Virginia Woolf's Concepts of Visual Arts and Their Further Development

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Throughout our academic, professional, and personal lives, we are consistently reminded of the paramount differences between the arts and the sciences. The definition of arts is roughly based upon subjective interpretation and aesthetically sensitive analysis, whereas the sciences are grounded on objective analysis and are concerned with general truths and hard experimental evidence as rule.

However, “modern” interdisciplinary approaches to academic disciplines bore in their exploration upon the relationship between the arts and the sciences an ekphrastic definition which allows for a more flexible reading of both disciplines; one in the light of the other. In an article entitled Painting and Writing: A Symbiotic Relation in Virginia Woolf's Works, Chantal Lacourarie builds her analysis of both mediums on showing the “close and complementary relationship between painting and writing” in the works of Virginia Woolf. Indeed, the study of an incorporative relationship between painting as arts and writing as sciences provides for a new outlook by which to read, understand, and interpret across the boundaries of the two disciplines. In her article, Lacourarie points out that “from Horace to Barthes, [there has been an aporia that still arises] when setting visual synchronism, - in our context painting - against verbal diachronic – writing”.

The daring experimentation of examining art using the tools of science, upon which such versatile approaches are based, not only intends to explore the possibility of diversity, complexity, and richness “of integrating literary study with other methodologies” but also aims to provide literary criticism with new tools.If we consider, for example, the fact that arts are commonly appertained to Humanities, therefore concerned with the study of human culture, then, the study of literature, language, philosophy, and the visual arts are likewise encompassed under the broader definition of Humanities. This consideration ultimately isolates literature and the visual arts in a common definition, and paves the way towards putting the two “artistic languages side by side” in order to explore their “common grounds” and single out their “obvious differences”.

The composition of visual arts, precisely, painting is frequently referred to as “one of the most freedom-inducing forms of creativity”. Artists rely on the power of the visual to design the meaning they wish their art to convey, thus, they are communicating through some kind of “visual language” they create on canvas.

Writing, however, while nevertheless preserving a hugely expressive creation method, does not allow the same amount of “freedom” of creativity, compared to the leeway painting allows. In their composition of even the most figurative writing, writers still have to be guided by a larger number of restrictive rules of the basic grammatical language and, have to conform to the guidelines of the specific genre of literature they are writing.

Yet, by virtue of the creativeness and inventiveness with which the modern period was characterized, and, as a response to Ezra Pound’s “make it new” there have been numerous demiurgic efforts -especially in the aesthetic fields- dedicated to the linguistic exploration and to the re-conception of the long-established distinction between arts and sciences. In fact, under the new situation of modernity, writers such as James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, and T.S. Eliot felt that the use of traditional tools of language failed to keep up with the evolution from premodern to the modern context. The ordered, meaningful, and inherently conventional world view of the nineteenth century could no longer remain in accord with modernity as described by Eliot: “the immense panorama of futility and anarchy which is contemporary history.”This recognition of the deficiency of language alone in conveying meaning urged the modernists to consider the meeting of literature with visual arts in order to investigate the levels of creativity established within each. The cases of such modern investigation are very common: for instance Mallarme’s 1897 poem, “The Throw of the Dice.” Is entirely incomparable in its structure to any poem created antecedently, its nearly picturesque arrangement and disregard for ordinary sets of poetic expectations, subverted traditional views of poetry and writing, as it challenged the structural anticipations and still acquired a sense of infamy. Another example is the “mathematical reading of triangles in Robert Frost’s poetry”, who wrote that: “Poetry without rules is like tennis without a net', in other words, poetry is governed by the specific arrangement of particular words and letters, according to a sum for metres from which a “mathematical pattern emerges.” This crossdisciplinary definition of poetry by medium of mathematics, shows in concrete manner in the tradition of modern empiricism how geometry as visual science acts upon linguistic expression of poetry. Poetry and visual science thus become complementary- the visual reading of the poem could not exist without the words chosen for it, and the words are also constructed with pictorial techniques providing for the poem’s visualization as a picture.

Modernism, as a movement originating in the late nineteenth century and ending in the early-middle twentieth century, provided an indisputable foundation for literary modernists from which to consider the direct interplay between literature and painting. From this standpoint, writers and painters deviated from previously inherited artistic standards and expanded their thinking towards an overlapping of passion influenced by those not in their close professional circle. Indeed, the theory of art for art’s sake, allowed for much experimentation across the board of multiple disciplines to occur.

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The best-known group of English intellectuals, philosophers, writers, and artists who exemplified this transfer of artistic passion, is the Bloomsbury group. This group of English elites who “worked, studied, or lived, together” believed that they were united by a shared concern for the importance of arts. The two most known members of the Bloomsbury group to demonstrate this exchange of passion for the arts, are Virginia Woolf and her sister Vanessa Bell. The relationship between Woolf the writer, and Bell the painter extended itself beyond sisterhood into their careers as well, “each was both influential and inspiring to the other,” and the interplay of their passions is very evident in their individual works.

