For a writer so often and so intimately associated with artists and critics, Virginia Woolf was sometimes strangely vexed by art. In December 1912, after the Second Post-Impressionist Exhibition curated by Roger Fry and Desmond MacCarthy at the Grafton Galleries, London, she wrote: ‘The Grafton, thank God, is over. Artists are an abominable race. The furious excitement of these people all winter over their pieces of canvas coloured green and blue is odious.’1 Woolf would become, but in 1912 was not yet, the Bloomsbury Group’s foremost novelist: when she found her mature style she would capture the fragmentary, alienated and perplexed condition of the individual adrift in modern life. If modernist painting and modern film – in futurism, for example, or the performances of Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton – could adequately depict the fragmented, accelerated relationship of the individual to the social and material world, Woolf’s prose after 1919, in novels such as Mrs Dalloway (1925) and The Waves (1931), with its fractured lyricism and shifting points of view, was infinitely more adept at portraying the slower, reflective interior condition of the individual psyche or soul.
Yet for all her vexation with their endeavours, Woolf could not easily escape the company of artists and critics. Her sister was the painter Vanessa Bell – married to the critic Clive Bell, and by 1914 in an intimate relationship with fellow painter and Bloomsbury affiliate, Duncan Grant. Grant and Woolf would become close friends: they first met in spring 1907; in 1910 Woolf would sit for Grant (see his portrait Virginia Woolf 1911, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York); when she was confined to a Twickenham nursing home in the same year Grant would be among the visitors; he would also be one of the few guests invited to her wedding.2 Bell and Grant were both included in Fry and MacCarthy’s show at the Grafton Galleries. Fry himself was one of Bloomsbury’s intellectual figureheads, at once a critic, a painter and an art world entrepreneur, and as we have seen in my earlier essay one of its most important thinkers in bridging analytical philosophy and aesthetics.3 After Fry’s death, Woolf wrote a memoir that remained the authoritative biography for forty years.4 In 1934 she had published a discussion of the artist Walter Sickert’s work in which she would admit both admiration and influence, observing that ‘though painting and writing must part in the end, they have much in common’.5 So, if Woolf was troubled by artists, she ultimately could escape neither their sorority nor fraternity; if she felt painting inferior to writing, she was nonetheless profoundly affected by it. The most immediate sources of that influence lay in London, mostly with members of the Bloomsbury Group, although an argument might also be made for Sickert.
In this essay I argue for a relationship between Woolf’s writing and Grant’s distinctive, if incomplete, Abstract Kinetic Collage Painting with Sound 1914 (fig.1). That influence is most notable in the significant changes that occur in Woolf’s prose around 1917–19, and which are first manifested in the short stories ‘The Mark on the Wall’ (1917) and ‘Kew Gardens’ (1919). I show how the Scroll, as Grant’s work has become known, can be treated as an accessible source of influence on Woolf, whereas those other sources of influence so often claimed by literary scholars – namely European abstract painting, cubist painting and the cinema – cannot. What Woolf had quite probably seen – what she had almost certainly had described to her; the foundational precepts of which she could readily grasp since she operated within similar intellectual paradigms; which she had probably discussed with the artist and his partner and collaborator, her sister, and all before 1917 – was a model of abstract, coloured forms in motion.
If writing and painting are ultimately different, there remain possibilities for exchanges between the two that occur as much on a conceptual as a formal level. That these equations can be drawn in modernist art was made clear by some of the early scholars of cubism: Christopher Gray traced the close relationship between Guillaume Apollinaire’s experiments in poetry and Pablo Picasso’s in painting; or of futurism, where Pär Bergman examined the ‘simultaneist’ impulse in poetry and painting on both sides of the Alps.6 Given the impact of Bloomsbury’s visual and textual experiments and the close relationships between writers and painters in the group, it is a little surprising that more has not been made of the similar equation in British modernism, with the novel rather than free verse the textual subject of analysis.7 Those scholars who do make the relation attend primarily to Vanessa Bell, basing their argument upon shared content and affiliation rather than concepts and form. Literary scholar Lorraine Sim’s more formally orientated approach builds an impressive argument that rests upon Woolf’s influence by George Moore’s empiricist philosophy as much as Bloomsbury’s sense of the visual in its painting and design.8
My argument for a shared conceptual basis, and subsequent relation of form, emerging from the influence of Grant’s painterly experiment, comes with several caveats: firstly, to establish the possibility of Grant’s influence on writing in Bloomsbury it begins with the elimination of the impossible or the downright unlikely – those influences most often claimed within fine art and cinema as affecting Virginia Woolf in particular. There is no smoking gun that would allow us to make a blatant, and thus probably incorrect, deduction. Secondly, those expecting a direct argument on behalf of Grant’s work may have to develop the kind of readerly patience that is also necessary for the appreciation of Woolf’s mature writing. As Gray observes, ‘The affinity between the painting and the poetry of the Cubist movement does not lie in a common technical means … but rather in a common set of ideas about aesthetic problems’.9 Mine is a similar observation: I argue on the grounds of formal affinity between certain passages of Woolf’s writing and what Grant does in the Scroll – which I illustrate – and the availability of the work itself and its foundational ideas within Bloomsbury. There is no hard evidence in Woolf’s letters or diaries, no more, indeed, than there is for the supposed influence of cubism, post-impressionism or modernist cinema.
