A ‘great deal of excitement about colour’: this was Vanessa Bell’s defining memory of an intense period of artistic experiment in the early 1910s.1 ‘I suppose it was the result of trying first to change everything into colour’, she continued. ‘It certainly made me inclined also to destroy the solidity of objects.’ She produced Abstract Painting (Tate T01935; fig.1) in c.1914, during this time of extraordinary innovation in the use of colour in art. Her observations about the metamorphosis of objects into colour call attention to the central theme that will be pursued in this essay. What do Bell’s experiments with colour combinations in her abstract work reveal about the impact of her discovery of colour? What significance has this had for her critical reception? Situating Abstract Painting within the context of debates concerning colour and form, sensation and synaesthesia, which preoccupied her Bloomsbury group circle and European painters more widely in the early twentieth century, this essay will examine the transformative properties of colour in Bell’s practice and its capacity to conjure an expressivity equivalent to speech.
Bell’s elimination of representational content in Abstract Painting invites us to consider the subtle modulation of affective and emotional qualities through nuances of tone and texture. While dark-hued red rectangles dominate the visual field, the textured pink square surprises the eye and competes for attention in what art historian Matthew Affron defines as an ‘unusual contrast of the sweet and the earthy’.2 Bell’s deployment of strong complementary colours across a chrome yellow ground conveys a monumentality that exceeds the relatively small scale of the canvas: the triad of blue tones sets off the radiating warmth of the yellow field, and the thick blue-green oblong on the left-hand edge contrasts with the elongated plum-red one that overlays it. The ‘emotional charge’ of Bell’s work, as art historian Grace Brockington describes it, is arguably orientated in the central red oblong, which registers as an arresting, even threatening signal, partly due to the colour’s long association with danger and passion and its widespread use in warning or ‘stop’ signs.3 In her abstract works Bell investigated the way in which colour changes our experience of different forms. She achieved a subtly different emotional impression, for instance, in the similar positioning of a black square over a warm-toned ground and red oblongs at the centre of Abstract Composition 1914 (fig.2).
Bell’s retrospective addition of ‘(Test for chrome yellow)’ to the title of Abstract Painting in an inventory of 1951 situates the work in a moment of modernist chromatic experiment.4 Chrome yellow pigment, or lead chromate, became available from the end of the first decade of the nineteenth century, and painters were quickly attracted to its brilliance. Vincent van Gogh deployed it to luminescent effect in A Wheatfield, with Cypresses 1889 (National Gallery, London).5 In the 1890s – the ‘yellow nineties’ – yellow became the colour of transgression through its association with the literary and artistic periodical the Yellow Book. It was ‘the colour of the hour … associated with all that was bizarre and queer in art and life, with all that was outrageously modern’, the critic Holbrook Jackson wrote in 1913.6 Eventually, it became the colour of Bloomsbury, when Aldous Huxley’s novel Chrome Yellow (1921) satirised the Bloomsbury patron Lady Ottoline Morrell and her circle. Morrell was later to paint her front door chrome yellow, a gesture which, it was noted, ‘distinguishes it from all the other dark brick Georgian houses in the street’.7
Abstract Kinetic Collage Painting with Sound (fig.3), made in 1914 by the Bloomsbury artist Duncan Grant, was an important marker in the matrix of ideas about colour, music and abstraction, at a time when he and Bell were engaged in close collaboration. She admired Grant’s chromatic inventiveness, expressing concern that her designs might appear rather ‘dull’ in comparison.8 The art historian Richard Shone has attributed the ‘rapid lightening’ of her palette the following year to Grant’s influence.9 However, while the vertical colour blocks with yellow and orange tones in Abstract Kinetic Collage are reminiscent of Abstract Painting, Grant’s composition is a self-declared investigation of movement, whereas Bell’s rectilinear forms are static in space and her colour contrasts are more intense.10 Furthermore, the spaciousness of the yellow colour field in her composition finds no equivalent in Grant’s more crowded abstract collages with their variegated colours, such as Interior at 46 Gordon Square c.1915. Nevertheless, Bell’s abstract work coincided with collaborations with Grant at the interior design company Omega Workshops Ltd, where painted and pasted colour played an important role in transforming everyday objects and often included chrome yellow in the colour scheme. Chromatic links to Abstract Painting would have been apparent in Bell’s popular lampshade design of 1913–19 (examples held in the Victoria and Albert Museum, London), which the artist Winifred Gill described as consisting of ‘three shades of chrome yellow, with a background of deep blue and purple’, and in an Omega rug design of 1913–15 (fig.4), attributed to Bell or Grant, with its brilliant segments of chrome yellow set amid interlocking rectilinear motifs.11
