrounds texture and color — the splendor and violence inherent in representation, and hence the media of paint — in an art brut tour de force.
Grant also captures an inner frenzy in his more meticulous “Self Portrait,” where he’s adorned in a Kelly green jacket and deep sea-blue shirt, gazing out in three-quarters profile against a wall that is divided vertically between cobalt gray and dull pumpkin orange. The composition of colors is unsettling, but the detail that makes one jump back is the eyes: One is brown, while the other is a glassy, blue cat’s eye slit whose feral gaze evokes the artist’s demonic powers of transformation.
In other work, such as the still-life “Decorative Design,” which seems a muted imitation of Delaunay, or “Design for a Lilypond Table,” which depicts a bird’s-eye-view of a koi-and-lilypad motif that is “flat” in both senses of the word, Grant appears content to iterate a dry formalism that is more ornamental than emotive.
Vanessa Bell, Virginia Woolf’s sister and lover to the otherwise homosexual Duncan, has the most purely abstract painting in the exhibit — a cut-and-paste collage of bright squares overlaid with strips of thick gouache in ruby, hot pink, yellow-orange and aquarium-glass green. In her “Portrait of Mary St. John Hutchinson,” she utilizes a similarly daring color-scheme, framing a monochrome salmon face with two arcs — representing a short-cropped hair-cut and a plunging necklace — against a wall that is Egyptian blue and salmon, highlighting the sitter’s piercing blue eyes, reduced to pointed ovoids lacking irises.
The contributions of Dora Carrington — who had a lifelong companionate relationship with the committed homosexual Strachey — include, in this exhibit, a few of her letters that have wistful cartoon-like doodles, as well as a humorous watercolor called “The Garden Slug.” Her portrait of Teddy Carrington shows a cherub-cheeked boy, a little plump and self-satisfied, whose thick round lips may hint at erotic undercurrents.
A few delightful lampshade designs by Wyndham Lewis finish off the show. Lewis worked in Fry’s experimental arts-and-craft workshop before later becoming Bloomsbury’s most vociferous critic, skewering the group in his writings: “Your flabby potion is a mixture of the lees of Liberalism, the poor froth blown off the decadent Nineties, the wardrobe-leavings of a vulgar bohemianism.” This exhibit confirms Lewis’ accusations while emphasizing the continuity of influences that perpetuated liberalism both in artistic and intellectual circles: That which is vulgar and decadent will always have a visceral appeal.