The seminal feminist author’s legacy spreads far and wide, as proven in a new show at the Tate
Virginia Woolf’s legacy is near impossible to quantify. She pioneered the use of stream of consciousness as a narrative device, broke the boundaries placed on her as a woman in early 20th century arts, and committed her life to wedging the female literary perspective into a world only validated by men. Exploring Woolf's impact on the art world is the Tate St.Ives whose upcoming show Virginia Woolf: An Exhibition Inspired by her Writings combines the work of female 80 artists from the past 160 years that have been directly or indirectly influenced by Woolf’s work. Taking place between 10 February – 29 April 2018, the exhibition shows British and international artists across painting, sculpture, photography and literature that echo the same themes found in Woolf’s texts: the feminine landscape, the feminist revolt against domesticity, androgyny and the fight for female autonomy.
In an ode to Virginia Woolf, here are six radical artists that have been touched by the writer’s powerful legacy.
CLAUDE CAHUN (1894-1954)
Russian literature had a huge influence on Woolf who was enamoured by the writings of Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Leo Tolstoy and Ivan Turgenev. It’s in Turgenev’s influence on Woolf that we can find a link to artist Claude Cahun. From Turgenev, Woolf learned about the multiplicity of self and about how important it is for a writer to balance multiple versions of herself in order to write authentically. Woolf’s understanding of the psyche being made up of multiple-selves echoes in works like A Room of One's Own and Orlando where she addresses themes of gender-bending and androgyny. Themes like this also reverberate in Claude Cahun’s artistic pursuit. Born Lucy Schwob, a Jewish-French photographer, sculptor and writer, Cahun adopted a gender-ambiguous name in 1917 and she is best known for her self-portraits where she assumes a variety of personas. Cahun’s 1920s surrealist self-portraits undermine static concepts of traditional gender roles in a powerful ode to the multiplicity of self as she is found in dressed in various guises such as dandy and doll, vamp and vampire, bodybuilder, angel, and aviator. Cahun once explained: “Under this mask, another mask; I will never finish removing all these faces” – a statement that deeply psychological Woolf would have commended.
ZANELE MUHOLI (1972–)
South African artist Zanele Muholi and Virginia Woolf both share a relentless commitment to celebrating minorities. Just like Woolf devoted her entire being to giving women a platform for verbal and textual expression, Muholi uses the same dedication to spotlight queer black communities in Africa. Through photography and videography, Muholi has been a representation for a community too often overlooked, just as Woolf did for the proliferation of women in literature. The pair also both explore how one’s physical space impacts on their freedom which is the foundation for the second half of the Tate St. Ives’ show. Muholi’s 2007 portrait “Katlego Mashiloane and Nosipho Lavuta” pictures a young lesbian couple sharing love in the safety and intimacy of their kitchen. The shot celebrates the importance of space as a place of privacy and liberation that frees her subjects from the prejudice of the outside world. While Muholi explores this in one shot, Woolf bases her entire seminal novel A Room of One’s own on this exact idea. Despite the disparity in the pair’s location and existence in time, the persistence of Woolf’s themes in Muholi’s work truly validates the extent of Woolf’s legacy, while also demonstrating the power in unity when fighting for feminism through an intersectional lens.
“Lock up your libraries if you like; but there is no gate, no lock, no bolt that you can set upon the freedom of my mind” – Virginia Woolf, A Room of One's Own
LAURA KNIGHT (1877-1970)
When Laura Knight showed her “Self Portrait” painting to a male audience in 1913, she was condemned by her viewers. Female self-portraits were nothing new, but Knight didn’t follow conventional standards that expected women to sit for their portrait in their Sunday best. What she produced instead was a scene of Knight in the process of painting a nude woman. Some men called her ‘vulgar’, others called it ‘regrettable’, but over 100 years later, Knight’s meta-painting is a genius declaration that women were entitled to paint like men. It was a bold move that could have ended her career, but it’s powerful statements like this that show why Woolf and Knight were alike: their artistic pursuits did not adhere to the restrictions put on them both as women making art in the early 20th century. They took criticism from no-one and committed their lives to making the female voice and gaze a part of modern art. Moments like this are just a small example of why Knight made early art history. At age 13, she made it into art school and in 1936, she became the first woman ever given a membership at the Royal Academy since its opening 60 years prior.