When Bloomsbury artist and critic Roger Fry curated the exhibition Manet and the Post-Impressionists (Grafton Galleries, London) in 1910, he introduced the audacious chromatics of painters working in France such as Paul Cézanne, Henri Matisse and van Gogh to a London audience. As Bell remembered it, the show was revolutionary for her generation, signalling ‘a possible path, a sudden liberation and encouragement to feel for oneself’.12 Fry’s attitude to colour shifted, from his statement in 1909 that colour is ‘the only one of our elements [of design] which is not of critical or universal importance to life’, to his declaration in 1911 that Cézanne had ‘recovered for modern art a whole lost language of form and colour’.13 Here he differed from the Bloomsbury critic Clive Bell (Vanessa’s husband), who claimed in 1914 that colour ‘becomes significant only when it is used as an attribute to form’.14
According to Bloomsbury scholar Simon Watney, colour was a definitive feature of English post-impressionism, and this was demonstrated when Bell’s work was included in the Second Post-Impressionist Exhibition of 1912.15 She assisted Fry in hanging the Matisse rooms, which were the centrepiece of the exhibition and included thirty-four drawings and paintings and six sculptures. Demonstrating what Fry called an ‘entirely new use of colour’, the painter’s rough, expressive, fauvist approach had a profound impact on Bell.16 Her impression of ‘changing everything into colour’ during this period effectively describes Matisse’s transmutation of objects in The Red Studio (L’Atelier Rouge) 1911 (fig.5), displayed at the exhibition, in which the space of the room dissolves and the objects float in a rich, suffusing red. Bell’s 1912 homage, A Room in the Second Post-Impressionist Exhibition (The Matisse Room) (fig.6), features a copy of the painting.17
However, as Brockington observes, Bell’s relationship to Matisse was ‘never a straightforward case of imitation’.18 The pink square in Abstract Painting reads almost as a chromatic quotation from Matisse’s The Pink Studio (L’Atelier Rose) 1911 (Pushkin Museum, Moscow), in which modulations of pink describe the floor and walls, but the radical simplification of Bell’s abstract painting has closer affinity with his works in process in spring 1914, including View of Notre Dame (Vue de Notre Dame) 1914 (Museum of Modern Art, New York), where architectural features are reduced to a series of descriptive black lines in a field of blue. Matisse’s work would have been fresh in Bell’s mind when she began Abstract Painting, following a visit to his Paris studio in the spring of 1914 where she saw two unfinished paintings. She also admired ‘several early things and one very large later one which was most beautiful’ in the collection of Michael Stein.19 Nevertheless, her Abstract Painting travels further into the realm of pure colour untethered from descriptive function. It represents an extension of the aesthetics of reduction already evident in Studland Beach c.1912 (fig.7), where pared-down forms and flat bands of an intense blue convey an emotional resonance. The art historian Lisa Tickner finds in this colour compound psychological and cultural meanings: ‘the blue of St Ives, of the void and divine light, of the Virgin’s robe’, with echoes of Piero della Francesca (1415–1492) and Giotto (1266/7–1337), and the theme of motherhood as the site of ‘ambivalence and loss’.20
Bell’s participation in the broader conversation about emotional expression in abstraction comes further into focus alongside the work of European painters, notably Wassily Kandinsky, whose ‘pure visual music’ Fry praised in 1913.21 In her biography of Bell the art historian Frances Spalding suggests that discussion of Kandinsky’s works, which were shown at the Allied Artists’ Association exhibition in London in 1913 and at the exhibition of the Grafton Group the same year, along with those of František Kupka, may have encouraged Bell’s experiments in abstraction.22 Kandinsky developed one of the most influential colour theories in Concerning the Spiritual in Art (Über das Geistige in der Kunst) (1911), which was translated into English by Michael T.H. Sadler in 1914, with extracts from the translation printed in the vorticist magazine Blast the same year. Influenced by Goethe’s colour theory and by theosophical ideas, Kandinsky explored emotional and spiritual responses to colour, as well as its association with sound.23 Looking at colours could produce a ‘psychic effect’, he argued: ‘a corresponding spiritual vibration’.24 According to his theory, yellow and blue represent a series of antitheses: between warm and cold, eccentric and concentric movement, and the ‘earthly’ and ‘heavenly’.25 Whether or not we experience these sensory effects in Bell’s colour combinations, Kandinsky’s vibrational model of aesthetic experience offers a way of reading her work’s emotional expressivity.
