|Department||Historical Studies (History of Art)|
|Funder||AHRC Early Career Fellowship|
Vanessa Bell (1879-1961) was a major European artist who made an original contribution to international modernism. She pioneered the use of avant-garde techniques in Britain, developing an intelligent painterly response to art from the Continent. Historians have failed to give an adequate account of her critical, cosmopolitan practice, instead dwelling on her supposed Englishness, unconventional friends, and perceived inscrutability.
Bell's reputation as a Bloomsbury bohemian with a complicated private life and as a wordless painter whose pictures 'do not betray her' (to quote her sister, Virginia Woolf), has discouraged close examination of her art. She remains overshadowed by other painters of her time as well as by Woolf, who have been canonised as the result of lengthy campaigns to establish their importance.
My project on Bell's 'experimental work' will transform the way we see her. It will argue that her work made an innovative contribution to modern art, and that it was driven as much by its own developmental logic, as by her exceptional familiarity with the European avant-garde. Working on the hypothesis that her art constituted an acute intervention in the critical debate about modernism, it will argue that she conducted a visual conversation with her literary colleagues, testing the limits of formalism through her radical abstract paintings of 1914, and exploring the emotional impact of visual representation in the absence of conventional narrative. This aspect of my research contributes to recent debates in Word-and-Image studies concerning the rivalry between artists and critics in the early twentieth century. It also complicates the relationship between Bell and Woolf, as I argue that Bell's method of conveying character through form and ellipsis anticipated the literary techniques which Woolf later developed.