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Virginia Woolf's legacy for the #MeToo age at Fitzwilliam Museum

Virginia Wolf exhibition at the Fitzwilliam Museum curated by Laura Smith seen here. Picture: Keith Heppell
Virginia Wolf exhibition at the Fitzwilliam Museum curated by Laura Smith seen here. Picture: Keith Heppell

A new exhibition inspired by the writings of Virginia Woolf speaks directly to modern women, discovers Alex Spencer

Virginia Wolf exhibition at the Fitzwilliam Museum curated by Laura Smith seen here by a portrait of Virginia Wolf and her lover. Picture: Keith Heppell
Virginia Wolf exhibition at the Fitzwilliam Museum curated by Laura Smith seen here by a portrait of Virginia Wolf and her lover. Picture: Keith Heppell

Author and feminist Virginia Woolf caused a storm in 1920’s Cambridge when she urged the female students of Newnham and Girton colleges to establish ‘a room of one’s own’ so they could have financial independence and creative and personal freedom.

Almost 100 years later her message feels as relevant as when she first gave the lectures that would later become her famous book.

The handwritten manuscript for A Room of One’s Own, bequeathed to the Fitzwilliam Museum by her husband after Woolf’s suicide, is at the centre of a new show titled Virginia Woolf: An Exhibition Inspired by her Writings.

Virginia Wolf exhibition at the Fitzwilliam Museum curated by Laura Smith. Picture: Keith Heppell
Virginia Wolf exhibition at the Fitzwilliam Museum curated by Laura Smith. Picture: Keith Heppell

Curator Laura Smith says: “Some of her her writing is so fierce. The follow up to A Room of One’s Own - Three Guineas - is even more fervent in its feminism. She says we should burn down the libraries of men and and dance on the bonfire an Fitzwilliam Museum reveals Virginia Woolf’s legacy for the #MeToo age d create our own history.

“It’s incredibly modern what she is saying. It is sad that it is still relevant to women’s lives now, it’s incredible really. And to me it is sad that this show hasn’t happened before.”

Virginia Woolf’s work is the inspiration behind an exhibition opening this week at the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge. It brings together a body of works by more than 80 female artists from the last 150 years, seeking to show how Woolf’s feminist perspectives on identity, domesticity and landscape have resonated with artists through their shared experience of the restrictions of gender.

“Loads of these paintings by female artists are not from national collections; they are from private collectors who liked them but they are not in national collections or considered part of art history,” explains Smith.

The first room of the exhibition features 40 portraits or self portraits of women by women. It turns out a painting of a woman seen through the female gaze offers something quite different from the women depicted in paintings by men throughout art history.

On the whole they are images of serious, strong-looking women staring out frankly from the canvas and often wearing a nice shawl or glasses. I loved them.

Smith says: “It’s just how they saw themselves and how seriously they took their creativity. They wanted to show they were really good painters. Their priority was to say ‘look how well I can paint,’ not ‘look how shiny my hair is’”.

One example is the self portrait of Welsh artist and artist’s model, Gwen John.

Smith says: “Gwen John was often depicted beautifully by other artists. She was in a very tumultuous relationship with Rodin, and was his partner and muse but also an incredible painter in her own right. I think it’s very striking in this self portrait she looks so p***ed off - it seems like she is saying ‘stop painting me naked’.”

Meanwhile the self portrait of Woolf’s sister, Vanessa Bell, shows her looking solemn, wearing hat, shawl and glasses.

“She was this maternal warm figure who was very beautiful but she paints herself as a very serious, older, wise, sage woman,” explains Smith.

But in portraits of her by her lover Duncan Grant she is “beautiful, sensuous and maternal.”

The inspiration for the exhibition came when came when Smith was being interviewed for the role of Exhibitions and Display Curator at Tate St Ives. She knew Cornwall played a huge part in Woolf’s childhood and her mother Julia Margaret Cameron took the family to St Ives every summer.

It was her blissful childhood summers spent at Talland House, St Ives while her mother was alive, that came to be where she identified happiness and her inspiration to write for the duration of her life. According to Smith, the house, and the ocean and landscape beyond are repeatedly used in her writing, which regularly depicts fundamental connections between the private self and subconscious, the role of domesticity and the home, and landscape and public life. The exhibition is structured into these themes.

It is split into two sections of interior and exterior. The exterior looks at landscape quite straightforwardly depicting the freedom and wildness she called it an uncharted territory in which to be another way of creating and writing that was outside of a lot of the sexisom she experience. In the interior section it shows how women have portrayed themselves throughout history either through self portraits of friends and family or people who have inspired them,.

One of the portraits in the exhibition is of Woolf’s mother, staring at the viewer out of a photograph by Woolf’s great aunt Julia Prinsep Stephen in 1867. Cameron was a pre-raphaelite muse and famous beauty, but there was more to her than external allure, as this photograph suggests.

“She was heartbroken by how much poverty there was in Cornwall and as she was a nurse she spent time helping people and giving people medical care,” says Smith. “Because of her they set up the District Nurses Association.”

The exhibition was took five years of research for Smith and is “an exercise in seeing what it would be like to put Woolf in the centre of a history and go forwards and backwards and create a lineage for a matriarchal heritage in contrast to art history, which consists mainly of the men we know about,” she says.

“The exhibition includes lots of significant women painters writers dancer musicians who have not been remembered within the art historical cannon of male artists.”

Although Woolf’s mental illness and subsequent suicide is not one of the major themes of the exhibition - ts dangerous to try and diagnose her posthumously, says Smith - her treatment for ‘hysteria’ is thought to have informed the ideas behind A Room of One’s Own’.

The cure for hysteria consisted of “being confined to your bed, not being able to draw, read or write, not being able to see any of your friends and family and being fed a fatty diet of white food like milk and cheese and egg.”

It was something Woolf feared every time she felt the ‘hysteria’ was returning, explains Smith.

“When she was thinking about the room she was also thinking about that the containment she felt when she was ill and she got really nervous about getting ill, i’ve read in some of her letters, because she didn’t want to be contained again. She would try and pretend she was fine for ages.”

The original manuscript of ‘A Room of One’s Own’ is on display and will be digitised for the first time. Also exhibited are variety of personal possessions, from letters to those who had close relationships with Woolf including her sister Vanessa Bell and Vita Sackville-West, to the teapot Virginia Woolf used every day that was decorated by her sister. Woolf herself visited Cambridge often, particularly during periods of recuperation and had strong Cambridge connections. Her father was a student of Trinity Hall and her brothers were students at Trinity College, as were her husband Leonard Woolf and brother-in-law Clive Bell.

The exhibition is free and runs from 2 October – 9 December 2018, it is curated by Laura Smith and has been organised in association with Tate St Ives and Pallant House Gallery. An accompanying catalogue is on sale in the Fitzwilliam Museum shop.

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