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

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
Don’t send in the clowns: masks and make-up conceal true facial expressions, thwarting our instinct to read people’s minds through their faces, as seen in ‘It’
film
Arts and Entertainment
Go figure: Matt Parker, wearing the binary code scarf knitted by his mother
comedy Mathematician is using comedy nights to teach and preach sums
Arts and Entertainment
Ryan Gosling in 'Drive'
filmReview: Ryan Gosling is still there, but it's a very different film
Arts and Entertainment
Urban explorer: Rose Rouse has documented her walks around Harlesden, and the people that she’s encountered along the way
books Rouse's new book discusses her four-year tour of Harlesden
Arts and Entertainment
Shock of the news: Jake Gyllenhaal in ‘Nightcrawler’
film
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Orson Welles made Citizen Kane at 25, and battled with Hollywood film studios thereafter
film
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from Franco Zeffirelli's production of 'Aida' at Milan's famed La Scala opera house
operaLegendary opera director in battle with theatre over sale of one of his 'greatest' productions
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Juergen Wolf won the Young Masters Art Prize 2014 with his mixed media painting on wood, 'Untitled'
art
Arts and Entertainment
Iron Man and Captain America in a scene from
filmThe upcoming 'Black Panther' film will feature a solo black male lead, while a female superhero will take centre stage in 'Captain Marvel'
Arts and Entertainment
The Imperial War Museum, pictured, has campaigned to display copyrighted works during the First World War centenary
art
Arts and Entertainment
American Horror Story veteran Sarah Paulson plays conjoined twins Dot and Bette Tattler
tvReview: Yes, it’s depraved for the most part but strangely enough it has heart to it
Arts and Entertainment
The mind behind Game of Thrones George R. R. Martin
books

Will explain back story to fictional kingdom Westeros

Arts and Entertainment
Dorothy in Return to Oz

film Unintentionally terrifying children's movies to get you howling (in fear, tears or laughter)
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Robert James-Collier as under-butler Thomas

TVLady Edith and Thomas show sad signs of the time
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
The Dad's Army cast hit the big screen

film
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
JK Rowling is releasing a new Harry Potter story about Dolores Umbridge

books
Arts and Entertainment
On The Apprentice, “serious” left the room many moons ago and yet still we watch

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor finds himself in a forest version of London in Doctor Who episode 'In the Forest of the Night'
TVReview: Is the Doctor ever going stop frowning?
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from David Ayer's 'Fury'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift performs at the 2014 iHeart Radio Music Festival
music review
Arts and Entertainment
Paul Anderson plays Arthur Shelby in Peaky Blinders series two
tvReview: Arthur Shelby Jr seems to be losing his mind as his younger brother lets him run riot in London
Arts and Entertainment
Miranda Hart has called time on her award-winning BBC sitcom, Miranda
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Sir Nicholas Serota has been a feature in the Power 100 top ten since its 2002 launch
art
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    The drugs revolution starts now as MPs agree its high time for change

    The drugs revolution starts now as MPs agree its high time for change

    Commons debate highlights growing cross-party consensus on softening UK drugs legislation, unchanged for 43 years
    The camera is turned on tabloid editors in Richard Peppiatt's 'One Rogue Reporter'

    Gotcha! The camera is turned on tabloid editors

    Hugh Grant says Richard Peppiatt's 'One Rogue Reporter' documentary will highlight issues raised by Leveson
    Fall of the Berlin Wall: It was thanks to Mikhail Gorbachev that this symbol of division fell

    Fall of the Berlin Wall

    It was thanks to Gorbachev that this symbol of division fell
    Halloween 2014: What makes Ouija boards, demon dolls, and evil clowns so frightening?

    What makes ouija boards and demon dolls scary?

    Ouija boards, demon dolls, evil children and clowns are all classic tropes of horror, and this year’s Halloween releases feature them all. What makes them so frightening, decade after decade?
    A safari in modern Britain: Rose Rouse reveals how her four-year tour of Harlesden taught her as much about the UK as it did about NW10

    Rose Rouse's safari in modern Britain

    Rouse decided to walk and talk with as many different people as possible in her neighbourhood of Harlesden and her experiences have been published in a new book
    Welcome to my world of no smell and odd tastes: How a bike accident left one woman living with unwanted food mash-ups

    'My world of no smell and odd tastes'

    A head injury from a bicycle accident had the surprising effect of robbing Nell Frizzell of two of her senses

    Matt Parker is proud of his square roots

    The "stand-up mathematician" is using comedy nights to preach maths to big audiences
    Paul Scholes column: Beating Manchester City is vital part of life at Manchester United. This is first major test for Luke Shaw, Angel Di Maria and Radamel Falcao – it’s not a game to lose

    Paul Scholes column

    Beating City is vital part of life at United. This is first major test for Shaw, Di Maria and Falcao – it’s not a game to lose
    Frank Warren: Call me an old git, but I just can't see that there's a place for women’s boxing

    Frank Warren column

    Call me an old git, but I just can't see that there's a place for women’s boxing
    Adrian Heath interview: Former Everton striker prepares his Orlando City side for the MLS - and having Kaka in the dressing room

    Adrian Heath's American dream...

    Former Everton striker prepares his Orlando City side for the MLS - and having Kaka in the dressing room
    Simon Hart: Manchester City will rise again but they need to change their attitude

    Manchester City will rise again but they need to change their attitude

    Manuel Pellegrini’s side are too good to fail and derby allows them to start again, says Simon Hart
    Isis in Syria: A general reveals the lack of communication with the US - and his country's awkward relationship with their allies-by-default

    A Syrian general speaks

    A senior officer of Bashar al-Assad’s regime talks to Robert Fisk about his army’s brutal struggle with Isis, in a dirty war whose challenges include widespread atrocities
    ‘A bit of a shock...’ Cambridge economist with Glasgow roots becomes Zambia’s acting President

    ‘A bit of a shock...’ Economist with Glasgow roots becomes Zambia’s acting President

    Guy Scott's predecessor, Michael Sata, died in a London hospital this week after a lengthy illness
    Fall of the Berlin Wall: History catches up with Erich Honecker - the East German leader who praised the Iron Curtain and claimed it prevented a Third World War

    Fall of the Berlin Wall

    History catches up with Erich Honecker - the East German leader who praised the Iron Curtain and claimed it prevented a Third World War
    How to turn your mobile phone into easy money

    Turn your mobile phone into easy money

    There are 90 million unused mobiles in the UK, which would be worth £7bn if we cashed them in, says David Crookes