If, following the modernist paradigm, colour is evocative of sound, then Bell’s bold use of colour resists the implicitly gendered narratives that characterise her work as taciturn or silent. Traditionally, colour has been seen as ‘secondary’ in art theory and history, where it is often presented as ‘feminine’, unstable and sensuous in contrast to the ‘masculine’ properties of form and line.26 Critic Keith Roberts deployed the quality as a negative term in his assessment of Bell as ‘an essentially lavender talent’, reticent and lacking in rigour.27 However, a closer examination of Bell’s colour palette bolsters Brockington’s counter-argument for the painter’s ‘distinctive, expressive power which complicates the dichotomy between speech and silence, critic and artist’.28 Bell’s sister, the writer Virginia Woolf, was alert to these subtleties in Bell’s work, declaring her ‘a poet in colour’, even as she contributed to the legend that she and her paintings were ‘as silent as the grave’.29
Bell hints obliquely at the analogy between colour and speech in A Conversation 1913–16 (fig.8), through the chromatic relationship between the conversing women and the flowerbed outside the window, which is rendered as flat blobs of colour, almost like speech bubbles. For Woolf, this painting suggested Bell’s ability as ‘a short story writer’, and she wondered whether she could ‘write the Three Women [an earlier title] in prose’.30 There are implications here for what the literary critic Jane Goldman calls the ‘non-verbal, political significance of feminist colourism’.31 She situates Bell in the context of the Women’s Suffrage Movement, which was making an impact at the time of Fry’s post-impressionist exhibitions, and which deployed bold colours to promote the cause. Yet Bell’s nuanced colour tones are difficult to render in precise language. ‘I don’t see how you use colours in writing, but probably you can do it with art’, she wrote to Woolf in 1909. ‘The mere words gold or yellow or grey mean nothing to me unless I can see the exact quality of the colours.’32
The role of abstract coloured shapes in expressing mute yet emotionally powerful subjects is important in the portraits that Bell made leading up to Abstract Painting, exemplified in her practice of blanking out the faces of her subjects, as in her painting Virginia Woolf 1912 (National Portrait Gallery, London). She went on to employ rectilinear patterns reminiscent of her abstract compositions in the backgrounds of a number of portraits of women produced between 1914 and 1916, where, as Reed observes, the female figure is ‘visually unified’ with her ‘modernist environment’.33 In Mrs St John Hutchinson (fig.9) we observe accents of yellow-green which activate chromatic links between sitter and background. With the compositional structure of these portraits in mind, we can re-read the central red-orange rectangle in Abstract Painting. Endowed with presence and intensity through its suspension in the expanse of yellow, the rectangle can be understood as an abbreviation, even a denial, of the faces that occupied the focal point of her portraits.
Bell continued to experiment with the transformative possibilities of colour even as she returned to representational subject matter during the First World War. As Fry’s review of her 1922 exhibition with the fauve painter Othon Friesz testifies, ‘it is as a colourist’ that she ‘stands out so markedly among contemporary artists’.34 The following year, Bell could have been describing Abstract Painting when she recollected the ‘intensity of colour’ in the previous decade, and speculated on whether this could still be achieved ‘without losing solidity of objects and space’.35 The painting therefore marks a frontier in the chromatic freedom and eloquence that would continue to invigorate her practice even as she moved beyond her experimental phase.
- 1. Vanessa Bell, letter to Roger Fry, 19 September 1923, in Regina Marler (ed.), Selected Letters of Vanessa Bell, London and New York 1994, p.272.
- 2. Matthew Affron, ‘Decoration and Abstraction in Bloomsbury’, in Leah Dickerman (ed.), Inventing Abstraction, 1910–1925, exhibition catalogue, Museum of Modern Art, New York 2012, p.182.
- 3. Grace Brockington, ‘A “Lavender Talent” or “The Most Important Woman Painter in Europe”? Reassessing Vanessa Bell’, Art History, vol.36, no.1, February 2013, p.134. For a discussion of the shifting historical associations of the colour red, see John Gage, Colour and Culture: Practice and Meaning from Antiquity to Abstraction, Boston 1993.
- 4. Richard Shone, The Art of Bloomsbury: Roger Fry, Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant, exhibition catalogue, Tate Gallery, London 1999, p.160.
- 5. For the history of the pigment, see Philip Ball, Bright Earth: The Invention of Colour, London 2008, p.175.
- 6. Holbrook Jackson, The Eighteen Nineties: A Review of Art and Ideas at the Close of the Nineteenth Century , Harmondsworth 1950, p.46.
- 7. Reginald Colby writing in the Sphere, 26 October 1963, quoted in Elizabeth P. Richardson, Bloomsbury Iconography, Winchester 1989, p.125.
- 8. Vanessa Bell, letter to Roger Fry, 2 November [1912?], quoted in Frances Spalding, Vanessa Bell, London 1983, p.116.
- 9. Richard Shone, introduction to Vanessa Bell, 1879–1961, A Retrospective Exhibition, exhibition catalogue, Davis and Long Company, New York 1980, p.3.
- 10. Compare also the dynamic concentric circles of Sonia Delaunay-Terk’s Prismes electriques 1914 (Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris). Her practice of ‘Simultanism’, which she developed with her husband Robert Delaunay in around 1910, meant ‘transforming ordinary colors into provocative colors that moved’, as Matilda McQuaid describes it. See her ‘Introduction’ in Matilda McQuaid and Susan Brown (eds.), Color Moves: Art and Fashion by Sonia Delaunay, New York 2011, p.10.
