In Focus: Abstract Painting c.1914 by Vanessa Bell

Grace Brockington, Claudia Tobin

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Vanessa Bell made Abstract Painting in the autumn of 1914, as one of a handful of paintings and collages that experiment with non-representation in art. These were innovative works, which made a bold and early intervention in the international abstract movement. They were also private, not exhibited until after Bell’s death, and shared only with her immediate circle of ‘Bloomsbury group’ friends. Much of the critical response to Abstract Painting has therefore occurred relatively recently, since Tate bought it from the art dealer Anthony d’Offay in 1975. It has since become known as a key work in Bell’s oeuvre, and in the canons of British and European modernism.

This In Focus project presents the first sustained analysis of this enigmatic painting. It explores the multiple ways in which a work which appears to reject the subject-matter of lived experience can still operate in the world, whether in the local context of Bloomsbury ideas and collaborations, or in the global context of European modernism and Islamic textiles. It draws attention to the political implications of abstract art in relation to theories of individualism, the modernist reinvention of the home, and the outbreak of the First World War which occurred shortly before Bell made Abstract Painting. And it tests the effect of reading the painting ‘in conversation’ with works by Bell and other artists, both historic and contemporary.
Original languageEnglish
JournalTate In Focus
Publication statusPublished - 26 Jan 2017


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