Virginia Woolf: An exhibition inspired by her writings

Rosie Chalmers

The Fitzwilliam Museum’s autumn exhibition is not just inspired by the writings of Virginia Woolf, but also by her character and ongoing legacy. The collection is an explosion of art and writing exploring androgyny, still life, stream of consciousness and countless other themes. It features the work of many queer female and non-binary artists and the journey of establishing a space in the art world. This space is claimed with ferocity, tenderness and determination. The work and their creators resist passivity and the possibility of ever being someone else’s muse with the same skill and grace we find in Woolf’s work. Even the frames are unique with no uniform look, while France Lise Mcgurn’s colourful line drawings cover the walls, countering the clinical blankness we expect in galleries.


Claude Cahun “Autoportrait” (Institute of Modern Art Valencia)

Walking in, you are greeted by exquisite portraits from painters such as Ethel Walker, one of several female artists from the nineteenth century whose work is shown at the exhibition. Walker’s portraits are sensitive and thoughtful impressionist depictions of women in her life and in the public sphere, including Vanessa Bell, Woolf’s sister. Bell’s own self portrait is on view alongside her beautiful tapestry and home furnishings, which are displayed in the gallery concerned with creating a ‘room for one’s own’. Ultimately the exhibition centres on this idea of self-portraiture both in classical painting and in the modern work featured. Zanele Muholi is a South African artist whose stunning photography uses self-portraiture to fashion their identity, refusing to “become a subject matter for others”. Muholi’s work is definitely a highlight, with dramatic black and white accentuating the contorted body that gazes back at itself. The French sculptor and photographer Claude Cahun also investigates this with tiny photographs that play with clowning, make up, unnatural positioning and a manufactured identity for the camera. The circus aspect to the pictures both mocks and challenges ideas of gender stability. Undeniably the pieces on show are connected by theme rather than time period or form, which creates a sense of exhilaration at seeing all the work thrown together. Walker is noted for striving to create a space for queer identity and androgyny in the art world towards the beginning of the 20th century, and the exhibition spills out from this goal, as if charting the development and challenges of those who have taken up where she left off. It seems as if the artists are reaching out to each other over the century’s distance and striving forward in harmony, building off what has gone before. As Woolf herself wrote to succeed and create we must “think back through our mothers”.


Zanele Muholi “Somnyama Ngonyama” (Yancey Richardson Gallery)

The cases dotted throughout the galleries sustain a strong connection to aspects of Woolf’s life, such as her interaction with the suffragette movement and her friendship with some of its leading figures. Woolf’s relationship with Vita Sackville West is also tenderly acknowledged in the display of letters between them that begin “Dearest Creature”. But the exhibition also stays true to its focus on her writings as it explores the modernist form of stream of consciousness that Woolf utilised. The films shown explore how this form manifests itself. The ‘Wedding Loop’ by Canadian visual artist Moyra Davey is a particularly mesmerizing encapsulation of thought, anxiety and compulsion. Her recorded narration is interspersed with film of her house, of the places she visits and a recording of a wedding she took in 1980 that she compares to a wedding party she attends in 2017. However Davey is too articulate to ever slip into easy nostalgia. We only see glimpses of her pacing body, but her grating voice has a mysterious authority as she charts her life in the flow of consciousness: “I wipe dust off my mother’s rubber plant in the hall…improbably I try to read the Illiad…she turns to me and says part of me wants to die”. The modern day Mrs Dalloway, Davey’s piece is undoubtedly one of my favourite among these works. I encourage everyone to escape the library in the middle of the day and sit in front of this complex film, and let the images and words wash over you as I did.


Gwen John “Self portrait 1902” (Tate)

It is a wonderful and uplifting exhibition that I intend to revisit again and again before the term is over, especially because there’s so much to see. I could watch the films on repeat for hours, and living next door, that’s probably what I’ll end up doing. There’s a sense of excitement both intrinsic in the collection and in the genuine fondness for Woolf and her writing that seems to emulate from the visitors. The exhibition is overflowing with brilliant feminist work rather than searching for token female or queer artists. There is also real enjoyment, as the gallery is buzzing with chatter throughout the day. Whether it’s the man chuckling “she’s in bleeding la la land,” after gazing at the living statue photographs, the school kids furiously sketching the sculptures, or the students, who like me, are clutching their tote bags and lusting over the first editions of To the Lighthouse, everybody seems enraptured by the kaleidoscope of art on display.

Cover image – France-Lise McGurn “Puttanesca” (Bosse and Baum)


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