The artists connecting with the writings of Virginia Woolf

The artists connecting with the writings of Virginia Woolf

Growing up, Virginia Woolf spent family holidays in St Ives, and the Cornish town and surrounding coastal landscapes left a profound impression on the British modernist author, later becoming a constant reference in her writing – The Godrevy Lighthouse of St Ives Bay is famously transposed to Scotland in her 1927 novel To The Lighthouse.

As much as the rugged, rolling landscapes were the basis for Woolf’s settings, her fiction is equally well known for its symbolic interiors, most vivid in her seminal work, A Room of One’s Own.

Tate St Ives celebrates Woolf’s scenes and their metaphors in a major new exhibition; it’s the first time that Woolf’s writing and feminism has been explored in this way, through the visions of more than 80 artists of the 19th and 20th centuries, not all of them blockbuster names, but including some, such as Laura Knight, Barbara Hepworth, Linder, Claude Cahun, and Woolf’s sister, the painter Vanessa Bell.

Blue, white and grey oil painting depicting flowers in a vase by Margaret Mellis

Blue Anemone, 1957, by Margaret Mellis, oil on board. © The estate of Margaret Mellis

Going back to 1854 – three decades before Woolf was born – the works trace a trajectory of female frustration with the patriarchy. For most of that history, as Woolf herself wrote, ‘Anonymous was a woman’ – and many of these works received little attention in their day, and many of the artists have been neglected or forgotten.

Neatly divided into two ‘sections’, one looking outwards and the other in, there are many satisfying visual connections between Woolf’s room and the mustard Chintz sofa Ethel Sands painted in 1910, or the view from Knight’s rainy window. The fragmented self-portraits of feminine identity as depicted by Linder or Cahun’s photographs, meanwhile draw on Woolf’s ambivalence about a woman’s physical space and social role. There is further, meandering symbiosis between Woolf’s words, the undulating landscapes outside the gallery, and the crafted curves of Paule Vézelay’s plaster sculptures, among others.

One hundred years on from the historic moment women in Britain could vote for the first time, the exhibition is also, of course, an opportunity to reflect back on the progress women have made in society in terms of rights, and how these changes have affected their image of themselves – proud, dejected, determined, disabused – and how they perceive their position in the world.

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