Visual Arts: Jack of all styles, master of none

Fry, Bell and Grant. Not a firm of solicitors but the Bloomsbury set... and the last word in avant-garde Sunday painters. (And that isn't a compliment.)
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
I shouldn't be doing this. I don't have the knowledge. For anyone who writes about Bloomsbury is expected to know all about them. One should know what Duncan said to Clive, and what Leonard intimated to Vanessa, whether Morgan took Maynard's part, how Lytton was involved, where Bunny fitted in, whether Roger did, and what got pressed between the leaves of Virginia's commonplace book. I don't know about any of that. People do, though. Some of them can't get enough of it.

And here is more. The Art of Bloomsbury is the end-of-year show at the Tate Gallery. Its likely audience, I guess, won't mainly be going to look at good painting - which is fine, for there is practically none to see. They'll be going for the Bloomsbury thing, and they'll be pleased at least with the couple of rooms of Bloomsburyana it offers, with portraits, photos, books and other mementos. And if the whole show were like that - well, personally I wouldn't bother going, but it would be a perfectly rational enterprise.

A show devoted mostly to Bloomsbury's art, on the other hand, probably won't please any constituency. Certainly not a show that focuses, as this does, exclusively on the careers of just three artists - three painters, and those nearest the centre of the Bloomsbury circle: Roger Fry, Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant. Because they really are not good painters.

I doubt whether the Tate has ever before presented such a large concentration of dud art. And the show is large. You get round half-way and you're thinking, well, yes, point made - and need it go on? Is it kind or necessary to expose such modest talents through their whole careers? But, at the same time, maybe the thought is dawning that Fry, Bell and Grant in fact constitute a rare and curious phenomenon: the avant-garde Sunday painter.

I don't mean that they're artists like Douanier Rousseau or Alfred Wallis - Sunday painters who were discovered and taken up by the avant garde, but who certainly didn't start out with any ambition that way. Quite the opposite. Fry, Bell and Grant were very knowingly advanced. This is, as artists, their main claim to fame. In the first decades of the century, they were ahead of the game. They knew and valued what was going on in Paris when so much was, and few people in Britain did.

In other words, they were on the right side in the early modern art wars. They promoted Cezanne, Gauguin, Pointillism, Fauvism, Picasso, Matisse, Derain, when others were harrumphing. Fry did it with his criticism and curating. He organised the two evangelising London Post-Impressionist shows. (At the Courtauld Gallery now there's an exhibition about Roger Fry's taste-making activities - already reviewed on these pages). And all three of them did it with their painting.

Which is part of the problem. Bloomsbury painting is a deliberately second- hand affair, consciously inferior to its models, more concerned with bringing the good news over than with making anything new of its own. That would be the generous view, anyway. To put it another way, Fry, Bell and Grant are like eternal students. Art students usually begin by copying, and copying lots of things; then they latch on to one or two things; then (if they can) they develop something distinct. But these three painters seem to be stuck at stage one. They're always trying to duplicate effects which they admire in someone else's work. And when they've done with copying one thing they copy another, and go on like that their whole lives. This exhibition resembles an unending degree show.

You can usually spot who's being nodded to. Of the three, Grant is the most pointlessly versatile; he works like a man possessed by a whole party of ghosts, with sometimes three or four of them in control at the same time, and the good news gets badly garbled. The results can be extremely funny: Grant's Woman at a Window (circa 1912), for instance. I'm not exaggerating - it really did make me laugh aloud, the way it tries to mix a bit of pointillism, a bit of flat Matisse, a bit of pale English landscape, with at every point its would-be bold shapes and colours hesitating into fudge. The Queen of Sheba is another corker.

Sometimes, again like students, they look promising. Bell looks the most promising. The 1911 portrait of her sister Virginia Woolf, folded into an armchair, is a good picture. It's done in a flat, Matisse style, and it has the courage of its colours. But it's not quite happy about the simplifications, the obliteration of detail, which the adopted style requires - and Bell allows Woolf's face a slight but stubborn resistance to becoming a featureless pink shape. You feel like saying: "Hold on to that tension; follow it up." But these signs of promise always drift away. Fry's work, meanwhile, is almost completely dull.

The problem with Bloomsbury painters isn't just their imitative thrall, though. It's also to do with what they think they're imitating, the way that they understand Parisian modernism. Basically, they see it as an antidote to coarse Britishness, a new realm of serene beauty. It never strikes them that the art they're devoted to is often sharp, rude, wild, and that without such impulses it couldn't have happened; that even beloved Matisse is full of violence, and depends upon it.

Grant does go in for the odd primitivist sally (he just has to have a go at everything). The Tub, for instance, tries to be "tribal". But using a style that absolutely demands clear definite gestures, Grant's havering looks more awkward than ever. He really is crap.

And here's the root problem: sheer incompetence. It's never so plain as when the work is (as it occasionally is) truly original. Take Bell's Abstract Painting (circa 1914). Of course, abstraction was in the air by that time. But this arrangement of coloured oblongs on a yellow ground isn't like any picture Bell could have seen then. In terms of art history it must score highly: a new thing. But artistically it just odd: a new thing that's also a very feeble thing - its formal relations are null - consequently it looks like a pale imitation, even though it's not. Vanessa Bell is a frustrating artist. There's real intelligence there, she just can't make pictures you want to look at. But a small Bell show would certainly arouse interest.

This large show is a waste of space. You can think of various reasons why it was given the go ahead - for instance, to draw a dependable Bloomsbury- loving crowd, to pay a historical debt to a notable intersection of modern art and British art - and they're not good enough.

I certainly wouldn't recommend going, but it feels a bit pointless slagging these three artists off, because nobody appears to admire them very highly, and nobody is likely to. Not too bad, considering that they were British, seems to be the best that can be said.

That justification is weak and also misleading. It implies that there was no one in Britain doing it any better then, and there was: the Vorticists, Wyndham Lewis and company. One of them, CRW Nevinson, currently has a show at the Imperial War Museum (also already reviewed here). There's vigorous and inventive work in it. And if you find yourself going Thamesward, with early modern British art in mind, take yourself to the south side of the river, and see that.

The Art of Bloomsbury: Tate Gallery, Millbank, London SW1; to 20 January

Comments