"The Art of Bloomsbury"

By Rosenblum, Robert | Artforum International, September 1999 | Go to article overview

"The Art of Bloomsbury"


Rosenblum, Robert, Artforum International


TATE GALLERY

With a glamorous cast that includes Lytton Strachey, E.M. Forster, and Virginia Woolf and its spicy scenarios of sexual liberation, "Bloomsbury" has become by now a synonym for privileged British bohemianism. But if the arty milieu has been resurrected by the likes of Ken Russell and Merchant-Ivory, the actual work of Duncan Grant, Vanessa Bell, and Roger Fry (who coined the term Post-Impressionism in 1910 for the pivotal exhibition he hoped would plant the Parisian seeds of modern art's mystery in alien London soil) is seldom seen. "The Art of Bloomsbury," an exhibition curated by Richard Shone, will fill this visual void, showing us how the religion of "significant form" (the antidote to Victorian narrative realism) spread beyond the easel via the handicrafted domestic objects of the Omega Workshops. From painted lampstands, cabinets, and screens to needlepoint upholstery, carpets, and dresses, a Brave New World of distilled beauty was to replace the philistine taste for gaudy, manufactured goods.

How will all of this hold up? The specter of thin-blooded amateurism - what Clive Bell referred to as "the genteel servitude which passes under the name of British civilization" - has always haunted the artsy-craftsy reputation of Bloomsbury. Are Omega's products a serious link between William Morris and the Bauhaus, or were they mainly dilettantish decor? And if both Vanessa Bell and Grant have claims to precocious positions in the international history of abstract art, with Grant even making a kinetic-synesthetic collage that was to be rolled past the viewer to the tune of Bach, do their patchwork-quilt patterns have more to do with marquetry than high modernism? …

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