Inspired by the Writing of Virginia Woolf

Writing and Art: intertwined and side by side, they speak so closely to one another it’s almost as if the two whisper – sharing ideas and pages, characters and settings and style. Flashes of delight in the mind and a residue of thought.

There’s always been care taken when it comes to cover design, but with the rise of books and reading and writing in the world of the internet, there also comes the rise of aesthetics in writing too. The desire to realise the content of a book through the cover design. I’m guilty of holding off buying a book until the cover I prefer is released, or seeking out a copy from a far flung place because what sits on the cover suits my sensibilities. And the cover really does matter – it’s the first thing we encounter when interacting with a book, even the covers of Faber & Faber poetry collections, which at first glance all look the same, have meaning seeping through the colours (Richard Scott’s Soho is a riot of hot pink, and Lavinia Greenlaw’s Night Photograph is the colour of the sky just before it fades to that deep navy of night). We call them cover designs, but we should really call them works of art – the pigment and circles punched of the new Murakami, the clothbound classics designed by Coralie Bickford-Smith, gilt of silver and gold that winks when the evening sun hits the spines of my stacks, or that too close too raw too real photograph on the cover of Crudo.

But what comes after reading? The cover remains the same, yet we are changed. Moved by the writing and the thoughts of another, who have (somehow) articulated something astounding. It’s art that comes after reading. My creativity is fuelled by the books I read, I see the world in a new way, slow down, notice. There are books that stay with me, and authors who’s work lingers long after I’ve exhausted their canon, and then there’s those writers who are ever-present in my life:

Sylvia Plath. Patti Smith. Ali Smith. Virginia Woolf.

Women who are strong and fierce in their writing. They are utterly inimitable and have an unmistakable voice running through all aspects of their writing.

It was in Cambridge that Virginia first spoke of the radical idea that if women were to writer, they need to be in possession of money, and a room of their own. And now, it’s in Cambridge that there is an exhibition of work inspired by her writing. I’ve written recently on how Woolf’s ideas reverberate still in my world today, and how a sense of style in writing must be valued as one values style in other creative pursuits, so it seems as if my thoughts are haunting me. Or maybe in my articulation of them I begin to see them fully formed before me.

Virginia Woolf: An Exhibition Inspired by her Writings presents art from artists since 1860 who’s work is concerned with what Woolf herself was: the self, the natural world, domesticity, and the female space. From paintings to ceramics to letters the exhibition is a collection of work in which her influence and her writing is at the forefront.

It only opened on Friday, but I have (so far) been twice. The first was on Sunday afternoon, and I found myself in a throng of people who, although earnest in their gallery going, buffeted me through the exhibition in a way that I could only glance without lingering. So I returned earlier today; a Wednesday afternoon, soft in its hazed autumn light and the gallery doors opened to a quiet space of only a few. We stood side by side, rocking and leaning on our heels, squinting at the captions, and meandering slowly through the space. For that’s what it was – an exploration of space. Rooms, that as Woolf herself stated, are paramount in not only the female psyche, but also in their sense of independence and female agency. There was Wilhelmina Barns-Graham who’s thick and glooming oil The Blue Studio provides a portrait of the artist through the absence of the artist herself – instead we’re left to contemplate the tools of the artist, the debris and mess of a painting studio. We see this echoed in Gisèle Freund’s photograph of Woolf’s own working table at Monk’s House, Sussex. There’s magic in the items of an artist – pen, vase, chair, desk, notebook – manifestations of their creativity and their means to communicate with the outside world. But they’re also talismans of the writer herself, and the myth surrounding her. The desire to know an artist or writer through their belongings is a phenomenon that creatives are all familiar with; one only has to read Patti Smith’s memoirs Just Kids or M Train to recognise her pilgrimages to the homes and graves and studios of artists as a sort of slow motion and earnest longing to feel connected to them. And just this year we saw the auction of many of Sylvia Plath’s personal belongings – her typewriter, wristwatch, tartan skirt, annotated thesaurus – at Bonhams. It’s a step towards occupying the intimate space in which the artist or writer once did.

And it’s in these spaces that creativity takes place. Woolf, as a leading pioneer not only of feminist writing but also of modernism, has a creative force that endures and influences. In A Room of One’s Own she states that “masterpieces are not single and solitary births; they are the outcome of many years of thinking in common, of thinking by the body of the people, so that the experience of the mass is behind the single voice.” These words materialise in the form of this exhibition itself. Painters, sculptors, filmmakers, and writers have taken elements of Woolf’s work, be it directly, or indirectly, and made something new. The walls of the gallery are alight with artists seeking a sense of self and questioning the politics of feminine creativity.

Feminine creativity, be it in writing or art, is boundless yet still not taken seriously. We see women artists and women writers continually being placed below that of the opposite sex – to what end? The female body has been forever celebrated in art, yet when they’re placed behind the canvas instead of on it, society backs away, puts their wallets back into their pockets, and names these artworks ‘soft’ and ‘domestic’. Yet in this exhibition, women artists are celebrated in the way that Woolf was striving for – rooms to create in, but also to exhibit in. Instead of criticising the feminine, the curators have celebrated it, in all of its forms.

Unlike masculine art, that shady world of experts behind closed doors, art of the women’s world turns to itself for inspiration and critique, as opposed to objectifying the opposite sex. The female nude runs like a thread throughout art history, it appears in every form, in every movement, across all disciplines. The nude painted by men is an object to be observed and admired, whereas painted by women, the nude is self exploring. Woolf herself questioned why women are “so much more interesting to men than men are to women”. Perhaps it’s the desire men have to possess, or to create a sexual ideal, while women, more sure in their sexuality and identity need not be interested in the opposite sex as they find satisfaction in themselves. Penny Goring’s Bad Penny, ballpoint pen on A4 paper is a study, much like a student may do, of the flaws of the female body, that also celebrates the form and the intimacy that comes with self reflection. Celebration of the feminine form is truly realised in the photographic triptych of Donna Carrington as a living sclupture. Jubilant in her nudity atop a plinth, Carrington subverts the solidity of nudity in sclupture. It’s reminiscent of Galatea, Pygmalion’s Bridge, but instead of being created by him for him, she has broken free of the sculptor’s possession, and taken her own shape. She is in charge of her body, her sexuality, and how others see her, just as Woolf did in her writing. It’s true intimacy we see in these works as the viewer is given an insight into more than just flesh, and invited into a relationship with the subject.

Virginia Woolf’s writing, her being, her enduring presence in art is primarily concerned with the self. She demands self reflection, self assurance, and most of all self confidence. It was Woolf who in A Room of One’s Own guessed that “Anon, who wrote so many poems without signing them, was often a woman”, yet here we have an entire exhibition of artists who have signed their names. And what of us, and our creative force? Just as these artists have found inspiration in Woolf, we will too. Maybe not consciously, but (like in To The Lighthouse) just by sitting and looking, sitting and looking, with your work in your hands until you become the thing you look at—that light, for example.


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