I managed to catch Bloomsbury Art & Design at the Courtauld Gallery before it finished last week, and must admit that I was a bit disappointed. The Courtauld holds one of the most extensive collections of works by artists from the Bloomsbury Group, many of which were bequeathed by the art critic Roger Fry to the newly formed Courtauld Institute of Art in 1935. Unfortunately, I didn’t read the online blurb properly: instead of an exciting exhibition, I got a one-room ‘special display’, which was fine as far as it went, but didn’t really satisfy. But the Courtauld is an academic institution first and foremost (making the information panels pretty dry) and its incredible collection of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist paintings plus its amazing gallery within Somerset House make up for any lack of block buster-type exhibitions like those offered by such stars of the artworld as the Royal Academy and the V&A. The Courtauld Gallery is understated, and with its academic prestige and brilliant permanent collection, it doesn’t need to try hard.
Affairs of the Heart
The special display presented a selection of Bloomsbury paintings, prints, designs and ceramics relating to the Omega Workshops, a business enterprise offering hand-crafted household items, set up by Roger Fry and his artistic young friends, Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant. In 1911, Fry and Vanessa began an affair (Vanessa had been married to Clive Bell for four years, and Fry’s wife Helen had been committed to a mental asylum in 1910 and spent the rest of her life there). Fry’s heart was broken when Vanessa fell in love with Duncan Grant (whose previous lovers included his cousin Lytton Strachey and the economist John Maynard Keynes), but despite this, the three remained good friends.
The Avant Garde Comes to England
Fry had gained a reputation for promoting continental avant garde art: in 1910, he rocked the London art establishment when he curated Manet and the Post-Impressionists, and again two years later with his Second Post-Impressionist Exhibition. Edwardian society was staid and oppressive, so this introduction to contemporary European art – specifically the works of Cézanne, Van Gogh, Matisse and Picasso – had a profound impact on young British artists, particularly the painters of the Bloomsbury Group. The artists and writers of the group were bound together by their desire to break down the conventions and double standards of their Victorian parents’ generation. They wanted to create a new way of living, based on personal, artistic and sexual freedom. The painters in the group moved away from academic representation to create works of bold colour, expressive brushwork and loose drawing, and they extended their painting activity to interior decoration, seeing no divide between fine and applied art.
The Omega Workshops were founded in 1913 and Fry, Bell and Grant began producing furniture, carpets, ceramics, textiles mirrors and light fittings that would rival the old-fashioned, mass-produced goods currently available. Fry declared ‘We have suffered for too long from the dull and stupidly serious,’ as the Workshops produced objects in a variety of styles, influence by Post-Impressionism, Fauvism and Cubism. The work was highly experimental and the focus was on decoration rather than design: pieces of furniture were often bought in and then decorated at the workshops, to create Omega products. Several different artists became involved, and everyone worked collaboratively, marking the finished objects with the collective omega symbol (the last letter of the Greek alphabet) rather than individual signatures. Vanessa also designed a range of dresses in Omega-designed fabrics, rejecting the tight corseting of high fashion for Bohemian drapery. After six years of trading, a series of poor financial decisions and internal conflicts, Omega Workshops Ltd. was liquidated. It had been a brief flowering of creativity, during which Fry, Vanessa and Grant explored abstract design and championed a new modern style, and the influence of the Omega Workshops was significant in the following decades, and the Bloomsbury style still has great appeal today.