Studland Beach by Vanessa Bell

“Defining modernism in American art is a slippery task. As an art historical term, ‘modern’ refers to a period dating roughly from the 1860s through 1970 and to the style as well as the ideology of art produced during that era.” – Teta Collins, AskART*

In Studland Beach (Studland Beach. Verso: Group of Male Nudes by Duncan Grant) by the Bloomsbury Group artist Vanessa Bell we are looking at a dramatically simplified landscape with two groups of people. The crouching figures, beach houses and seascape are depicted as flattened shapes and broad bands of color. The painting emphasizes what Bell’s husband Clive called “significant form”. The figures in the left foreground of the canvas seem to be watching those in the upper right corner, bringing attention to the act of perception incorporated in painting.

See Allegory of Sight by Jan Brueghel the Elder and Peter Paul Rubens

Vanessa Bell was one of the first British artists to experiment with non-representational style, emphasizing form over content, the main principle of Modernism. It was at the home of Vanessa Bell and her writer sister Virginia Woolf where the Bloomsbury Group came together in 1905. The group of influential artists, writers, and free thinkers encouraged each other to experiment with radical ideas that had already spread in continental Europe around that time, but still struggled to gain critical acclaim of the British public. The Post-Impressionist exhibitions of 1910 and 1912 organized by Roger Fry, artist, critic, curator and a key figure of the Bloomsbury Group, started a new era in English art and literature. Works by Paul Cezanne, Paul Gauguin, Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso, at the time virtually unknown in Britain, made an enormous impression on Bell.

“Here was a possible path,” Vanessa Bell wrote, “a sudden liberation and encouragement to feel for oneself, which were absolutely overwhelming.”

Studland Beach shows how strongly Bell was influenced by Post-Impressionism in her simplification of form, bold coloring and rhythmic lines. One of the most striking features of the painting is the intensity of the blue, which shows a debt to Henry Matisse and stands ambiguously for a single fabric of sky and sea.

See Icarus by Henri Matisse

It is interesting that the idea of the beach as a place for leisure activities was relatively new in 1912 and the fact that Vanessa Bell and her Bloomsbury Group friends spent their vacations there was likewise an indication of their modernity.

The painting is in the collection of the Tate Museum in London.

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