- 11. Winifred Gill to Duncan Grant, letter 3, June 1966, p.5, Tate Archive TAM 24M, cited in Alexandra Gerstein (ed.), Beyond Bloomsbury: Designs of the Omega Workshops 1913–16, exhibition catalogue, Courtauld Gallery, London 2009, p.147.
- 12. Vanessa Bell, ‘Memoirs of Roger Fry’, October 1934, typescript, Tate Archive TGA 20096/1/8-9, p.9.
- 13. Roger Fry, ‘Essay in Aesthetics’ , in Vision and Design , revised edn, London 1923, p.35. Roger Fry, ‘Post Impressionism’, Fortnightly Review, 1 May 1911, reprinted in Christopher Reed (ed.), A Roger Fry Reader, Chicago and London 1996, p.108.
- 14. Clive Bell, Art, London 1914, pp.11–12.
- 15. Simon Watney, English Post-Impressionism, London 1980, p.81.
- 16. Roger Fry, ‘The French Post-Impressionists’ , in Fry 1923, p.240. Frances Spalding discusses the influence of Matisse on Bell in Spalding 1983, p.113.
- 17. This painting has previously been attributed to Fry, but Shone attributes it to Bell in his Bloomsbury Portraits: Vanessa Bell, Duncan Grant and their Circle, revised edn, London 1993, chapter 4, note 10, p.255.
- 18. Brockington 2013, p.148.
- 19. Vanessa Bell, letter to Duncan Grant, 25 March 1914, in Marler 1994, p.161.
- 20. Lisa Tickner, Modern Life and Modern Subjects: British Art in the Early Twentieth Century, New Haven and London 2000, p.139.
- 21. Roger Fry, ‘The Allied Artists’, Nation, 2 August 1913, reprinted in Reed 1996, p.153.
- 22. Spalding 1983, p.125.
- 23. Sixten Ringbom proposed connections between theosophy, anthroposophy and contemporaneous abstract artists in The Sounding Cosmos: A Study in the Spiritualism of Kandinsky and the Genesis of Abstract Painting, Abo 1970, which were later brought to wider attention in the exhibition The Spiritual in Art: Abstract Painting 1890–1985, Los Angeles County Museum, Los Angeles 1986. John Gage discusses these influences on Kandinsky in Colour and Meaning: Art, Science, and Symbolism, Berkeley and Los Angeles 1999, pp.192–5.
- 24. Wassily Kandinsky, Concerning the Spiritual in Art, trans. by Michael Sadler, London 1914, reprinted New York 1977, p.24. For a discussion of the metaphor of vibration in modernism, see Claudia Tobin, ‘“The Double Life of a Still Life”: Rhythm, Vibration, and the Poetics of Stillness from Paul Cézanne to Wallace Stevens’, unpublished PhD thesis, University of Bristol 2015.
- 25. Kandinsky 1914/1977, pp.36, 38.
- 26. For further discussion see Gage 1993, pp.204–9.
- 27. Keith Roberts, ‘London’, Burlington Magazine, vol.106, no.733, April 1964, p.197.
- 28. Brockington 2013, pp.134–5.
- 29. Virginia Woolf, letter to Vanessa Bell, 4 February 1940, in Nigel Nicholson and Joanne Trautmann (eds.), The Letters of Virginia Woolf, vol.6, London 1980, p.381; Virginia Woolf, foreword to Recent Paintings by Vanessa Bell, London 1930, reprinted in S.P. Rosenbaum (ed.), The Bloomsbury Group, Toronto 1975, p.171.
- 30. Virginia Woolf, letter to Vanessa Bell, 12 May 1928, in Nigel Nicholson and Joanne Trautmann (eds.), A Change of Perspective: The Letters of Virginia Woolf, vol.3, London 1977, pp.498–9.
- 31. Jane Goldman, The Feminist Aesthetics of Virginia Woolf: Modernism, Post-Impressionism, and the Politics of the Visual, Cambridge 1998, p.137.
- 32. Vanessa Bell, letter to Virginia Woolf, 2 September 1909, cited in Diane Filby Gillespie, The Sisters’ Arts: The Writing and Painting of Virginia Woolf and Vanessa Bell, New York 1988, p.277.
- 33. Christopher Reed, Bloomsbury Rooms: Modernism, Subculture, and Domesticity, New Haven 2004, pp.151–2.
- 34. Roger Fry, ‘Independent Gallery: Vanessa Bell and Othon Friesz’, New Statesman, 3 June 1922, reprinted in Reed 1996, pp.348–9.
- 35. Vanessa Bell, letter to Roger Fry, 19 September 1923, in Marler 1994, p.272.