Group discussion; The Listener

Effete, overrated snobs? Or maligned cultural revolutionaries? Whatever you think of the Bloomsbury Group, they refuse to go away. This week's selection from the best of BBC Radio is a debate inspired by the latest exhibitions of their art
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The Independent Culture
THE SPEAKERS

1 SARAH DUNANT

Presenter

1 RICHARD SHONE

Curator of the major exhibition on the 'Art of Bloomsbury', currently showing at the Tate Gallery, London

1 HERMIONE LEE

Academic and biographer of Virginia Woolf

1 NIGEL JONES

Journalist, critic and biographer of Rupert Brooke

1 REGINA MARLER

Author of Bloomsbury Pie, a history of the Bloomsbury revival

RICHARD SHONE: I've always thought of the Bloomsbury Group as modest artists who made a definite but perhaps rather limited contribution to British culture in the great unbuttoning moment before the First World War. And I hope that the Tate Gallery's show 'Art of Bloomsbury' demonstrates that. I don't see them as Picasso.

SARAH DUNANT: But you see them as pretty good artists who deserve to be in the British cultural history?

RS: Yes. I think we come to the great fault line now: because they happen to be associated with Bloomsbury, they're often dismissed. Nobody has actually looked at the paintings before and said, "that's good, that's bad, that's interesting." I hope I have set out in this show a coherent account of their development at that time.

SD: OK. Richard believes that the paintings are what we should be looking at, not the cultural chatter in our heads about Bloomsbury. Nigel, you've seen the Tate show - what do you think?

NIGEL JONES: Well, I think the art is very modest, and I'm glad that Richard doesn't make any extravagant claims. And I think, to be fair, that they wouldn't make claims to be ranked along with Matisse, or with Proust, or Kafka, whoever the people were who were writing and painting at the same time. But I wonder why, if that is the case, we still make such a hell of a fuss about them now. I think in some ways I've been brought in here to pee on one of Vanessa Bell's carpets as a token anti-Bloomsbury person. I find it strange that we're so obsessed with them.

SD: But isn't it partly that if you look too much at the life, it takes your attention away from the work. Maybe in some ways the work was not always easy, it was difficult. In some ways, modernism was difficult. Hermoine?

HERMIONE LEE: It depends what you take pleasure in. What I take pleasure in from the show is a conversational intimacy and a movement between high art, professional art and ordinary useful everyday domestic appliances. In those paintings you see objects which you can then see as physical objects, such as screens, chairs and plates. It's a useful art, I think, not a useless art.

RS: I think something that gets dismissed is the artists always wanting to have their works seen everywhere on a very broad basis. They weren't the elitist snobs that you read about every day in the papers.

SD: Regina, give me this from the American perspective, because to a certain extent America comes rather fresher to Bloomsbury than Britain. You don't have the cultural baggage that we have.

REGINA MARLER: Yes it's true that there's a great divide in the English/ American response to Bloomsbury. Americans really knew very little about the group before the late Fifties, so they didn't build up resistance to it. In England Bloomsbury seemed like a monolith at the heart of the art establishment. Views have been passed down: a lot of cultural commentators in the present don't know much more about Bloomsbury than they pick up from a Sunday supplement, but they continue to mouth the standard objections to the Group.

SD: So you agree with Hermione that the British are caught up in a complex dialogue with themselves about class, which the Americans can leapfrog over?

RM: Yes. I think it's class. I also think there's quite a bit of homophobia and misogyny at the root of the reaction against the Group.

HL: I think it has to do with the Thirties reaction - people like Wyndham Lewis and DH Lawrence and the middle-class male academic establishment responding against these people they thought were spoilt and trivial. But I think it's also to do with our post-Sixties feeling about libertarianism, which I think Bloomsbury did have something to do with. The Sixties have had very bad press, and I think this is a kind of conservative reaction against the Sixties, which has to do, as Regina was saying, with homophobia and misogyny.

SD: But can we return to Nigel's point here? Why do we continue to be so obsessed by them, and what does this tell us about British culture now?

NJ: I think one thing it tells us is that British culture was totally insulated and isolated from Europe, and in fact about 20 or 25 years behind Europe. When we were getting very excited about Roger Fry's Post-Impressionist show in 1910/1911, the rest of Europe had already moved on to Cubism.

HL: Surely one of the things that the Bloomsbury Group artists did was to make the English public more aware of European culture. If you come to Virginia Woolf's critical essays, there's also a great interest in Proust and French literature.

SD: Let's stay with Woolf for a moment, because she normally rises to the top of any discussion about Bloomsbury. Regina, how far was the American discovery of the Bloomsbury Group actually a discovery of Woolf?

RM: Well, until maybe the late Sixties, few American readers knew anything about Bloomsbury. So what they learnt, they learnt from Quentin Bell, and then Virginia Woolf and her books followed.

SD: Hermoine, there are dangers in lionisation aren't there, as a way of recovering lost voices?

HL: Well, there are also dangers in generalisation. Woolf is a writer who starts writing in the 1910s and finishes writing in the very early Forties. And in that period of time she changes radically in terms of what she thinks about modernism, what she thinks about Bloomsbury, from which she is very distinct in many ways. She has great reservations about Cambridge scepticism: I don't think G E Moore meant all that much to her. I don't want to lionise or idolise her, but I think that she radically shifts the emphasis in English fiction and in English essay-writing, in a feminist way which actually sets her rather apart from the rest of Bloomsbury.

SD: The point is that the lionisation takes place later, when feminism comes in. You could say we wouldn't have revalued Woolf if it hadn't been for feminism.

HL: We can't blame her for her adulators, but I think that what she does is something which is still quite hard for some people to get, and you can see that in the attacks on her, particularly by male critics. Which is that just as the Bloomsbury artists say we can do a deep, rich, interesting picture about someone reading in a corner of a room with a pair of a scissors and a cotton reel in the front of the painting, so Woolf says the novel can be about somebody cooking, or somebody thinking about their childhood, or female friendships. She interiorises what has been thought of.

SD: Do we just know too much about these people, and does the chatter around them obscure what is their due?

RS: Yes. We know far too much about them as people, and we don't actually go back to the works themselves. We haven't mentioned Keynes, surely the other genius of the Bloomsbury Group. To have a group of a dozen friends who produce two world-class figures seems extraordinary.

NJ: I think we can all agree on that. Our whole discussion is an indictment not so much of Bloomsbury themselves, but of what we've made of Bloomsbury in the last half a century - an indictment of our trivialisation of culture.

SD: A last question. The whole of the Bloomsbury Group is going up in a balloon, and they're losing altitude. Some of them have to be chucked out. Can we assume that Woolf will be in there, and take it from there, Richard Shone?

RS: Yes certainly Woolf, certainly Keynes. Fry, though, I think, is the most important art critic of the century.

SD: Right. Hermione? Sorry, Regina, you want Clive Bell to stay in the balloon?

RM: Well no, actually I think he's the ballast. Clive can go.

HL: I like the balloon image, because I think what we haven't talked about is comedy and lightness - making light, and making light of. You know, they sailed up in a balloon away from the heavy, dark, solid objects of the Victorian period... Let them float up.

SD: Nigel Jones?

NJ: Only Woolf and Keynes - and given enough time maybe they'd get it together in that balloon!

RM: I'm going to play devil's advocate here. I think we should put Wyndham Lewis in the balloon with them!

SD: And creative history is made.

This discussion was taken from the Radio 3 arts programme 'Night Waves', which can be heard from Monday to Friday at 9.30pm

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