That Woolf was influenced by modern tendencies in the visual arts, of both painting and cinema, has been often asserted – sometimes even where evidence for such influence is lacking, sometimes to ascribe the wrong influences. It has variously been argued since the 1940s that Woolf’s writing after 1916 is affected by abstract painting, by cubism and by post-impressionism, sometimes by improbable conflations of two or three of these separate styles; it has also been argued since the 1930s that Woolf’s style, from much the same time and in the same works, was profoundly influenced by cinema. Outlining these claims, I demonstrate that the historical evidence for these influences is hard to come by – where, exactly, Woolf might have seen one of Picasso’s paintings at a certain time, for example, or what films she saw, before spring 1926, that have traceable effects on her work. There are further difficulties in making direct equations between the formal strategies of painters and filmmakers and those available to writers. Can we see a process in Woolf’s technique as a writer that is akin to Picasso’s mapping of the points of depth of field as if they had equal value? In what way, within writing, does she replicate the post-impressionist painter Paul Cézanne’s creation and rotation of blocks of colour within the pictorial field? Is there an accessible model of cinematic editing akin to her fragmentation of the text in the late 1910s and early 1920s? I suggest not: I show that we can, however, see a direct equivalence with Grant’s use of abstraction and kineticism in the Scroll, most notably in the beginning of ‘Kew Gardens’. In ascribing influence separately to paintings that Woolf never saw or cinematic forms that did yet not exist, we have overlooked a vital source of influence that lay directly at home for her, in Bloomsbury. And if Diane Filby Gillespie and Jane Goldman have attended to the importance of Bloomsbury’s figurative art in their writing, the significance of its abstraction has so far evaded scrutiny.10
If we wish to make comparison between Woolf’s mature works and various forms of modernist painting or the techniques of cinema we must necessarily acknowledge that a model which combined influential characteristics of both painting (abstraction) and film (movement) was available to her on her doorstep as early as 1914–15 in the form of Grant’s Scroll. Indeed, Grant began work on it while staying at the Woolfs’ home, Asheham House in Sussex, shortly after Virginia and Leonard Woolf had departed on holiday. Both this painting and the wider ideas about art and movement, about bodies moving through and experiencing space from which it derived, discussed in my earlier essay – were readily available to Woolf, whereas cubist and abstract painting was far less accessible.11 Grant’s Scroll was meant to be a painting in motion, and in its kineticism – unlike cinematic motion – would have intimately and physically engaged the viewer.
Woolf probably encountered cubist painting for the first time at the Second Post-Impressionist Exhibition where Picasso’s Bouillon Kub 1912 (private collection) and André Lhote’s French Landscape 1912 (Musée des Beaux-Arts de Bordeaux, Bordeaux) were included. Which is to say that if cubism influenced her, the only evidence we have for her reaction is of an affected distaste at the ‘odious’ excitement these works provoked among young British artists.12 This was the second exhibition in which Fry brought to Britain, to considerable effect, the best examples he could find of European modernist painting which analysed the form and structure of objects, rather than striving for new effects in figurative representation. The earlier Manet and the Post-Impressionists, which was held at the Grafton Galleries in 1910–11, had emphasised the importance of Cézanne as a breach with post-medieval traditions of representation. Fry and the exhibits were showered with abuse by conservative British critics in one of their routine outbursts of what Fry termed ‘militant Philistinism’.13 Woolf, however, later wrote of Fry that with this exhibition he ‘may have sacrificed his reputation with the cultivated, but he had made it with the young’.14 In the 1912 show, alongside contemporary European artists, Fry would exhibit those British painters who had been profoundly affected by Manet and the Post-Impressionists and their own separate encounters with both European modernism and the late medieval ‘primitivism’ of Italian painters such as Fra Angelico and Filippo Lippi, who emphasised colour, simplification of the figure and formal organisation of a visual field that largely refused depth relations. That generation of young British artists included Grant and Bell, along with Frederick Etchells, Percy Wyndham Lewis, Stanley Spencer and Spencer Gore. These were Woolf’s contemporaries; some were her friends and acquaintances, and Bell was her closest living relative. As the other papers in this project have shown, the Scroll would not have existed without the curatorial and critical work of Fry, and his tutelage. Fry provided to the painters of this generation both a platform and a stimulus that was simply unavailable to a young woman writer such as Woolf within literary circles.
