Virginia Woolf and Art


Thinking About Nothing…

Virginia Woolf wanted to think about what it's like to think about nothing special, about ordinary things. "To feel simply, that's a chair, that's a table ... and yet at the same time, it's a miracle, it's an ecstasy," she writes in To the Lighthouse.

Woolf thought, and thought hard, about how a mind processes all that it sees, hears, feels, tastes, remembers. "The mind receives a myriad of impressions," Woolf wrote. "From all sides they come, an incessant shower of innumerable atoms," and she wanted to describe that process.

Novelists, Woolf stated, should "record the atoms as they fall upon the mind in the order in which they fall, let us trace the pattern, however disconnected and incoherent…"

And so Woolf created minds in action. Clarissa Dalloway in her novel Mrs. Dalloway, and Mrs. Ramsay from To the Lighthouse are portrayed from the inside out. They are all mind — jumbles of thoughts, memories, faces, objects, peeves, joys — all disconnected and incoherent. And yet, out of all that blabber there emerge very distinctly, real personalities.

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The Cross-Section of Literature and Art

Woolf represents a historical moment when art was integrated into society, as T.S. Eliot describes in his obituary for Virginia. “Without Virginia Woolf at the center of it, it would have remained formless or marginal…With the death of Virginia Woolf, a whole pattern of culture is broken.”

Woolf became close friends with young men who shared and stimulated her intellectual interests. The majority of these friends her brother Thoby met at Trinity College, Cambridge in 1899, including Lytton Strachey, Leonard Woolf, and Clive Bell. This group started meeting for "Thursday Evenings" at Gordon Square, London in 1906, which was soon followed by (Virginia's sister) Vanessa Bell’s "Friday Club," to discuss the arts. With the emergence of these two literary and artistic circles, the unofficial "Bloomsbury Group" came into existence.

In 1924, during the heyday of literary modernism, Virginia Woolf tried to account for what was new about “modern” fiction. She wrote that while all fiction tried to express human character, modern fiction had to describe character in a new way because “on or about December, 1910, human character changed.”

Woolf’s choice of December, 1910, as a watershed referred above all to the first Post-Impressionist Exhibition, organized by her friend Roger Fry in collaboration with her brother-in-law Clive Bell. The exhibition ran from November 8, 1910 to January 15, 1911 and introduced the English public to developments in the visual arts that had already been taking place in France for a generation.

More broadly, however, Woolf was alluding to social and political changes that overtook England soon after the death of Edward VII in May, 1910, symbolized by the changing patterns of deference and class and gender relations.

Henry James considered that the death of Edward’s mother Victoria meant the end of one age; Edward’s reign was short (1901-1910), but to those who lived through it, it seemed to stand at the border between the old world and the new. This sense of the radical difference between the "modern" world and the "Edwardian" one, or more broadly the world before and after the First World War, became a major theme of Woolf's fiction.

Roger Fry

Roger Fry first met Clive and Vanessa Bell in 1910. They invited him to lecture at Vanessa's Friday Club, and introduced him to their artist friends. This gave him the opportunity to discuss contemporary art with like-minded people, for despite being deeply involved in the art world as a painter and academic, Fry found that his interest in modern French art distanced him from his colleagues.

Fry was a great influence on the development of artists within the group. Two exhibitions that he curated, Manet and the Post-Impressionists in 1910 and the Second Post-Impressionist Exhibition two years later, brought work by contemporary European artists to England.

The term "Post-Impressionism" was invented by him as he prepared for the exhibition at Grafton Gallery in London in 1910 which he called "Manet and the Post-Impressionists," as a canny marketing ploy to pair a brand name (Édouard Manet) with younger French artists whose work was not well known on the other side of the English Channel.

The exhibition included the painters Vincent van Gogh, Paul Cézanne, Paul Gauguin, George Seurat, André Derain, Maurice de Vlaminck and Othon Friesz, plus the sculptor Aristide Maillol. Robert Rosenblum explained: "Post-Impressionists ... felt the need to construct private pictorial worlds upon the foundations of Impressionism."

Post-Impressionists pushed the ideas of the Impressionists into new directions. The word "Post-Impressionism" indicates their link to the original Impressionist ideas and their departure from those ideas -- their modernist journey from the past into the future.

Best-Known Artists:
Vincent van Gogh - Expressionism
Paul Cézanne - Constructive Pictorialism
Paul Gauguin - Symbolist, Cloisonnism, Pont-Aven
Georges Seurat - Pointillism (a.k.a. Divisionism or Neoimpressionism)
Aristide Maillol - The Nabis
Édouard Vuillard and Pierre Bonnard - Intimist
André Derain, Maurice de Vlaminck and Othon Friesz - Fauvism

The exhibitions rocked the London art establishment and had a great impact on the work of young British artists, including artists of the Bloomsbury circle. For many it was their first encounter with Post-Impressionist art.

Fry was hailed as a champion of modern art and he became a focal point for the avant-garde. In founding the Grafton Group in 1913, which took over from the Friday Club as an exhibiting society, Fry provided artists experimenting with post-impressionist style with the opportunity to exhibit their work. He also organised major exhibitions that brought modern works of art to the attention of the public, such as The New Movement in Art shown in London and Birmingham in 1917.
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