Monday, August 04, 2014

Moments of Being

When I heard that the National Portrait Gallery were staging an exhibition about Virginia Woolf I was excited but worried too - she is my favourite writer and the concern is how do you do an exhibition of her which would include her writing as well as her personality.

Although I loved walking around the exhibition, the curator Frances Spalding (whose books on Bloomsbury I have enjoyed) has not really addressed that central problem of balancing the woman and her art.  That would not stop me however recommending it to anyone who admires Woolf and her work.

As you enter the exhibition you are confronted by a close-up of that extraordinary face along with a photograph of her bomb-shattered house in Tavistock Square in 1940, setting up the premise of the fragility of life.  After that it is a fairly chronological exhibition which only takes up four rooms.  This was also a bit disappointing, it gave the exhibition the air of skimming the surface.

Through the exhibition it was interesting to see the constant representations of Virginia through photographs, paintings and even sculpture.  The now-iconic Beresford photographs of the 20 year-old Miss Virginia Stephen share space with snapshots from family and friends - Bloomsbury loved to photograph itself! - and with professional photographers such as Giséle Freund and Man Ray.

Paintings of Virginia by her sister Vanessa Bell, Duncan Grant and Roger Fry share space with portraits of fellow Bloomsbury figures such as the artists named, Lytton Strachey, Desmond McCarthy, Saxon Sidney Turner, Dora Carrington and of course Leonard Woolf.  Also included is Stephen Tomlin's haunting life-size bust of her, eyes wide with mouth open as if about to speak.

There were of course her publications: from her first novel THE VOYAGE OUT to the first Hogarth Press publications, hand-bound and printed by Virginia and Leonard, hand-written proofs as well as her great works where she wrestled the novel form into something new, something closer to life in all it's complexity.

The final room is called "Thinking Is My Fighting" and covers the growing threat of Fascism in the 1930s.  There is a drawing by Picasso called "Weeping Woman" which he donated to a fundraising event for Basque children which Virginia, Leonard, Vanessa and her youngest son Quentin had supported.  The title proved sadly prophetic when three weeks later, Vanessa's oldest son Julian was killed driving an ambulance for the Republicans in Spain, leaving Vanessa inconsolable.  Also on display is the Nazi 'black book', of intellectuals and writers who were to be arrested after a Nazi invasion, with Leonard and Virginia's names printed within.

All the way around the exhibition I felt Virginia eluding one's grasp, slipping around the far corner of the room, but here in the final room she was suddenly very close by.  Displayed in the same case as Virginia's taut, nervy letter to Hogarth Press editor John Lehmann on March 20th 1941 stating she felt her recent novel BETWEEN THE ACTS was unpublishable, was her walking stick that was found eight days later lying on the bank of the nearby River Ouse.

Facing this, framed together, were Virginia's last two letters, one to Vanessa, one to Leonard.  Although I have read these letters transcribed in countless biographies of her, to actually see them was incredibly moving and I cried as I looked at them.  Virginia the novelist, writing now for the last time to her sister and husband, the people who she loved the most.  Not writing to stretch the form or to test boundaries, just to express her love to those who would miss her the most and her apology that now she was losing herself to another of her terrible depressions she knew she could not find her way back this time.

And I thought of the last words of MRS DALLOWAY “...For there she was.”  For, finally in the exhibition, there she was.

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