Yet, like these painters, Woolf was striving for novel languages with which to analyse the sensations of inner life in a challenging modern world, rather than using what seemed inadequate or redundant rhetorical modes, whether realistic description or linear narrative, to mime external reality. As the cultural theorist Jean-Michel Rabaté has suggested, Woolf’s endeavour had an ethical imperative: ‘Modernism in 1910 was less about discovering new forms than an ethical struggle with values, including those of form’.15 With so few accessible models for new literary expression, it is perhaps not surprising that Woolf should turn to the ideas which proved so influential for Bloomsbury’s painters, developed in the writings of Fry and Clive Bell. Nor, as I have shown in my earlier essay, is it a surprise that she looked to the more general model of analytical thought from which they derived, formulated by, among others, the philosopher Bertrand Russell.16
Most commentaries on Woolf and modernist painting make rather unspecific claims for its influence under the poorly defined rubrics of post-impressionism or cubism. The only post-impressionist who appears in Woolf’s private writing is Cézanne. These commentators often confuse cubism, which remains a fundamentally figurative painting despite its annihilation of pictorial depth, with abstraction, which in its most extreme forms – such as constructivism – has no physical referent in the world. I address some of those problems here in a brief historical survey: literary scholar John Hawley Roberts rightly suggests that Fry’s ideas about art’s capacity for formal analysis were an important influence on Woolf. However, he then makes a fundamental misreading of that art and Fry’s commentary on it: ‘what Cézanne and Picasso did in the art of painting, as explained by Roger Fry, Mrs. Woolf attempted to do in the art of the novel’.17 Since, as Fry ‘explained’, Cézanne and Picasso were not, in fact, doing the same thing, Woolf was already seemingly provided with two new models of representation – and further, learned her style from Fry’s writing about the paintings rather than any enthusiasm for the paintings themselves.
Literary scholar Jonathan Quick makes the more precise claim that in Woolf’s short stories completed between 1917 and 1920, Fry saw ‘evidence that … Woolf’s art had begun to incorporate and apply the aesthetic principles which he had been at pains to promote ever since he had taken up the cause of Cézanne’.18 ‘The Mark on the Wall’ first appeared in Two Stories (1917) accompanied by woodcuts from Dora Carrington, and ‘Kew Gardens’ as a self-contained piece in 1919 with two woodcuts, this time by Vanessa Bell. Literary scholar Jennie-Rebecca Falcetta discerns the influence of cubism in the fragmented spatial and temporal relationships of Woolf’s novel, Mrs Dalloway. She argues also for some contingency between cubism – at least as practised by Picasso and Braque, where it remained grounded in the materiality of the subject – and Bloomsbury’s intellectual framework, established by materialist philosophers:19
Like the Cubist painters, Woolf’s cubist fiction maintains the integrity of the thing represented … revealing its qualities and essence instead of a fixed homogenous view. Her achievement in Mrs. Dalloway reveals her apprehension of Cubism’s inherent epistemology, as articulated by poet and proponent of Cubism Guillaume Apollinaire: ‘One does not have to be a cultivated person to realize that a chair, for example, never ceases to have four legs, a seat and a back, no matter how we may look at it.’20
Falcetta’s commentary is useful on a number of counts. Firstly, it identifies one point in the trajectories of supposed influence and production which might allow us to thread the two lines together – since by the time Woolf wrote Mrs Dalloway she had had the opportunity to see Picasso’s synthetic cubism in substance. Secondly, Falcetta is one of very few critics who, in associating Woolf and post-impressionism (or indeed cinema), light upon the tensions between the governing intellectual premises of Bloomsbury’s practice, influenced by Russell’s scepticism towards description as the basis of knowledge, and the cubist episteme, grounded in post-Kantian idealist thought. This recognises in cubism its residual, inherent materialism, at