A reputation drowning in trivia

Dora Carrington's life has tended to obscure her art, and the Barbican retrospective nearly succumbs to the mythology, too.

Poor Dora Carrington. She's already a mythical figure: famous for a radical haircut and a notoriously complicated love life, which revolved around her unorthodox obsession with the writer Lytton Strachey, and ended with her suicide in March 1932 at the age of 38.

Carrrington's semi-official status as tragic tomboy temptress of the Bloomsbury Group has tended to obscure any objective assessment of her contribution as an artist; and her own ambiguity on the matter doesn't help. She rarely exhibited or parted with her paintings, and famously declared, "It's rather maddening to have the ambition of Tintoretto and to paint like a diseased dormouse". It's also a well-known fact that early on in her life Carrington became dominated by her milieu: and her current Barbican retrospective confirms that it was invariably people that won out over painting.

Yet an enigmatic personality and a perverse attitude towards her art should not be allowed to detract from what Carrington did achieve. Her artistic roots lay not in Bloomsbury but as a prize-winning student at the Slade School of Art; the rigour of the Slade's life-drawing regime is reflected in the sure, expressive line of her early work.

These qualities never left her, and the best of Carrington's work has a confident, crystalline precision that owes more to her Slade contemporaries Spencer and Gertler and the Pre-Raphaelites than the painterly post-Impressionism of Bloomsbury. Cezanne may have been one of Carrington's heroes, but it is the spirit of Samuel Palmer that haunts her luminous 1916 oil of a swelling hillside near her parents' home in Hampshire, where fields and hedgerows described in miniaturist detail are charged by a vast, translucent, sunlit sky.

Her portraits of those around her were bold, uncompromising and often unflattering. Lytton Strachey in epicene profile appears to have stepped off a crusader tomb, Mark Gertler looms lugubriously out of the shadows and, in one of her few commissions, the regal Lady Strachey is imposingly androgynous, painted full length, draped in robes and looking beadily through her wire-rimmed spectacles.

However, from her first meeting with Lytton Strachey in 1915, Carrington's painting had to compete with her "plural affections", whereby her "triangular trinity of happiness" with Strachey and her husband Ralph Partridge was augmented by a number of other lovers, male and female. This predicament is reflected at the Barbican, where no attempt is made to separate Carrington's work from her biography; and it is significant that the show opens not with art, but with home movies. Amid the high jinks of various Bloomsburyites, Carrington herself makes fleeting appearances, a hazy figure who averts her face from the camera.

It is this enigmatic, self-effacing personality that the Barbican exhibition so hotly pursues; and more fuel is added to the Carrington cult as the show rapidly evolves into a memorabilia-laden shrine. There is Carrington as Joan of Arc, astride a white horse; a naked Carrington posing as an androgynous Pan at Ottoline Morrell's Garsington Manor, and Carrington the Slade student cutting a boyish dash in beret and trousers. There is a flood of quirky, illustrated letters chronicling her daily existence and the last display case even contains two locks of her famous hair.

Not only does her art become subsumed in this plethora of anecdotal detail, there's also the added complication that, once she had become Lytton Strachey's pen-wiper, Carrington expended the greater part of her energies in creating a backdrop for others. Her early experience as a member of Roger Fry's Omega workshops combined with an affection for naive fairground imagery in the elaborate decorative schemes that Carrington devised for her own houses and those of her friends. She made her mark on every surface, from painted furniture and ceramic tiles to pub signs and shells stuck on boxes.

This extra-easel activity has charm and a certain nostalgia, but none of the boldness and innovation of equivalent contemporary work by Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant. It certainly does not merit the lavish representation at the Barbican where colour schemes, wallpapers and corners of her houses have been reverently recreated. Instead, what all this busy homebuilding reveals is time spent away from the easel - the decorative equivalent of Cyril Connolly's "pram in the hallway" which was to be the enemy of Carrrington's art.

Carrington did not alter the course of British art, but that does not diminish her genuine contribution as a painter of compelling, poetic landscapes and penetrating, complex portraits. It is these that are the genuine revelation of her Barbican retrospective, and they prove that the best of Carrington's work can transcend biography; it doesn't need to be swamped by it.

n `Carrington: the Exhibition' at the Barbican, London EC2 (0171-628 2295) to 10 Dec

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