During her own lifetime, Virginia Woolf disliked the National Portrait Gallery for being “full of men”, and as I explored the exhibition dedicated to conveying her life through portraiture, I found myself wondering what she would have thought. Virginia Woolf: Art, Life and Vision focuses on her personal life, literary influences, and the development of her political and feminist views, as well as her interest in modernity and her obsession with the past.
The beginning of the exhibition features a quote from her: “I must be private, secret, as anonymous and submerged as possible in order to write.” The highlights of the exhibition were really the items that shed light on the thoughts and influences of someone so private; her prolific diaries and letters stand out, offering a glimpse into the life of such a complex figure. As well as literary figures who influenced her writing, such as Katherine Mansfield and James Joyce, there is a section dedicated to the connection between painting and writing.
The art featured in the exhibition is intriguing for the influence that it had on Woolf’s style of writing fiction. One of the portraits featured in the exhibition is by her sister, Vanessa Bell, which I recognised as being the cover of a copy of Mrs Dalloway that I own. It was only then that I really saw the connection between art and literature on Woolf’s writing and realised how appropriate a cover the portrait really was – both sisters, in their respective fields, pushed away traditional, correct representations in order to communicate in an innovative way.
The exhibition runs until 26 October and is definitely worth seeing if you can escape the bubble for a bit. For the Woolf fan, there’s the rare material that you’ve probably never seen before, but as an important figure of the 20th century, there’s enough to enjoy the exhibition having never read any of her work – although you’ll probably be left inspired to read Orlando or The Waves