odds with the Bergsonian metaphysics prevalent elsewhere in the French and Italian avant-garde, that here is made explicit by Apollinaire. As for the cinema, deriving from the Enlightenment’s privileging of the external perception and organisation of material forms through perspective and the systematising of time and space: it was necessarily ‘afflicted with objectivity’.21 Thus, if Woolf employs cubist strategies in Mrs Dalloway, part of that project depends upon a productive tension in modes of thought about the subject’s encounter with the apparent reality of the world. As has already been shown within this project in our introduction and Alexandra Bickley Trott’s essay, we can see elements of a similar scepticism about the cubist project productively deployed within Grant’s Scroll, with its deliberate abstraction of collage and elision of the differences between collage (as token of reality) and paint (as representation) both in that work and elsewhere in his work.22
Literary scholar Maurice Geracht argues for cubism’s belated influence on Woolf’s To the Lighthouse (1927).23 In that work she consciously fragments the experiences that the realist novel would synthesise into a unified whole. She uses this fragmentation to reflect both the variability and disintegration of internal consciousness, and the different points of view of individuals within the narrative at a single moment in time. Just as cubism reconfigured pictorial space by offering the same object to view from several different positions at the same time, so Woolf similarly reconfigures narrative space. In To the Lighthouse, she establishes one of her characters, the painter Lily Briscoe, as a kind of internal mirror of her writing technique to demonstrate her strategy from within the text.24 Literary scholar Henry Harrington suggests that the influence in the novel is more generically ‘post-Impressionist’, drawing upon Fry’s theories and Vanessa Bell’s painting – though Bell would never, even in her brief abstract period, paint in the manner that Woolf describes for Lily.25
Apart from the works by Picasso and Lhote which appeared in the Second Post-Impressionist Exhibition, Woolf would have seen little cubist painting on the canvas before she wrote ‘The Mark on the Wall’ and ‘Kew Gardens’. Although Clive and Vanessa Bell owned an early cubist still life by Picasso – Jars and Lemon 1907 (fig.2) – Woolf never remarks on it. Woolf did not go to Paris between 1908 and 1918 and the paintings rarely came to London, with the principal exhibitions being the Second Post-Impressionist Exhibition and a solo show at Stafford Gallery in 1912, comprising pre-cubist drawings.26 It would not be until Picasso’s solo show at Leicester Galleries in January 1921 that Woolf would have the opportunity to see his experiments with synthetic cubism in paintings such as Woman in a Chemise in an Armchair 1913–14 (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York). And by this time she had already encountered Bloomsbury’s responses to synthetic cubism in the paintings of Grant and Bell.
That response, as Bickley Trott’s essay shows, was not derivative; it worked through the pictorial problems that concerned Picasso in early 1914 from different conceptual premises.27 While Woolf did not mention the Leicester Galleries exhibition in her letters or diaries, one can assume she was at least aware of it since Clive Bell was heavily involved, writing the preface to the catalogue. There is, then, some justification for Falcetta’s broad model of a cubist London in Mrs Dalloway. However, as I have already shown, Falcetta cannot reconcile the difference between a mode of knowledge that is pervasive in Bloomsbury and that which characterises much of European modernism. Certainly, Woolf had far greater exposure to Cézanne than to Picasso, beginning with the two exhibitions at the Grafton. The economist John Maynard Keynes, another member of the Bloomsbury Group, also owned a painting of apples by Cézanne, but Woolf did not see it until after she had written ‘The Mark on the Wall’ and after she had at least begun ‘Kew Gardens’.28 And yet, as early as the summer of 1919 no less a figure than Fry acknowledged that Woolf was already writing in a manner that had some clear relationship to the approaches of cubist painters voyaging in Picasso’s wake.
