Wednesday, July 14, 2010

London's Sexiest Hipsters Cross The Pond

Roger Fry (British, 1866-1934)
Winifred Gill by the Pool at Durbins
, 1912
Oil on board,
Private collection
(All Images Courtesy of Cornell University Press.)

They were a group of writers and artists who believed in peace, free love, women's rights, environmental protection, gay rights, and the expression of truth, beauty, and grace through the fine arts, decorative arts, and the written word. Their movement was named for the somewhat disreputable neighborhood in which they lived, and soon became shorthand for both the revolutionary art they created and the liberated lives they led.

Vanessa Bell (British, 1879-1961)
The Lesson
, 1917
Oil on canvas,
Private collection

This description could fit Haight Ashbury in the 60's, or Greenwich Village in the 50's, but this group of free thinkers came together about half a century before the hippies or the hipsters. These English mamas and papas of the counter culture were collectively known as "The Bloomsbury Group." The final stop of a traveling exhibit featuring their paintings, works on paper, decorative arts, and book arts, assembled from public and private collections throughout the United States, is now on display at the Palmer Museum of Art at Pennsylvania State University.

Roger Fry (British, 1866-1934)
Paper Flowers on a Mantelpiece, 1919
Oil on canvas on board,
Collection of Bannon and Barnabas McHenry

The exhibit, A Room of Their Own: The Bloomsbury Artists in American Collections, examines the American reception of the art produced between 1910 and the 1970's by the Bloomsbury artists and their associates and collaborators. The group was centered around writers such as Leonard and Virginia Woolf, Lytton Strachey, and Clive Bell; and artists Vanessa Bell, Roger Fry, Duncan Grant, and Dora Carrington. Other notable personalities drawn into into their orbit included E.M. Forster, D.H. Lawrence, Bertrand Russell, Wyndham Lewis, and John Maynard Keynes. Together the "Bloomsberries" became synonymous with wit, intelligence, political activism, avant-garde art and literature, as well as sexual and social experimentation. Though small in numbers, they made an indelible impression on cultural thinking, and seem remarkably modern even today.

Dora Carrington (British, 1893-1932)
, 1927
Oil on canvas,
Collection of Mary Ann Caws,
New York

Christopher Reed, an associate professor of English and visual culture at Pennsylvania State University and guest co-curator of the exhibition, says the show encompasses the entire visual culture of the London-based Bloomsbury group through the group's paintings, drawings, textiles, ceramics, painted furniture, stationery and bookplates. "At the beginning of the 20th century, Bloomsbury's members were trying to imagine what it would mean to live in a modern way," Reed notes. "A lot of that imagining took place by way of imagining new and modern environments -- places for people to be modern in." It is well known that the group influenced British scholars in economics, history, literature, art, and design, but less well documented was their importance in North America. It took this assemblage of The Bloomsbury Groups finest works from museums, libraries, and private collections in the United States and Canada to demonstrate the devotion of collectors across the pond to the art and ideals of this renegade circle.

Vanessa Bell (British, 1879-1961)
Study for the Portrait of Leonard Woolf
, 1938
Oil on paper,

Collection of the Victoria University Library,

The exhibit has traveled from the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University, to the Herbert F. Johnson Musuem of Art at Cornell University, to the Mary and Leigh Block Museum of Art at Northwestern University, the Smith College Museum of Art, the Mills College Art Museum, and finally, to the Palmer Museum of Art. At each venue, works have been added to the show from those school's own libraries, and from local private collectors in their surrounding area. The Palmer has added books and letters from the Rare Books and Manuscripts collection of Penn State Special Collections Library, and more rare books on loan from private collections. Curator Reed remarks that some collectors focus on the written works of a particular author in the group, often Virginia Woolf, while others concentrate on the visual art and decorative items produced by the group's artists, especially Woolf's sister, Vanessa Bell. Sometimes the two insect, as with first edition books authored by the Bloomsbury writers with illustrations and dust jackets designed by their artist colleagues, and published under the auspices of the Omega Workshops and the Hogarth Press.

Dora Carrington (British, 1893-1932)
From Portfolio of Woodcuts for Bookplates, 1915-20
Twenty woodcuts, various dimensions
Collection of the Harry Ransom Center,
The University of Texas at Austin

An exhibit catalog has been jointly published by the Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art and the Cornell University Press, featuring full-color plates of 200 of the exhibited works, along with essays by several leading Bloomsbury scholars. Gretchen Holbrook Gerzina, author of a major 1995 Carrington biography, provides an overview of artistic Bloomsbury. Nancy E. Green, the Johnson Museum's co-curator and organizer of the exhibition, explores the Victorian-era influence on sisters Virginia Woolf and Vanessa Bell. Mark Hussey's essay discusses the cultural differences between how British and American audiences experience Virginia Woolf and the Bloomsbury group. Benjamin Harvey offers "An Appreciation of Bloomsbury's Books and Blocks." And co-curator Christopher Reed presents the personal stories of many of the prominent Bloomsbury collectors in North America. The catalog also contains documentary photographs, portraits of the writers and artists, and reproductions of continental works created during the same period.

Vanessa Bell (British, 1879-1961)
Flowers In A Vase, 1917
Private Collection

A Room of Their Own: The Bloomsbury Artists in American Collections was made possible by a major grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH). The leftist political activism, sexual scandal, and avant-garde art and literature associated with the Bloomsbury Group caused this federal funding of the show to arouse the ire of conservative organizations fighting the culture wars. The Bloomsbury Group couldn't wish for a higher honor than to remain a lightening rod for controversy nearly 100 years after its formation.

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