Happily, I’ve finished another essay from Significant Others: Creativity & Intimate Partnership
. This book is a series of essays that explores the relationships of great artists. It is an attempt to understand how gender, creativity, and partnership influence art.
(New to my site? You should also look at my previous posts on Robert & Sonia Delaunay, Lee Krasner & Jackson Pollock,
and Robert Rauschenberg & Jasper Johns.
Each partnership was interesting and inspiring in their own ways.)
These are my impressions of The “Left-Handed Marriage” of Vanessa Bell & Duncan Grant by Lisa Tickner.
Angelica Garnett as ‘Mistress Millament’ by Vanessa Bell.
I wasn’t familiar with either artist before reading the chapter, and had to do a little research to really understand them. Vanessa Bell (1879 – 1961) and Duncan Grant (1885 – 1978) were members of the British circle of artists and intellects know and the Bloomsbury Group. This group has been recognized mostly for it’s writers, which included Virginia Woolf and E. M. Forester. This group was really progressive, and had modern ideas about sexuality, feminism, and art.
Self Portrait by Duncan Grant, c. 1910
This spirit is what I really admire about the Bloomsbury Group. They were completely unconventional. The group was forming during the 1910s, a time when there were very ridged ideas about women’s roles in society were, and homosexuality was actually a crime in England. Virginia Woolf and Vanessa Bell were sisters. They were independent at a very early age, as their mother died. As a result, Woolf and Bell were both sexually and professionally emancipated. Woolf was a writer and very openly a lesbian. Bell was a painter and entered an open marriage to Clive Bell in 1907. While married to Clive Bell, Vanessa Bell began her lifelong relationship with painter Duncan Grant.
Chattie Salaman by Vanessa Bell, c. 194o.
So, here is why the author chose to call this partnership a “left-handed marriage”: Vanessa and Clive openly took other lovers. Duncan Grant was openly gay. Then right before World War I, Vanessa, Clive, Duncan Grant and Duncan’s lover David Garnett moved to the Sussex countryside and settled at Charleston farmhouse . Vanessa had children by both Clive and Duncan. Pretty wild, no? Ultimately, this unconventional living arrangement allowed Vanessa to continue her painting career. There was always someone available to watch the children. This was very uncommon for the time period! Women, if permitted to paint or work, were always expected to stop their professional lives after having children.
Julian Bell Reading by Duncan Grant, c. 1930
Vanessa Bell was described not as a bohemian, but as having “a kind of ruthless focusing on love and work that preserved her independence and her capacities for both.” I really love this idea – I can relate to this idea. I feel fortunate to be born in a time period where I have the freedom to do exactly what I want, when I want. But there has to be a ruthless focusingin order toachieve this freedom. You have to make your own rules. You musteliminate distractions. You have to have a real sense of clarity on the life you want. My yoga teacher Sandra said this to me, and I’ll never forget it:
“Freedom through discipline“.
The Kitchen by Duncan Grant, c. 1902.
I looked through paintings by each artist, and I saw a really rich dialog. Their portraits capture a real sensitivity. In their own ways, they are able to express the emotion of the sitter. The portrait of Angelica Garnett by Vanessa Bell is so sweet and tender. She seems timid and almost embarrassed by all the attention focused on her. In comparison, Duncan Grant’s Self Portrait is really jarring. He eyes pierce out from the canvas, through the viewer, in searching for some kind of answer or realization. His gaze makes me think that while he was painting himself, he was forced to analyze himself.
Dorothy Bussy at La Souco by Vanessa Bell, c. 1954.
There interiors and landscapes are equally beautiful. The sense of light is really beautiful in the painting above. The sunny garden, the french doors, the white transparent curtains fluttering in the wind . . . I almost feel like I’m there. I really like the rapid, scribble-like brushstrokes that make up the the trees above the figure of Dorothy.
The Doorway by Duncan Grant, c. 1929
Bell and Duncan focus a lot on fabrics and textures, which I love as a fashion and textile fanatic! I’m absolutely enchanted by The Doorway by Grant. The chair looks like it’s draped with a voided velvet fabric with a pattern of swirling flowers. A sweater is placed over the top of the chair, in case the breeze gets to chilly. And then there are the beautiful flowers and plants in the garden outside. Look at all the carefully mixed colors – the pinks, yellows, lavenders, and greens, each applied with different brush strokes. So lovely.
Landscape View Near Guildford by Vanessa Bell, c. 1910.
Life on the country farm was really uninhibited. Bell wrote: “We seem to be in the company of the young. All free, all beginning life in new surroundings without elders to whom we had to account in any way for our doings or behavior, and this was not common in a mixed company of our class.” (72) This freedom, I’m sure, made everyone who visited think. Take a look at this portrait of James Strachey by Duncan Grant. Sure looks like he’s lost in a world of ideas to me.
James Strachey by Duncan Grant, c. 1910
And this painting of Women and Two Children by Vanessa Bell. The figure on the chair looks like she is contemplating something more pressing than the children playing with toys.
Women and Two Children by French Windows by Vanessa Bell.
After breakfast, Bell and Grant would paint in the studio together. The author talks about how Bell was in constant need of reassurance. She painted to lose herself – to shed the gender roles, the definitions of femininity. I guess in doing this she found something greater, the experience of being a painter. But in an way where gender and sexuality didn’t define her.
Henrietta by Vanessa Bell, c. 1950s.
Grant was a free spirit. Compassionate, friendly, and unpretentious. He was happy to paint, and live in the freedom that the Bloomsbury group afforded him. He encouraged Bell, learned from her, and influenced her. There relationship was described as the following:
“Where Vanessa was timid and tentative, Duncan would be audacious, and when he was disoriented she would be authoritative. She would straighten out his muddles, laugh at his perplexities, and when, as so often happened, her self-confidence failed her, he would support and reassure her. The enterprise was never ‘art’ at the cost of a life lived or life at the expense of oeuvre.” (81)
Lytton Strachey. Verso: Crime and Punishment by Duncan Grant, c. 1909.
They also painted one another, which I think is so sweet.
Portrait of Duncan Grant by Vanessa Bell
Portrait of Vanessa Bell by Duncan Grant, c. 1917