In August 1919 Fry reviewed the exhibition Modern French Painting at Mansard Gallery. Organised by Osbert and Sacheverell Sitwell, this was the first London exhibition since the Second Post-Impressionist Exhibition to include two works by Picasso – we do not currently know which these were – along with more recent work from Paris. Fry commented that the two Picassos were ‘by no means recent’ and given Picasso’s transition during the war towards figurative, classically influenced painting, this is likely to mean that they were cubist, or even from earlier periods.29 Within his review, Fry lighted on canvases by the expatriate Russian painter Léopold Survage as ‘a new kind of literary painting’, recognising that with the fundamental rupture in the nature of representation initiated by Cézanne, ‘ideas, symbolised by forms, could be juxtaposed, contrasted and combined almost as they can be by words on a page’.30 Fry proceeded to test this thesis through an ekphrasis in which he turned a painting from Survage’s La Ville series into text. He concluded that ‘I see, now that I have done it, that it was meant for Mrs. Virginia Woolf – that Survage is almost precisely the same thing in paint that Mrs. Virginia Woolf is in prose’.31 Given the date of Fry’s review, the only prose works by Woolf that he could be thinking of are ‘Kew Gardens’ and ‘The Mark on the Wall’. Quick suggests that it is the former story which Fry had ‘most immediately in mind’.32
Rather than Picasso and his cubist and post-cubist peers, Woolf’s most frequent encounters with modernist painting – along with the works by Cézanne and other post-impressionists briefly brought to London by Fry – were with the paintings of Bell, Grant and Fry himself. She could see the domestic objects exhibited at the Omega Workshops, and before the outbreak of war she could have seen the paintings being made, either in studio visits or when she shared a house with the artists – as she did with Bell before her sister’s marriage. Woolf had, after all, sat for a portrait by Grant in 1910, when he was already under the influence of Matisse. We might conclude that if Woolf was influenced by post-impressionism or cubism it was mostly at second hand, through Bloomsbury Group painters who had absorbed European influences between 1910 and 1914.
Literary scholar Sue Roe uses this relationship to offer a sophisticated commentary on the influence of post-impressionism on Woolf’s work.33 She makes a direct comparison between ‘Kew Gardens’ and Vanessa Bell’s A Conversation 1913–16, also known as Three Women (fig.3).34 Roe suggests that ‘the flare of colour and light’ which characterises the opening paragraph of ‘Kew Gardens’, describing movement within a flower bed, might come from the tulips seen through an open window in Bell’s painting.35 There, placed centrally, they serve as a motif for the gaiety and intensity of the conversation; their implied movement in the breeze adds an element of dynamism to the exchange. Jane Goldman, without specific reference to ‘Kew Gardens’, also nominates Bell’s painting as having particular significance for Woolf’s writing.36 Reinforcing Bloomsbury’s yoking of formal innovation and ethics, while drawing attention to Woolf’s concern with colour rather than form, Goldman turns to art historian Simon Watney’s forceful claim on behalf of English post-impressionism that ‘colour had meaning in 1910’.37 Yet the association made by Goldman and Roe is perhaps not so surprising, because it had been made – and then dismissed – by Vanessa Bell herself.
‘Kew Gardens’ was the second publication of Virginia and Leonard Woolf’s Hogarth Press. The print run, of 150 copies, had covers individually made by Vanessa Bell, and probably Grant, using ink marbling techniques on – appropriately for my argument, if coincidentally – old wallpaper (fig.4). Planning the publication, Woolf wrote to her sister: ‘Do you remember a picture I showed at the Omega of 3 women talking with a flower bed seen out of the window behind? It might almost but not quite do as an illustration’.38
I show below why the painting does ‘not quite’ fulfil this role; just as claims for the effect of post-impressionism and cubism will not do. This has partly to do with the fragmented, repeated colours that dominate ‘Kew Gardens’, but also with the kineticism inherent to the story. Set in the eponymous botanical gardens in West London, the story gives brief glimpses of four groups of people as they pass by a flowerbed. The kineticism is found in the text itself and in the human, gastropodic and floral behaviour it describes; ‘Kew Gardens’ almost denies the need for its own illustration because of its insistence on sensory experience. The story’s characteristic movement has led to it being described as ‘cinematic’ – initially by the novelist Winifred Holtby, in Virginia Woolf: A Critical Memoir (1931), the first monographic study on Woolf – in contrast to the limited dynamic properties of A Conversation. To find a painting that is both fragmented and actually – rather than imaginatively – dynamic, we have to look to Bloomsbury’s flirtation with abstract painting in 1914–15 and also to the attempted movement of forms. That is, we have to think about painterly kinesis and cinema as two radically differing attempts to understand movement; the former apprehending it through inhabiting it as experience, the latter through its distanced, systemic representation. Grant’s Scroll, as we have shown throughout this project, belongs both practically and conceptually in the former category of knowledge.
