“Mrs. Bell says nothing. Mrs. Bell is as silent as the grave.” This was how Virginia Woolf described the works of her sister, Vanessa Bell, while walking through her first solo exhibition in 1930. I sit in the quiet underground room of the Beinecke Library, holding in my hands a thin slip of the old exhibition catalogue, fragile and tan like a fallen autumn leaf that has long ago lost its luster. Closing my eyes for a moment, I try to imagine briefly that I am no longer sitting alongside 180 antiquated bindings and rare manuscripts in the monumental, marble-paned glass structure of the Beinecke, but walking in London, a crisp February morning eighty years ago, entering the modest gallery at 92 New Bond Street.
I try to imagine the paintings hanging in front of me, like Woolf as she walked through the exhibit, attempting to come with “some idea of Mrs. Bell herself, and by thus trespassing, crack the kernel of her art.” Vegetables sitting atop a venetian red kitchen counter, a vase of Zinnias painted with thick impasto strokes, a young child looking out into the sea — Bell took as her subject, in all of her paintings, the tangible, domestic world of her immediate surroundings. Her color palette is warm and muted — ochres, olives, pastels and gray-blues; her forms are reduced and simplified to their geometric components. Although the pictures are immensely expressive, the paintings are silent, and betray nothing of Bell’s character. No stories are told, no insinuations are made, the hillside is bare and the little boy stands in the sea saying nothing. “Their reticence is inviolable,” Woolf concludes.
Since I first stepped into the Yale Center of British Art and saw the paintings of Vanessa Bell hanging on the walls, I have been intrigued by both the artwork and the artist. Getting a sense of who Vanessa Bell was, however, particularly as an artist, is a difficult task. Throughout her life, Bell assumed a variety of roles — daughter of prominent literary critic Sir Leslie Stephen, wife of Clive Bell, lover of Duncan Grant, sister to legendary writer Virginia Woolf — and it is often in these roles, not as an artist, that Bell has been represented. Her posthumous bibliography is thin: one full-length biography, a handful of articles, a few exhibition catalogues, scattered comments. It does not help that she rarely wrote about art and published nothing at all. As a person, Bell was, according to Virginia, “mute as a mackerel.”
Untangling her role as an artist from her roles as mother, wife, lover, and Bloomsbury goddess proved to me to be almost impossible. In the process of trying to do so, digging through letters and journal entries and art criticism and biography, I found myself returning instead to the place where these roles were the most intertwined: Charleston House, Bell’s country home in East Sussex. It was at Charleston that she was most prolific as an artist. It was at Charleston that she produced her finest painting, Iceland Poppies (blood red poppies on a thin stem next to a porcelain jar, later hung with the best works of the Charleston collection alongside Matisse and Picasso). There too, alongside Roger Fry, she hosted the Omega workshops, a showroom and marketplace for young artists to cultivate their art.
Charleston was more than just her artistic hub; it fell under her domestic reign. The house in itself was a work of art —perhaps, as some say, her greatest masterpiece. She took complete control of the aesthetic space. She washed the walls and furnishings with the same distinctive palette of her paintings, of yellow, gray, pale salmon, and unripe apple green. She alone carried the whole edifice, making sure that every clock ticked more or less accurately in time, and that every vase was filled with fresh flowers.
Always rife with blowing roses, trees bowed with fruit and ruddy children running free, Charleston became a thriving hub for writers and intellectuals. Bell had created a powerfully seductive refuge that her daughter recalled as “bathed in what seemed to be the glow of perpetual summer.” Friends queued up to be invited. Bell gave what Roger Fry described as a “sense of security of something solid and real in a shifting world.”
Somehow, she balanced the uncompromising demands of her art with the daily minutiae of domestic life: ordering meals, directing servants, and educating her children, all while wielding a paintbrush. I picture her in my head to be somewhat of a 20th-century equivalent of a Lean In archetype, or what we would celebrate today on an Oprah panel of sorts as “having it all” — life, love, motherhood, and painting. Much to her sister’s envy, Bell seemed not to be “a woman at all, but a mixture of Goddess and peasant, treading the clouds with her feet and her hands shelling peas.”
Straddling the roles of Goddess and peasant, however, was hardly effortless. Although seemingly poised and in control, Bell in fact struggled to balance these two clashing realms of her life. Once, when she was throwing a party and the Charleston house was particularly hectic with friends and guests who demanded her attention and energy as a hostess, she vented her frustration to her daughter Angelica. “I can’t paint, you see,” she complained, “which is the one infallible refuge from such things.”
It appeared that Bell was just as envious of Virginia’s achievements as Virginia was of Bell’s. In her journals, Virginia expressed her complete shock when she realized that Bell, far from being the imperturbable creative force that she believed her to be, was afraid of failure. “Nessa said that she was often melancholy and envied me,” she wrote, “a statement I thought incredible.”
And yet, almost a century later, comparing the artistic careers of the two sisters, I can see that “Nessa” had every reason to be envious. While Virginia’s novels have been canonized alongside the works of other literary giants, Vanessa is remembered as a “lavender” artist, her professional achievements constantly overshadowed by her life story. Mrs. Dalloway and To the Lighthouse adorn English department syllabi throughout the world, but your average art history class will most likely not spare a second glance at a Vanessa Bell still life. What happened? How did the paths of the two sisters diverge so dramatically? If Virginia had supposedly chosen art at the expense of life, to what extent did Vanessa choose life at the expense of art? Does maternity and domestic responsibility choke creativity and artistic expression? Does being a great woman artist mean relinquishing one’s ability to raise children and nurture a happy, functioning family?
