The National Portrait Gallery celebrates the life of one of the most important 20th century writers through portraits and rare archival material
Virginia Woolf has been seen through many lenses. She has been presented as a feminist, a modernist, and even examined through a psychodynamic lens. As a result, Woolf has had a constant presence in society, her work continues to inspire contemporary authors, and has been adapted for both screen and stage. It is her life and these achievements which are now being explored and presented for the first time through portraiture.
The new exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery in London – ‘Virginia Woolf: Art, Life and Vision’ – stems from the idea that Woolf is an author who is often seen before she is read. Her iconic portrait is well recognised even by those who have not delved into her writing. The exhibition takes note of this and is aimed at visitors from both ends of the spectrum, those who are not aware of her body of work, and those who are.
By gathering together over 100 works in a combination of painted portraits, photographs, drawings and rare archival material, the exhibition explores Woolf as a novelist, intellectual, campaigner and public figure. There is a biographic feel to this exhibition emphasised by the chronological layout. It starts by examining Woolf’s early life and then moves onto her literary interests and remarkable achievements.
However, what is unique about this exhibition is the manner in which it investigates the nuances of Woolf’s life further, rather than providing a general overview. For example, it takes the time to explore her fascination with London, her awareness of modernity and her developing fashion sense.
Notably, there is also a collection of photographs by Beresford, Man Ray, and Beck and McGregor, who photographed Woolf for Vogue Magazine. These trends are all brought into focus through in-depth research and an array of archival material, including letters to and from her friends and acquaintances. There are also extracts from her personal diaries and original books that were first printed through the Hogarth Press, which she set up with her husband in 1917.
Highlights of the exhibition include distinctive portraits of Woolf by her Bloomsbury Group contemporaries, Vanessa Bell, Duncan Grant and Roger Fry. This harks back to 1905 when Woolf and her sister Vanessa Bell began to host weekly gatherings at 46 Gordon Square. This led to the development of the Bloomsbury group of writers, artists and intellectuals, of which the sisters were central figures. The group also included notable names such as John Maynard Keynes, Roger Fry and Lytton Strachey. Developing this significant association, the exhibition also features portraits of those Woolf was closest to, including a selection of intimate images recording her time spent with friends, family and literary peers.
The exhibition does well to demonstrate that, despite her Victorian upbringing, Woolf was determined to establish new forms of creative writing and criticism. Her development as a modernist writer demolished accepted conventions and pioneered the ‘stream of consciousness’ style of writing, especially notable in Mrs Dalloway (1925). This made Woolf one of the most celebrated writers of the twentieth century.
With all her accomplishments, the display also underlines how, from the age of 13, Woolf suffered from bouts of mental illness. The exhibition does not shy away from her recurrent mental ill health, and her vulnerability is, in fact, a theme present throughout. Due what is now called the bi-polar condition, Woolf committed suicide at the relatively young age of 59 in 1941. The letter that she wrote to Vanessa Bell, shortly before she died, is held in the British Library’s Manuscript Collection and will be on rare public display as part of the exhibition.
As a child, Virginia Woolf visited the National Portrait Gallery many times, and she noted that the gallery seemed to exist solely for the preservation of the memory of men. However, with this exhibition, the National Portrait Gallery demonstrates how a remarkable woman steadily worked towards changing previously established norms of society.
The ‘Virginia Woolf: Art, Life and Vision’ exhibition runs until 26 October 2014 at the National Portrait Gallery, London. Admission charges are £7 for adults and £6 for concessions. The exhibition also features a dedicated programme of associated events and talks taking place throughout the display period.
Photo Credits: Virginia Stephen by George Charles Beresford, July 1902 © National Portrait Gallery, London
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