If ‘Kew Gardens’ is readily understood as in some sense a ‘painterly’ story, it has also been read as evidence of the wider influence of cinema on Woolf. Holtby claimed that she used a ‘cinematographic technique’ in her novel Jacob’s Room (1922) with which she had already experimented in ‘Kew Gardens’.39 Literary scholar David Trotter effectively disposes of Holtby’s claim for Jacob’s Room, demonstrating that she actively obscures Woolf’s use of a technique from the nineteenth-century novel – suspended quotation – in the very passage that she cites as her example of Woolf’s supremely modern writing.40 However, Trotter then makes an eccentric double move, creating a lacuna through which we can reconsider the ideas of Holtby and others who see the influence of cinema in Woolf’s early 1920s work. Trotter presses for a specificity of influence in the writing of Woolf’s essay ‘The Cinema’ (1926). He points to the close correlation of the films discussed in that essay with particular screenings: the Pathé Gazette newsreel of 29 March 1926 and the Topical Budget newsreel of 29 April 1926, probably seen in the cinema, along with elements of the programme of the London Film Society, screened on Sunday 14 March 1926.41 Woolf was certainly staying in central London that weekend, and while we do not have hard evidence for her attendance as a guest at the Film Society, which was a members-only club, Trotter’s argument for Woolf’s presence inside the New Gallery Kinema on Regent Street is compelling. So we might say that for Trotter, Woolf’s cinematic writing only comes to fruition after March 1926, and we have here in the case of film the kind of evidentiary analysis that is otherwise lacking in most attempts to associate Woolf with modernist painting or film.
However, rather than calling this as evidence of a direct influence on Woolf’s fiction, Trotter then ascribes it to a more diffuse atmosphere of common concern:
Holtby and the critics who have followed her example are right to wonder about the relation between Woolf’s writing and the cinema. They may be wrong to pursue analogies between literary and cinematic form, and to identify one as cause and the other as effect. It is more likely that there was, for a period during the mid-1920s, a fund of shared preoccupation; and that Woolf drew on this fund in developing a particular emphasis in her novels.42
If we apply the same line of reasoning to Woolf and painting we might say that ‘Bloomsbury’ – including the broad activities of Fry, MacCarthy and Clive Bell in exhibiting, writing about and publicising modern art, as well as of painters like Grant and Vanessa Bell in making art and talking about what they were making – provides a similar ‘fund of shared preoccupation’. This preoccupation is largely undocumented in letters and diaries: it is, as Ann Banfield noted of Woolf’s engagement with Cantabrigian philosophy, ex audito.43 It is profoundly concerned with new ideas about form and kinesis in the wake of Fry and MacCarthy’s post-impressionist exhibitions and under the influence of European modernist practice. It is not, however, a fund with a particular investment in cubism, which in its first phase is fundamentally concerned with the mapping of the object in a single plane of representation, but has a greater stake in Cézanne’s practice, and thus with ideas about shifts in space from which to apprehend objects. It is also a fund managed by a group of people with very different ideas about time and space to those found in European modernism, thanks to the influence of analytical philosophy. As Woolf notes so dismissively in her letter after Fry and MacCarthy’s second exhibition, it is also preoccupied with colour.
