Archive for September, 2010

More reviews of Sarah Ruhl’s adaptation of Virginia Woolf’s Orlando are in, some of them not as glowing as the New York Times version published Sept. 23. Read on.

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A slide show of photos from the production is available on the NYT website.

The New York Times is in love with Orlando. And so are a lot of people.

After being alerted to the NYT rave review of Sara Ruhl’s adaptation of Virginia Woolf’s 1928 novel Orlando, I checked out the article online. While there, I noticed it was the most e-mailed article in the theater section. No doubt.

Charles Isherwood’s review, which notes that most of the dialogue in the production comes directly from Woolf’s novel, praises Ruhl’s adaptation for its mix of  “stately elegance and quirky humor in roughly equal doses,” its “elegant, minimal set,” its “subtle blend of drama and dance” and its lively story, among other things.

However, Isherwood also notes that the stage version is best appreciated by those who have an intimate knowledge of the novel.

That is good news for Woolf lovers who have the chance to grab a seat in the Classic Stage Company‘s East 13th Street theatre between now and Oct. 17, when the production closes.

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I have a fascination with spies, the real ones, especially the double agents, true events being as startling as anything fiction can come up with (John LeCarre notwithstanding). Take, for instance, the infamous World War II quartet—Burgess, Maclean, Philby and Blunt.

Recently I came across “Cambridge Spies,” a 2003 dramatized BBC series about the foursome that stretches and embellishes the truth. They were Apostles during the 1930s with Julian Bell, who is depicted as in thrall to Communism like themselves, especially in its opposition to Fascism at a time when England’s response was benign.

Guy Burgess claims to be in love with Julian, but it’s Anthony Blunt who shares his bed. Keeping his socks on, Julian explains that Virginia gave them to him and told him not to take them off. Blunt expresses amazement that he’s in bed with Virginia Woolf’s socks.

I suspect this scene of being added for color, but it piqued my curiosity. I recalled Blunt in collusion with Harold Nicolson and Maynard Keynes in The White Garden, the Stephanie Barron novel about Woolf’s death that I reviewed Oct. 16, 2009. Although a generation removed, some connection seemed plausible among Cambridge-educated men moving in avant garde London political and cultural circles.

I turned to my own bookshelf and zeroed in on Quentin Bell’s memoir, Elders and Betters (published in the U.S. as Bloomsbury Recalled). The last chapter is about Anthony Blunt, whom Quentin met through Julian at Cambridge. Quentin believed their friendship was founded on art, not politics, and said further: “I don’t think that Julian attempted to convert Anthony to socialism. Anthony did attempt to convert Julian to homosexuality but failed utterly.”

Quentin also became acquainted with Guy Burgess and attested to his heavy drinking and outrageous behavior. After Burgess defected to Moscow and his activities were made public, Quentin expressed surprise that he could ever have been entrusted with secrets. In fact, he may not have been; Rebecca West’s The New Meaning of Treason suggests that he may have been left in place to sow discord between the English and the Americans.

Blunt spent many years as art consultant and historian for the royal family and in the higher echelons of the British art world, and Quentin had occasional contact with him over the years. When Blunt’s treasonous activities were exposed in the 1960s, Quentin expressed sympathy for the difficult double lives they lived, believing the damage they did to be negligible.

An interesting postscript and sighting: This weekend I watched “Enigma,” a 2001 movie about WWII codebreakers and internal spies. Overheard in the cafeteria at Bletchley Park, the secret intelligence headquarters: “Drowning herself was Virginia Woolf’s greatest contribution to English literature.”

I don’t know if that’s from the Robert Harris novel or Tom Stoppard’s screenplay, but someone seems to have had an axe to grind.

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Tomorrow, you can decorate your own Bloomsbury plate. Yesterday I heard a lecture on Bloomsbury artists.

These are some of the final activities during the final days of the final stop on the cross-country tour of the traveling exhibit, A Room of Their Own: The Bloomsbury Artists in American Collections.

The exhibit will be at the Palmer Museum of Art at Pennsylvania State University in University Park, Pa., through Sept. 26. After that, all the artwork, books, fabric and furniture will be carefully packed and returned to their owners. Artist Jasper Johns, for example, will be reunited with his Omega Workshop pottery.

When Benjamin Harvey, associate professor of art history at Mississippi State University,  reviewed the exhibit for Blogging Woolf nearly one year ago, he recommended that Bloomsbury afficionados “make every effort to see it.”

Riders on the storm

Early Thursday evening, I took his advice, setting off from Ohio to Pennsylvania in a violent rainstorm — the one that brought tornadoes to the East Coast — with the expectation that we would view the Bloomsbury exhibit the next day. We did, despite the unfortunate weather that kept us on the edge of our car seat the entire way.

It was worth the trip.

