Group Discussion; the Listener ; Effete, Overrated Snobs? or Maligned Cultural Revolutionaries? Whatever You Think of the Bloomsbury Group, They Refuse to Go Away. This Week's Selection from the Best of BBC Radio Is a Debate Inspired by the Latest Exhibitions of Their Art

Article excerpt





Curator of the major exhibition on the 'Art of Bloomsbury', currently showing at the Tate Gallery, London


Academic and biographer of Virginia Woolf


Journalist, critic and biographer of Rupert Brooke


Author of Bloomsbury Pie, a history of the Bloomsbury revival

RICHARD SHONE: I've always thought of the Bloomsbury Group as modest artists who made a definite but perhaps rather limited contribution to British culture in the great unbuttoning moment before the First World War. And I hope that the Tate Gallery's show 'Art of Bloomsbury' demonstrates that. I don't see them as Picasso.

SARAH DUNANT: But you see them as pretty good artists who deserve to be in the British cultural history?

RS: Yes. I think we come to the great fault line now: because they happen to be associated with Bloomsbury, they're often dismissed. Nobody has actually looked at the paintings before and said, "that's good, that's bad, that's interesting." I hope I have set out in this show a coherent account of their development at that time.

SD: OK. Richard believes that the paintings are what we should be looking at, not the cultural chatter in our heads about Bloomsbury. Nigel, you've seen the Tate show - what do you think?

NIGEL JONES: Well, I think the art is very modest, and I'm glad that Richard doesn't make any extravagant claims. And I think, to be fair, that they wouldn't make claims to be ranked along with Matisse, or with Proust, or Kafka, whoever the people were who were writing and painting at the same time. But I wonder why, if that is the case, we still make such a hell of a fuss about them now. I think in some ways I've been brought in here to pee on one of Vanessa Bell's carpets as a token anti-Bloomsbury person. I find it strange that we're so obsessed with them.

SD: But isn't it partly that if you look too much at the life, it takes your attention away from the work. Maybe in some ways the work was not always easy, it was difficult. In some ways, modernism was difficult. Hermoine?

HERMIONE LEE: It depends what you take pleasure in. What I take pleasure in from the show is a conversational intimacy and a movement between high art, professional art and ordinary useful everyday domestic appliances. In those paintings you see objects which you can then see as physical objects, such as screens, chairs and plates. It's a useful art, I think, not a useless art.

RS: I think something that gets dismissed is the artists always wanting to have their works seen everywhere on a very broad basis. They weren't the elitist snobs that you read about every day in the papers.

SD: Regina, give me this from the American perspective, because to a certain extent America comes rather fresher to Bloomsbury than Britain. You don't have the cultural baggage that we have.

REGINA MARLER: Yes it's true that there's a great divide in the English/ American response to Bloomsbury. Americans really knew very little about the group before the late Fifties, so they didn't build up resistance to it. In England Bloomsbury seemed like a monolith at the heart of the art establishment. Views have been passed down: a lot of cultural commentators in the present don't know much more about Bloomsbury than they pick up from a Sunday supplement, but they continue to mouth the standard objections to the Group.

SD: So you agree with Hermione that the British are caught up in a complex dialogue with themselves about class, which the Americans can leapfrog over?

RM: Yes. I think it's class. I also think there's quite a bit of homophobia and misogyny at the root of the reaction against the Group.

HL: I think it has to do with the Thirties reaction - people like Wyndham Lewis and DH Lawrence and the middle-class male academic establishment responding against these people they thought were spoilt and trivial. …