It is notable that Trotter’s justified dismissal of the ‘cinematicity’ of Jacob’s Room fails to address those properties which Holtby discerned in ‘Kew Gardens’ and described at some length. She claimed that Woolf’s text was characterised by expansion and contraction of point of view:
To let the perspective shift from high to low, from huge to microscopic, to let figures of people, insects, aeroplanes, flowers pass across the vision and melt away – these are devices common enough to another form of art. They are the tricks of the cinema. Mrs. Woolf had discovered the cinema.44
We know from Woolf’s private writing that she was a regular cinema-goer in 1914–15, prior to a protracted illness; however, her preference seems to have been for newsreels rather than dramas. The technical limitations of both camera movement and lens design made shifts in perspective rare in those newsreels – there were no opportunities to lay track; one could not pull focus, since zoom lenses did not become available for film cameras until the late 1920s. Given the nature of the filmed subject such shifts could only be achieved through editing footage shot on multi-camera set-ups, which was rare indeed in newsreel, or through the movement of the subject past a static camera. The dramas of the time made very limited use of the kinds of shifts in perspective that Holtby describes and they were mostly achieved across a cut that enabled camera movement or the introduction of footage from another camera on set. So, Holtby’s idea of Woolf’s cinematic writing is largely based upon her experience of watching films in the late 1920s using techniques that Woolf could hardly have seen because they were rare when ‘Kew Gardens’ was written, and almost non-existent in the filmic mode privileged by Woolf at that time – the newsreel. Furthermore, if Trotter’s ‘fund of shared preoccupation’ only opens in the mid-1920s, what are we to make of Holtby’s claim for the cinematicity of ‘Kew Gardens’? Where does the movement come from? On the one hand there is much about the story that is not ‘cinematic’. While there are brief passages in which the text is almost forensically descriptive, in the way that a cinematic close-up might have been, we should remember that in 1917–18 close-ups were far from common, and that Woolf would have been far more familiar with the tradition of close inspection of nature through a magnifying glass. We must also note that in these descriptions – which are thus more painterly than cinematic – and in the more impressionistic passages that bracket them, Woolf is profoundly, intensely concerned with colour and geometric form in a way that, if we map it graphically, produces an effect strikingly similar to Grant’s disposition of colour and geometric form in the Scroll. This can be seen at the very beginning of the story (figs.5 and 6).45 Woolf is here profoundly concerned with the repetition of colour: the sequence of red, blue and yellow appears four times with different phrase structures. The colour sequences are almost abstract, with each cluster of red, blue and yellow associated with a different noun, identifying a geometric form; through repetition, they are defined as self-contained yet intersecting units independent of variable form or identity. The importance of colour for Woolf can be traced through the lasting legacy of her encounter with post-impressionism and its artists’ obsession with ‘pieces of canvas coloured green and blue’.46 However, post-impressionism in its generality cannot readily explain this insistent, repeated pattern, nor the sense of movement. As Quick observes, ‘In most of the pieces written for Monday or Tuesday there is a conspicuous attempt to create a rhythmic spatial relation of images’.47 This movement is perhaps why A Conversation, in which the only dynamism is the gentle breeze through the flowers, will ‘not quite do’ as an emblem for ‘Kew Gardens’. A Conversation cannot stand for the bodies in motion in relation to abstract coloured forms that so preoccupy Woolf. Yet, in the carpets and furniture they designed for the Omega, Vanessa Bell and Grant had supplied Woolf with numerous examples of precisely that relation.
We cannot, then, explain Woolf’s use of repeated, abstracted motifs in relation to moving bodies in terms of multiple points of view, made manifest in paintings she could barely have seen, or techniques and technologies in cinema that had yet to be invented, or at least – in the case of colour film – commercially deployed. We can, however, turn to Grant’s Scroll, which, in its aspiration at least, undertakes much the same exercise as Woolf makes in the opening of ‘Kew Gardens’. As I have already mentioned, she missed Grant’s creation of the Scroll in her own home by a few days. Yet it must have been an important discursive element in Bloomsbury circles: after all, it had been made by a good friend; its production was witnessed by Woolf’s sister and brother (Adrian Stephen, married to her friend, the philosopher Karin Costelloe); it had been discussed by Vanessa Bell with Roger Fry, as much intellectual mentor to Woolf as a writer as he was to Bloomsbury’s painters. Woolf had ample opportunity in January or early February 1915 to visit Grant’s studio in Fitzroy Square, where the Scroll was kept and still being worked on. In the wake of the disastrous exhibition of the work to the writer D.H. Lawrence and his party in early 1915, it is highly unlikely that the fiasco would not have been discussed with Woolf by Bell and Grant, since Woolf knew everyone involved.48 We do not have firm evidence that Woolf ever saw the Scroll, but know that she had the opportunity both to see it and, perhaps more significantly, to discuss it, more opportunity than she ever had with the cubist and post-Impressionist paintings by which she is meant to have been influenced. There was a ready-made framework in which an encounter with the Scroll and discussion of the ideas that shaped it could take place. We have, in Trotter’s terms, a ‘shared preoccupation’ with the abstract and the kinetic not in the early 1920s, but the mid-1910s. This preoccupation derived not from the cinema, not from cubism, but from Bloomsbury’s own complex encounter with modernist art and thought that ultimately saw Duncan Grant make an abstract, kinetic, collage painting with sound.