Indeed, both sisters never considered painting and writing to be fundamentally different, Bell, expressing her belief of the artistic similarities between Woolf’s passion and hers, wrote to Virginia, wondering whether she thinks they “have the same pair of eyes only different spectacles” ( Letters VI:158).

It is important to note that Vanessa Bell’s education, entourage, and personal life had a major contribution in Woolf’s evolution of tastes and discovery of the world of painting. As a student of John Singer Sargent and Walter Sickert, Vanessa learned about the works of the French artists, discovered impressionist and post-impressionist movements, and was influenced namely by Cézanne, the Cubist artists, Fauvists, and painters such as Matisse and Gauguin. Such influence was apparent in her paintings; she treated light, flat tints and represented windows and interiors in a fashion very much reminiscent of the techniques used by the aforementioned artists.

By marrying the English art critic Clive Bell, and having an extramarital affair with the British painter and art critic, Roger Fry, Vanessa’s relationships also had simultaneous riveting consequences on hers and her sister’s professional lives. While Roger Fry was making his impact on Bell’s perception of the visual arts, Bell in her turn was making an undeniable mark on Woolf’s writing.

Another indication of Woolf’s maturation of taste in arts can be traced in the change of interior design of her private life. She ornamented the apartments she occupied in London with paintings of Morris, Sargent, Watts, Augustus John, and Gaugin. These choices for interior decoration surely suggested a new way of thinking about urban modernism which validates the saying of the American historian John Lukacs that: “The interior furniture of houses appeared together with the interior furniture of minds”. In fact, in her book Modernism and the Architecture of Private Life, the American literary scholar Victoria Rosner, suggests that: “the spaces of private life are the generative site for literary modernism”. This means that the modernizing domestic sphere played a role in the literary depiction of a post-Victorian private life, one that is in accord with the changing social arrangements. Such consideration for the relationship between artistic and literary interplay challenged the modernist novel to draw a visionary vocabulary from the jargon of domestic architecture as well as an artistic decoration.

Indeed, domesticity is re-arranged by modernist writers- namely Woolf- to convey a preoccupation with novel methods of expressing the self and human consciousness. When we think of films about the Bloomsbury Group, such as Carrington (1995) and The Hours (2002), the members of the group are most of the time depicted in their homes, even the titles of their artistic works hint to their fascination with domestic surroundings, to name a few: Dora Carrington’s Kitchen Scene at Tidmarsh Mill (1922), Bell’s Conversation at Asheham House (1912), Interior with Duncan Grant (1934), and Grant’s On the Roof, and The Stove, Fitzroy Square (1936). However, Woolf’s fascination with the domestic interior is obvious to even a common reader of her work, “from the emphasis on personal space in Jacob’s Room (1922) to the many-roomed ancestral estate at the center of Orlando (1928) to the detailed re-creation of her childhood home in Moments of Being (1985).”

Woolf, indeed, surrounded herself by the influence and theories of her mentors and closest companions Clive Bell and Roger Fry. A fact which mostly affected her literary perceptions and made her challenge text and image. Clive Bell believed in Woolf’s unique artistic views, he thought that she had a “pure…almost painter-like vision” (Old Friends 113), he was indeed the one who introduced her to England’s artistic avant-garde and to the French modern painting. On the other hand, Roger Fry’s role in shaping Woolf’s artistic evolution, cannot be undermined. He fascinated her by his lectures, took her to exhibitions, and made her question the possible liaison between her experiments with language and what painters experimented on the canvas. Fry’s two Post-Impressionist exhibitions of 1910 and 1912 to both of which Woolf was invited are milestones in modernist aestheticism. It was on November 5th, 1910, at the Grafton Galleries off Bond Street, that Roger Fry along with Desmond MacCarthy revealed through an exhibition entitled Manet and the Post-impressionists, the “existence of a widespread plot [which was] to destroy the whole fabric of European painting”. By introducing the English early twentieth-century audience to over ninety French artworks including thirty by Gauguin, twenty by van Gogh, twenty-one by Cézanne, eight oils, a pastel by Manet and a smaller number of works by Seurat, Signac, Cross, Denis, Serusier, Vallotton, Vlaminck and Picasso. These artists sought a new language and mode of expression to translate what Fry called: “the sensibilities of the modern outlook”.

Paul Gauguin and Vincent Van Gogh focused on the importance of the highly personal and symbolic meaning of their works, they, thus, rejected the depiction of the observed world and alternatively aimed to communicate with their viewers on a more profound level by relying on their emotions and memories.

I am concerned with the word, only in that, I have a certain obligation, or duty […] to leave a souvenir of gratitude in the form of paintings or drawings. V.V.Gogh Paul Cézanne, Georges Seurat, and Paul Signac focused rather on structure, order, and the optical effects of color. Rejecting the mere representation of their surroundings, they instead relied on the interrelations of shape and color to illustrate the world around them.

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