Virginia Woolf: An Exhibition Inspired by her Writings —– Tate St Ives
Curator Laura Smith begins her catalogue essay with Virginia’s recollection, recounted in her autobiographical piece “A Sketch of the Past”, of drowsing in her nursery at Talland House, the family holiday home in St Ives. Waves break rhythmically on Porthminster Beach below as light filters through a yellow blind. Woolf comes to believe that if her life could be said to have a base, it is of this memory. “It is of lying and hearing this splash and seeing this light, and feeling it is almost impossible that I should be here; of feeling the purest ecstasy that I can conceive.”
The painting Smith chooses to accompany this quote is the work I would most gladly take home: Winifred Nicholson’s 1976 oil painting Glimpse Upon Waking. Most of the canvas is taken up with a pair of yellow striped curtains apparently stirred by a breeze and opened in a V-shape at the top to reveal countryside lit by a rosy sky. What makes it so desirable is that it seems to convey the same intense joy in existence and pleasure in natural phenomena as Woolf’s written recollection.
There are few such obvious correspondences in the exhibition itself, although there is an apposite pairing of a quote from The Waves with Paule Vezelay’s abstract sculpture Five Forms. Instead, Woolf’s writing is meant to act as a prism through which to explore feminist perspectives on landscape, domesticity and identity in modern and contemporary art. There are more than 250 works by over 80 artists considered to have been influenced, directly or indirectly, by Woolf’s ideas.
The exhibition has a sizzling start, with landscapes by two painters with an established presence in West Cornwall: the surrealist Ithell Colquhoun and the currently resurgent Gluck. Especially welcome is the inclusion of unfamiliar works made in Cornwall by some of Woolf’s contemporaries, such as the American portraitist Romaine Brooks’s 1904 oil painting The Port of St Ives. Connections made between Woolf and artists practising today sometimes seem tenuous but for ingenuity few rival those made by a reviewer who said of Gluck and Virginia: “They ran in the same art circles and Woolf’s ex-husband Leonard even played a recording of Gluck’s music ‘Dance of the Blessed Spirits’ at the writer’s funeral.” However, this is an ambitious venture richly rewarding a visit.
Until April 29 at Tate St Ives then from May 26 to September 16 at Pallant House, Chichester and from October 2 to December 9 at the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge.