Exhibition: Radical Bloomsbury: The Art of Duncan Grant and Vanessa Bell, 1905-1925, Brighton Museum and Art Gallery, Brighton, until October 9 2011
© Estate of Vanessa Bell, courtesy Henrietta Garnett. Bryan Ferry Collection
“We’ve focused very much on the paintings, so we haven’t really included very many pieces of furniture or ceramics,” says Brighton Museum’s Nicola Coleby, standing in front of a pair of gorgeous cupboard doors procured from Charleston, the revered Sussex country retreat where Duncan Grant and Vanessa Bell set up home in 1916.
“We’ve got a fantastic technician who does all the carpentry for us, and he made the frames for these, because they were literally just a pair of doors. They were quite fragile.
© George Eastman House, International Museum of Photography and FilmA black and white photo of a young man's face
“When you think of Charleston you think of the applied arts, so we looked at the other aspects of it.”
The magic of this show emanates from the characters behind the canvasses and sculptures, borrowed from lenders ranging from the Tate to libraries and private collections.
Grant was one of the only British artists who knew Picasso and Matisse at the start of their careers, and was hugely influenced by the Imperial world of India and Burma where he spent the first ten years of his life.
Bell was a painter and designer and the sister of Virginia Woolf, a fellow member of the all-powerful Bloomsbury Group of writers and artists who used Charleston as a spiritual home.
The icons they dallied with are dotted around the six chambers – in the opening section, the influence of Matisse on Grant is crystallised by The Dancers, and Bell finds Woolf dozing in an armchair in the final room, Homes and Carnivals.
In between there are four-minute kinetic collages set to music – “in effect it’s one of the earliest performance pieces ever,” muses Coleby, surveying the Bell piece from almost a century ago – as well as enormous Venuses on clouds, angular Cubist portraits and expressionist sun-drenched landscapes.
© National Portrait Gallery, London. Lent by the National Portrait Gallery, London. Purchased with help from The Art Fund, 1987
“I think because they both experimented with so many different styles it works best grouping them together in dates and themes,” suggests Coleby, wandering through an enchanting section on the exotic, oriental and ornamental, where feline performers slink before the camera and ballerinas run amok.
“David Mellor, the curator, saw the influences which were coming through at different times. I think he was quite excited by this exoticism – it’s something which hasn’t been touched on so much.”
- Open 10am-5pm Tuesday-Sunday. Admission £3-£6 (free for under-15s, joint ticket with admission to Charleston £12).