Born Hannah Gluckstein and later changing her name to Gluck with “no prefix, suffix or quotes” (her mantra) at age 23, the painter Gluck and Virginia Woolf were contemporaries. They ran in the same art circles and Woolf’s ex-husband Leonard even played a recording of Gluck’s music “Dance of the Blessed Spirits” at the writer’s funeral. As reflected in Gluck’s gender non-conforming name, the artist is considered an artistic pioneer of androgyny and Woolf shared Gluck’s exact sentiments on gender. “The normal and comfortable state of being is that when the two (genders) live in harmony together, spiritually cooperating. If one is a man, still the woman part of his brain must have effect; and a woman also must have intercourse with the man in her," Woolf wrote in A Room of One's Own. "It is when this fusion takes place that the mind is fully fertilised and uses all its faculties. Perhaps a mind that is purely masculine cannot create, any more than a mind that is purely feminine.” Much like Woolf in her words, Gluck pioneered androgyny in her paintings which, much like Laura Knight’s work, were key in introducing the female-on-female gaze into art. Gluck put a queer lens on the art of portraiture by painting women – many of who were lesbians – in androgynous attire. Gluck’s women wore belts, polka-dot scarves, feathered hats and painted nails as they as they smoked, gazing defiantly at the viewer. In Gluck’s portraits, much like Woolf’s texts, women were free to express themselves.
“Perhaps a mind that is purely masculine cannot create, any more than a mind that is purely feminine” – Virginia Woolf, A Room of One's Own
LINDER (1954– )
Linder Sterling is a key figure of the Manchester punk scene and a radical feminist artist. She is iconically known for her unique collage works that combine images from porn magazines with photos from women’s domestic magazines to fight the oppressive domestication of women. Her most celebrated work is a collage created for the cover art of punk band, the Buzzcock’s, single “Orgasm Addict” (1977) that depicts a naked woman with an iron for a head and grinning mouths for nipples. "At this point, men's magazines were either DIY, cars or porn”, Linder told writer Simon Reynolds in his book Totally Wired. “Women's magazines were fashion or domestic stuff. So, guess the common denominator – the female body. I took the female form from both sets of magazines and made these peculiar jigsaws highlighting these various cultural monstrosities that I felt there were at the time." Woolf, just like Linder, was committed to freeing women of their domesticity. Many of her works were loaded with domestic symbolism to comment on the oppression of women in the home and her seminal text A Room of One’s Own is even underpinned by Woolf’s belief that women need financial and psychological independence (a room of their own) to be able to write.
DORA CARRINGTON (1893-1932)
Dora Carrington and Virginia Woolf not only shared artistic similarities, but they were connected in the same underground social circles. While not a member of the Bloomsbury Group, Carrington was associated with the collective: an art society that Woolf was highly involved in. They shared a friend in queer writer Lytton Strachey and Woolf even published four of Carrington’s woodcuts in her publishng house Hogarth Press that she ran with her then-husband Leonard Woolf. Where the two come together artistically is their commitment to rendering the metaphorical landscape to express the reality of women’s realities in the early 20th century. While Woolf uses landscapes in novels like Mrs.Dalloway and To the Lighthouse as a metaphor for the ways in which women confront society, Carrington used painting to explore her interior landscape. Through a unique cross-style blend of Impressionism, Surrealism and Primitivism approach not only defied her male contemporaries, but brought an unprecedented mark of emotion to her work which has become the hallmark of her style. We can feel that sensitivity rendered across all of Carrington’s works beaming in the “Spanish Landscapes” (1924) as ethereal, bald mountains softly protruding in the painting’s centre: there's an undoubted commitment to rendering the landscape from a woman’s perspective: something largely forgotten from contemporary art history, yet something both Carrington and Woolf were committed to immortalising.
Virginia Woolf: An Exhibition Inspired by her Writings is on at the Tate St.Ives between 10 February – 29 April 2018. You can find out more here