I have been to Charleston Farmhouse and Monk’s House, so I have seen many original works of Bloomsbury art. But this exhibit was different. It displays a large collection of Bloomsbury art together in a gallery setting, which gave me the chance to step back and appreciate it one piece at a time without feeling overwhelmed or rushed by tour guides.

As a result, I felt a new appreciation for the artistry of Vanessa Bell. I clearly saw that her artwork stands on its own rather than in the shadow of Duncan Grant.

Giant canvas greeting

© 2010 by Nasher Museum Blogs

Visitors to the Penn State exhibit are initially greeted by a giant Duncan Grant painting that depicts an exuberant male nude holding cymbals. Although it dwarfs even the tallest art lover, the painting is just one part of the 1937 original oil on canvas, which was commissioned to hang over the massive fireplace in the first-class lounge of the Queen Mary, according to Christopher Reed, associate professor of English and visual culture at Penn State and co-curator for the exhibit.

Along with other commissioned designs, such as upholstery fabric of cotton velveteen patterned with an obviously Bloomsbury design, and carpeting, it was never used on the ship. Cunard, the ship’s owner, changed course and decided to use an art deco look for the first-class quarters instead.

Grant’s massive painting featuring the nude cymbal player and other elements was discovered years later in the barn of Kenneth Clark, English art historian. It was covered with pigeon droppings, so had to undergo extensive restoration before it was fit for exhibition, Reed explained.

Drawn into Bloomsbury

A multi-media display greets visitors to the Bloomsbury exhibit.

A multi-media display introduces visitors to the actual exhibit, and it draws them into the Bloomsbury scene with its life-size graphics of a Charleston Farmhouse bedroom. Just below the window ledge is  a video screen where a slide presentation shows scenes from the early 20th-century era, photographs of Bloomsbury Group members, examples of their art and quotes that help illuminate their thinking.

Even the display tables that hold important artifacts are decorated in Bloomsbury style. They were loaned to the Penn State exhibit by Cornell. Inside the glass cases resting on the decorated display tables are letters from Leonard and Virginia Woolf, Roger Fry and others, as well as numerous volumes published by the Hogarth Press. These included Virginia’s novels with dust jackets decorated by Vanessa Bell, along with the English translations of the works of Sigmund Freud.

Influence of Bloomsbury artists

Joyce Robinson and Christopher Reed, co-curators of the Bloomsbury exhibit at Penn State

In his noon lecture, Christopher Reed, associate professor of English and visual culture at Penn State and co-curator for the exhibit, discussed the influence of Bloomsbury artists on early twentieth-century thinking about art and the art of home decoration.

He also noted their appreciation for the unique imperfections of handmade art – from Omega Workshop pottery to the utilitarian shutters painted by Vanessa Bell.

While some items that were included in earlier installations were not part of the Palmer exhibit — such as Woolf’s writing desk decorated by Quentin Bell — three paintings that did not appear in earlier exhibits are part of this one. All three were loaned by an individual who viewed an earlier exhibit and noted that he had several paintings by the same artist at home.

The three turned out to be the work of Duncan Grant. They are:

  • “Hatbox”
  • “Still Life with Jug”
  • “Paul Roche in the Bath”

Joyce Robinson, curator at the Palmer, gave visitors insight into how Vanessa and Virginia worked together. She quoted Woolf as saying the sisters had the same eyes but wore different spectacles.

Palmer's Bloomsbury bookmark

In particular, she cited the edition of Kew Gardens decorated by Vanessa Bell. Robinson said Vanessa and Virginia worked on the layout together, making sure that Vanessa’s decorations and Virginia’s hand-set type complimented each other both visually and symbolically.

More on Woolf and knitting

Another interesting item from the exhibit, in light of the ongoing discussion on the VWoolf Listserv regarding Woolf and knitting,  is a pencil drawing by Roger Fry depicting his daughter, titled “Pamela Knitting and Reading.”

Reed, author of Bloomsbury Rooms: Modernism, Subculture, and Domesticity, said some argue that paintings depicting Virginia knitting really show her engaged in book binding.

Welcome commodification at the museums

Bloomsbury 2010 tattoo

To view more artwork from the exhibit visit the Nasher Museum exhibit page. The Duke University museum was the first stop on the tour. You can also purchase the exhibit catalogue from Cornell.

However, unless you make a trip to the Palmer soon, you will have no chance to get the freebies they gave out: an exhibit bookmark and a Bloomsbury 2010 temporary tattoo that features Woolf. I can’t wait to apply mine.

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It is no surprise that two of Virginia Woolf’s novels are included on this list of the “Greatest Novels of the Past 100 Years.”

The list was compiled by Sean Phelan and is on the CultureMob blog. On his list of greats are To the Lighthouse and The Waves.

Here is how Woolf fares on other lists of “best reads.”

Use the comment section below to add your choice(s) of Woolf’s best reads. Here are mine: Mrs. Dalloway, To the Lighthouse, Orlando, and The Waves.

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