If we step outside the Beinecke and the YCBA — timeless, ageless spaces largely insulated from realities of contemporary society — we find that these questions continue to plague women who have chosen to pursue the arts as a vocation.
To this day, female artists bred at our own semi-utopic, academic hub of Yale University, both as undergraduates and at the Yale School of Art, continue to grapple with what to put first: art or life. When Kathryn Parker Almanas ART ’07 left for New York to work as a practicing artist, she began to notice a contrast between her professional and student lives. “When you’re at Yale, you’re in this beautiful bubble of creativity and everyone gives a shit and you have this routine and schedule,” she explains to me over the phone. In the real world, however, the artist does not have what Bell yearns for — the “infallible refuge from such things,” things such as finances, maintaining friendships, cultivating romantic relationships, or what Almanas calls “the business of living.”
For Wangchegi Mutu, ART ’00, now a successful practicing artist and sculptor in Brooklyn, “such things” include taking care of her three-year old daughter Neema. In an interview for Mater Mea, a website that represents women of color at the intersection of motherhood and career, Mutu describes the sheer pragmatic and logistical difficulties of this balance. Just as Bell had to attend to the various needs of her three children Julian, Quentin, and Angelica, Mutu must move just as fluidly from studio to hearth. “You can’t just postpone a child’s needs,” she explains. “If Neema’s back home with the babysitter and it’s time to have dinner, I can’t say, “Oh well, I need to work another hour-and-a-half more. No, her appetite says now.”
While it is a challenge to juggle any profession with the demands of everyday life, it is particularly challenging for artists. Every artist I have met creates art because of a simple, powerful, visceral need to do so. Mutu is “in love and obsessed” with her work. Almanas’s “heart and soul is tied to the process of making art,” and she could not imagine living without it. “If I were to become a mother,” Almanas explains, “I would need a partner that understands the enormous passion, dedication, and focus it takes to be a professional artist.”
However, this kind of understanding — of the dedication it takes to be an artist, and of the sacrifices and compromises that the female artist must make to pursue her art — is not commonly shared. Why is it that lionized British painter Lucian Freud, renowned for his meticulously rendered portraits, can go largely unscathed for having fourteen children with various lovers, whereas Alice Neel is condemned for being a bad mother?
Amelia Sargent ’13, who just completed a Fulbright on the role of gender in contemporary Chinese art, found major obstacles for women who wish to pursue a career in art. Women applying to MFA programs in China, for example, were still asked if they planned to get married or have children, and their entry to the program was highly dependent on their answer to that question. “There is still the deep-rooted societal expectation that women should be caregivers, and that should be their primary role in their family,” Sargent says.
“You also often have these artist couples, and people will pay more attention to the man and his work,” Sargent says. “She is expected to support him and sacrifice her own career through his ambition.” While many have heard of artist-dissident Ai Weiwei, for example, who specializes in controversy, confrontation, smashing Qing dynasty pots, and building massive sculptures out of steel bicycles, most of us have probably never heard of his wife Lu Qing.
Bell has been labeled a “lavender artist,” one who dealt with the mundane, miniscule world of the domestic — still lives of unripe apples, the sunlight streaming onto a bedside table at Charleston, her children playing by the windows. Similarly, Lu Qing’s artwork — intricate grid patterns painted on bolts of silk over the course of months — has been largely overlooked for being private, hermetic, quiet. In general, work by women artists today, like that of Lu Qing, is still being dismissed as “too small in scope, too personal, not broad enough,” according to Sargent. On the other hand, Chinese political pop art, an area dominated by male artists, has become popular in the West, admired for “being subversive and for tackling big issues.”
According to Sargent, because men still own the majority of property and wealth in the world, they will naturally support the art that reflects their worldviews. “The life of men is seen as more profound and transcendent, whereas the female experience is specific enough, not universal,” Sargent explains. “The art world is very much still an old boys’ club.”
If this is indeed the case, why should the female artist even bother to balance a life of art and motherhood if her experiences as a woman, and as a mother, are deemed also unworthy of great art? What does she do if her membership in this old boys’ club remains contingent on her ability to separate her art from an important and inextricable part of her life?
Among the Vanessa Bell paintings that hang on the fourth floor of the YCBA is a self-portrait, one of the few that she painted over the course of her career. Standing in front of the portrait, I can feel her presence: she sits upright, her shoulders powerful, her lips full and pursed, her cheeks ruddy. And yet, at the same time, her whole figure seems to harmonize into the backdrop. From her saffron skin to the patchwork of her hair she seems to blend into the wallpaper, as if she were simply a part of it. It appears that perhaps even Bell herself could not distinguish the artist from the mother, could not really separate herself from the colorful life that she built around her.
Perhaps we should not be so keen to separate the two. “There is something that bothers me about this idea that life and art are separate,” says Almanas. “The time that you devote with your family and friends and other areas of life does feed you artwork and makes you a more effective artist, because it enables your art to speak to people.” Any effort to extricate Bell’s role as artist, from her role as mother, therefore is perhaps not only futile, but also unnecessary. “The portrait painter must not say ‘This is maternity; that intellect,’” wrote Virginia Woolf. “Any attempt to sum up, will distort and diminish the subject.”
As I walk away from the painting, I try to catch the gaze of the woman in the portrait. But she is turned away from me; her eyes, two solid spheres of teal, are impenetrable and elusive.