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Bloomsbury Group Artists At The Block Museum

By Ben Schuman Stoler in Arts & Entertainment on Feb 3, 2010 5:30PM

2010_02_02_Bloomsbury.jpg It’s a quirky fact of history that for all the times artists are portrayed as loners or hermits, they end up in intimate working groups so often. What’s your favorite localized group of artists, anyway? The Blue Rider? The Factory? The Vienna Secession? The New York School?

Whatever it is, it’s probably not the Bloomsbury Group on display at A Room of Their Own: The Bloomsbury Artists in American Collections at Northwestern University’s (surprisingly charming) Mary and Leigh Block Museum of Art in Evanston. Not that it’s necessarily the artists’ faults. The Bloomsbury Group, named for the small neighborhood in London they inhabited in the first half of the last century, is more renown for the group of writers and intellectuals that lived there. You’ve definitely heard of a few of them: Virginia and Leonard Woolf, Mary McCarthy, Maynard Keynes, Lytton Strachey, E.M. Forster, and Roger Fry.

But except for Fry, those weren’t visual artists. In an effort to deepen the historical notion of what went down at Bloomsbury, this exhibition displays the art of, especially, Fry, Dora Carrington, Vanessa Bell (Virginia Woolf’s sister), and Duncan Grant.

Even more, the exhibition tracks the way the Bloomsbury Group was seen through the 20th century and today in America, where collectors were a bit slow on catching on. The exhibition's two aims come together, then, because If it’s true that the artists have been so overlooked, for example, than it’s important because it may point to America’s ignorance of British modernism.

It’s not a completely sound point because Fry has been discussed in America for generations—but the key is that he was discussed as a critic and art historian, not as a painter. But Fry's works as a writer and visual artist overlapped. See, for example, Fry’s Paper Flowers on a Mantelpiece (1919), which shows his convergent ideas with Henri Matisse (whom he wrote about as a critic).

It was Fry that pushed Bell to explore modernism in all its glory. Forever linked to but not nearly as famous as her sister, this exhibition might help Bell’s legacy gain some steam of its own. It’s also important to note that while it’s certainly not unheard of, it’s definitely not standard to see just as many pieces by women hanging as pieces by men--and Bell and Carrington's many works on disply are far from token inclusions.

And that shows what Bloomsbury was about. The exhibition’s notes speak at some length about the profound sort of friendship among the members, but their intellectual openness—on display in their acceptance of Duncan Grant’s bisexuality as much as the Woolfs’ Hogarth Press that published radical books at times—is just as significant, and it is that freedom of ideas that implies these British modernists should be more prominent in our art histories than they currently are.

A Room of Their Own: The Bloomsbury Artists in American Collections shows through March 14, in the Main and Alsdorf Galleries at the Mary and Leigh Block Museum of Art, 40 Arts Circle Drive, Evanston