The Bloomsbury Group, with its dedication to sexual freedom, the pursuit of art and the cultivation of intellect, seems as likely to find itself condemned now as revered. For some the group was a reaction to middle class constraints in the early decades of 20th century Britain, for others it was an exclusive clique dependent on the privileges of class, education and wealth (not to mention the safety net of bourgeois values against which it defined itself). The sense that theirs was a private utopia is brought forcibly home when visiting Charleston, the East Sussex farmhouse where Vanessa Bell and her occasional lover and life partner, Duncan Grant, made an unconventional nest.
Decked in roses and originally without central heating or running water, Charleston is a tumbledown back-to-nature fantasy house, the perfect setting to defy buttoned-up social conventions. Long faded and knocked about, Bell and Grant’s loosely daubed, light-hearted patterns cover all the walls and furniture like protective charms against outside intrusion. While their art was arguably never pushed to greatness in this would-be creative hothouse, talents like the group’s literary heavyweight and lasting light, Virginia Woolf were among the regular guests.
Now, however, the 21st century has entered the inner circle. Hidden by old farm buildings and not visible from the house itself, are contemporary galleries designed by Jamie Fobert Architects, who created the recent additions to Kettle’s Yard and Tate St Ives. The trio of exhibitions with which these galleries have opened seek to affirm the Bloomsbury set’s significance, particularly for LGBTQIA artists working today, yet must do so whilst negotiating a century of social change and progressive values. The results are mixed.
A group show, ‘Orlando at the present time’, nominally takes Virginia Woolf’s mock-biography as a theme. It scarcely needs saying the 1928 book is a pertinent choice. As a historical touchstone for queer culture, this picaresque chronicle of a time-travelling, merrily gender-switching noble (inspired by Woolf’s lover, the aristocrat Vita Sackville-West), is at a fresh zenith. Yet the exhibition’s mix of art and biography explored through contemporary and historical artworks, artefacts and photos, feels a hotchpotch, as busy as Charleston’s interior décor, but without the overarching vision.
Connections to the book often appear random. Kaye Donachie’s loose, dreamy paintings of women whose features seem blurred by the onlooker’s desire, are roped in to illustrate Orlando’s androgynous beauty. Meanwhile Grant and Roger Fry’s depictions of slumbering figures are related to the numerous deep sleeps, in which Woolf’s protagonist sometimes changes sex. Perhaps this is intended to mirror the author’s own free-wheeling appropriation of artworks from the Sackville-West’s collection, which she reimagined as the portraits of Orlando that appear throughout the book. On show here, her choices, by contrast, always prove revelatory and purposeful: from the 17th century Cornelius Nuie portrait of a boy aristocrat who ended up being murdered by roundheads, to the thrift-shop painting of a raffish, beardless 18th century beau, bought by Vita for its resemblance to her husband Harold Nicholson.
As La JohnJoseph notes in an essay included in Charleston’s seasonal magazine, one of the things that makes the character of Orlando so radical is the lack of any trauma around the gender switches, whether in the protagonist’s love life or identity. Duncan Grant’s painted naked lady costume, created to be worn at Bell’s son’s 26th birthday party, opens a window onto the good times that were had at Charleston too. Yet it’s hard not to feel that these freedoms were enjoyed in a closed world, leaving others less fortunate to struggle on. A number of the contemporary inclusions, hinged on political and social restitution of one kind and another, pick up the slack.
In a new commission, the Romany artist Delaine Le Bas for instance, addresses the disinheritance of Vita Sackville-West’s mother and her siblings, the illegitimate children of a Flamenco dancer with possible gypsy ancestry. This dancer becomes Orlando’s wife in Woolf’s novel, though her children – happily for Orlando – are also disinherited. Documented in photographs, Le Bas has created performances that counter Charleston’s ambience of rarefied bohemia with some something far rawer. Naked or in Romany costume, she moves throughout the farmhouse making loss present and tangible, as she explores her grief at her husband’s recent death; real feeling exploding a ‘primitive’ gypsy fantasy/stereotype.
This kind of crusading identity politics continues in South African photographer’s Zanele Muholi’s self-portraits, a queering of portrait traditions that the show links with Woolf’s feminist rethink of patriarchal history and biography. A further gallery is dedicated to Muholi’s work too, a selection from her series ‘Faces and Phases’ (2006–ongoing): strikingly unaffected portraits that give oppressed black LGBTQIA South Africans a public face that they, not the artist, remain in control of.
Muholi’s is an urgent piece of art-activism and it’s in stark contrast to what’s in the gallery next door: Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant’s Famous Women Dinner Service (1932). Lightly daubed and surrounded by squiggly patterns, their women include Greta Garbo, Jezebel, Bell and Woolf themselves. Grant makes a cheeky cameo too. In a further irony, the plates were commissioned by a young Kenneth Clark, the future gatekeeper of cultural patrimony via his iconic TV show, Civilisation (1969), in which almost no women featured. Far from a big public statement like Woolf’s treatise on women and writing, A Room of One’s Own (1929), the dinner service seems more a laugh between mates. Compared with Judy Chicago’s polemical installation of place settings for historical and mythical grand dames, The Dinner Party (1974–79), it is barely an amuse-bouche. Yet their cheerful ahistoricism, mash-up of low and high and eschewal of tub-thumping politics chimes with later generations of feminist artists dissembling questions of worth and canonical subject-matter, like Karen Kilimnik or Elizabeth Peyton’s paintings of the famous and dazzling. Put the claims to seriousness to one side, and Bell and Grant’s Famous Women are good company.
For the artists and activists in Charleston’s debut shows, the Bloomsbury set’s particular, socially contingent radicalism seems an awkward progenitor. The atmosphere is less that of the communal creativity the group intended to nurture, than one of present-day anxiety about the limitations of their legacy.
‘Orlando at the Present Time’, ‘Zanele Muholi: Faces and Phases’ and ‘Famous Women Dinner Service’ all run at Charleston, East Sussex, until 6 January 2019.
Main image: Duncan Grant’s Studio at Charleston. Photograph: Tony Tree