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Virginia Woolf: An exhibition inspired by her writings

7 June 2018 | Emily May

Virginia Woolf, one of the giants of modern literature, has many connections with Sussex, so it is fitting that an exhibition inspired by her writings is hitting the Pallant House Gallery this summer. Previously at Tate St. Ives, and later to be exhibited at the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, the exhibition celebrates the achievements of the renowned modernist author, whilst relating her work to other female artists who – both consciously and subconsciously – were inspired by her ouevre.

Whilst it uses the modernist 20th Century author as its primary inspiration, this exhibition is NOT solely about Virginia Woolf. Virginia Woolf: An exhibition inspired by her Writings instead innovatively extracts themes within the writer’s oeuvre to act as a structure, within which the corresponding works of 80 inspiring women artists are placed. Many of the featured artists had close working relationships with Woolf, such as Welsh artist and writer Nina Hamnett, and of course Vanessa Bell, Woolf’s sister. However, not all of the artworks are from the same time period, and therein lies the refreshing genius of this exhibition. Works are selected on their thematic as opposed to contextual similarity. A pair of pop-art lips and eye lamps created by Nicola L in 1969 are exhibited alongside 1920s paintings with low horizons by Gluck, as well as New Romantic black and white photographs from 2007 by Linder, creating a melange of art history, allowing visitors to draw parallels between opposing time periods, and specifically the work of Virginia Woolf and contemporary artists of a multitude of mediums, from painting to sculpture and film.

View of the Pond at Charleston by Vanessa Bell. Image Credit: The Estate of Vanessa Bell Henrietta Garnett
The themed exhibition sections include Self Portraiture, The Self in Private (reflecting Woolf’s grapplings with identity and what she called the “egotistical I”) and Landscape and Place. At times, some themes can seem tenuously linked to Woolf’s work. For example, the Room as One’s Own section - exploring the many ways artists have depicted rooms in their work - which is extremely broad and is in danger of becoming too far removed from Woolf herself. However, the section is saved by displays of furniture fabric designed for Omega Workshops in 1913 by Woolf’s sister Vannessa Bell, and the corresponding Woolf quotations that are displayed alongside some of the art works.
The spotlight the exhibition places on female artists is particularly pleasing and relevant, regarding Woolf’s renown as an ardent feminist, and that 2018 is the centenary of women obtaining the right to vote. Women’s Suffrage is not only alluded to through the emancipatory artworks, but it is also placed centre stage in the displays of early 20th Century memorabilia, including a WSPU (Women’s Social and Political Union, also known as the Suffragists) tea service and letters between WSPU leader Millicent Fawcett and fellow campaigner Ray Strachey. There’s also displays of Woolf artefacts such as prints of her correspondence with her fellow authoress and lover Vita Sackville West, as well as original copies of novels To the Lighthouse (1927) and Monday or Tuesday (1921).
The gallery space is also an art work itself, with the walls being adorned with acrylic and water colour line drawings of female forms by France-Lise McGurn, reflecting the exhibition’s focus on femininity. Such wall decorations are also evident throughout the rest of the Pallant House Gallery, for example, there is an abstract, geometric painting by Lothar Götz that runs up the stairs of the modern half of the venue, entitled Composition for a Staircase.

My Daughter's Daughter by France-Lise Mcgurn. Image Credit: France-Lise McGurn
After exploring the modern half of the gallery, head over to the old Town House, which was originally local authority offices, and then restored in 1979 with the intention of giving Chichester an art gallery to display the collection of Dr. Walter Hussey, the Dean of Chichester. Today, it’s creaky wooden floor boards and chandeliers are juxtaposed with collections of British Abstraction and Modern European Art. It’s particularly worth visiting Dance: Movement and Modernism, which is part of the Pallant’s summer season (along with photographic exhibition Sussex Days featuring the photographs of Dorothy Bohm), and explores artists’ responses to passion and movement in early 20th Century Dance. As well as works referencing 1900s dance legends such as the Ballet Russes and Michael Fokine, there’s also references to more (relatively) recent contemporary choreographers, such as Merce Cunningham, whose notes and floor plans for Points in Space (1986) are on display.
Virginia Woolf: An exhibition inspired by her writings runs at the Pallant House Gallery, Chichester until 16 September 2018, before it moves to the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge from 2 October – 9 December.
Dance: Movement and Modernism and Sussex Days both run at the Pallant House Gallery, Chichester until 2 September 2018.

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