They lived in squares, painted in circles and loved in triangles: Vanessa Bell & Sussex Modernism

A colourful painting of a vase, shaped like a feminine torso, on a windowsill overlooking a pond that reflects the trees and the sky.
Vanessa Bell, View of the Pond at Charleston (c.1919)

The Bloomsbury Group bridge the unstable gap of the past and the present; between them they represent the radical end of the Victorians and the liberal progenitors of the twentieth century. Their contemporary, the American poet Dorothy Parker, described the amorphous set of friends, partners, and colleagues as having, lived in squares, painted in circles and loved in triangles. It’s clear that the group can’t be slotted neatly into history but rather they have to be split apart and viewed from multiple angles. Two current exhibitions offer unique perspectives on the Bloomsbury Group and the moment they lived in: Vanessa Bell at the Dulwich Picture Gallery and Sussex Modernism: Retreat and Rebellion at Two Temple Place.

Dulwich places Bell at the centre of the group—it’s widely regarded that Bell’s Friday Club soirées beginning in 1905, along with her brother Thoby Stephen’s Thursday Evenings, originally brought the group together. The works on display date roughly from 1913 to 1953; Bell is entirely separated from the Victorian era, working in the wake of Roger Fry’s Post-Impressionist exhibitions as well as continuing beyond the deaths of her son Julian, her sister Virginia, and end of the group proper. Bell’s work is presented thematically, highlighting the variety and extent of her work, while suggesting a progression from abstraction to realism. Prominence is given to the socially tolerant demeanour of Bell and the group—their open relationships, homosexuality, and pacifism—with letters and Bell’s own snapshots of gatherings supporting the view of a close-knit bohemian idyll.

The exhibition opens with Bell ‘Amongst Friends’, this room dominated by the vibrant colour, unfinished canvases, and unconventional personalities of Mrs St John Hutchinson (1915), Iris Tree (1915), and Lytton Strachey (1913). Her period of abstraction is represented by her design work for the Omega Workshop and the Hogarth Press. Following this there’s a distinct eclecticism and experimentation in method; a number of collages in response to Picasso’s own work, her pointillist ‘leopard manner’, alongside Fauvist-inspired palettes and flattened landscapes that recall Cézanne. But her work is constrained by the reductive and conservative categories that the thematic approach lays down; Still Life, At Home, Landscapes, and Women. The result is an emphasis of realism and formalism, such that her painting View of the Pond at Charleston (c.1919) loses the sense of introspection provoked by the figurative vase.

With the focus on the inner dynamics of the group Bell appears appears almost entirely disconnected from the wider world, yet over the same period in which she worked she saw the suffrage movement, two world wars, the Great Depression, and the General Strike. The group’s pacifism is used to explain why they lacked any involvement in the war, but their relation to the general state of society never interrogated. Even their position within the British art world of the time is unclear, the close working relationships and disagreements with artists such as Wyndham Lewis are ignored. The Bloomsbury Group are isolated in the countryside. Presented alone like this they appear to be the only modernists in Britain.

Sussex Modernism widens the frame beyond the Bloomsbury Group and shows its members as simply one set in a complex artistic milieu. The contradictions of this moment in British art are represented by a marble casket designed by Ezra Pound, made by Henri Gaudier‐Brzeska, and given as a gift to the poet Wilfrid Scawen Blunt who, despite being respected as a proto-modernist, disparaged it as, an absurd futurist bas relief of a naked Egyptian woman. Here, the Bloomsbury Group is represented by a number of portraits by Bell and Grant, a lampshade and a few of Bell’s book covers. The sense of interconnectedness of the artists comes across most keenly in a set of photos by Bell of Patricia Fry, daughter of Bell & Roger Fry, climbing on Eric Gill’s Virgin Statue (1911‐12), which itself stands next to the photos.

Upstairs, the focus moves from the garden to the seaside, where the Bloomsbury Group can be set against a series of artists who are younger, international, and more radical in their beliefs and aesthetics. A point made forcefully by a large model of the Bauhaus-inspired De La Warr Pavilion at Bexhill on Sea, next to this a framed Architectural Review article on the building, art-directed by László Moholy-Nagy. Next to this foreign machine-age building, Edward Wadsworth’s paintings turn the familiar British seaside into something uncanny. Peggy Angus paints interiors, still lifes, and nudes—only Angus, an involved and active communist, depicts herself studiously curled up on a chair reading John Strachey’s 1935 The Nature of Capitalist Crisis. Lee Miller’s photoshoots of artists including Eileen Agar, Henry Moore, and Pablo Picasso show a turn from the parochial towards the global media, focusing more specifically on their celebrity than their work.

These exhibitions come at a time when the Bloomsbury Group and the British modernism they represent are enjoying a degree of emulation, finding their contemporary parallels in the illustrations of myriad Instagram profiles, literary reviews, and email newsletters, as well as in cultural gatherings and a loosening of the formal boundaries of relationships—excepting that this sensibility is no longer limited to central London, but has been pushed out to Zones 2 and 3. This desire to be linked to the Bloomsbury Group can be read as a desire to inscribe onto history the experience of living between centuries, keenly felt by people of my own generation—I myself am not separate from this. But to align yourself so closely to a group whose values embody the exclusivity of upper class pursuits is to say something about your own work—intentionally or otherwise.