I knew little about Virginia Woolf – be it her writings, her time at Cambridge, or the people she surrounded herself with when heading to this exhibition inspired by her work. I was apprehensive that the links between the art displayed and the writer herself would be obscure to me. Having only stumbled through ‘A room of one’s own’, I was sure to be unable (as often happens in Cambridge) to understand any of the, no doubt, highly intellectual references to her work.
It became clear however, as soon as I walked in, that this was not the case. The connection the exhibition has to Woolf is not direct or in any way predictable. It is using her writing and her personal connections, both through her sister Vanessa Bell and her artistic contemporaries, as a springboard to demonstrate the persistence of the central issues explored in her works. Domesticity, space, interiors and exteriors, the self and the self’s relation to others; these issues are addressed and fought with by artists ranging from Woolf’s contemporaries to works created in 2018.
The curator has not hung the works chronologically; Claude Cahun’s self-portraits (1928-9) which explore shifting gender identities through ‘elaborately staged backdrops’ hang near Zunela Muholi’s 2015 studio self-portraiture ‘Bona, Charlottesville’ – similarly staged and exploring similar issues. Birgit Jurgessen’s 1975 ‘Housewives Kitchen Apron’ is hung nearby to a picture of Sheila Legge’s performance art piece ‘Surrealist Phantom of Sex Appeal’ (1936) in which her face was covered with flowers. A clear thread links these works. Artists questioning femininity, domesticity, and expectations of women.
Powerfully, Genevieve (1978), a piece by Shana Lutker, is based on the Parisian hospital the Salpetriere. Here, over 5,000 women who were diagnosed with ‘hysteria’ were ‘housed’. Woolf was diagnosed with hysteria herself and the artist cleverly suggests a ‘lineage of ideas about women’s bodies’ (Jennifer Brea) that extends to the present.
They are hung so seemingly incongruously to demonstrate that the issues which the exhibitors deal with are not attached to a decade or even an artistic epoch, but are sustained areas of interrogation.
These issues appear timeless. However, the intention of the exhibition is not just to demonstrate that issues surrounding domesticity and the ‘self’ hold true today. In highlighting these themes, the Fitzwilliam provides a window into the too-often overshadowed matrilineal network that connects women.
Emma Talbot in her 2016 piece ‘Interpret my dream Tapestry’ expresses exactly the problem that the exhibition begins to solve. On the tapestry is written the phrase “I dreamt I was squeezing paint out in a dark studio. Paintings by OLD MEN covered the walls. They lurked by their work in thick knit jumpers”. In the context of the exhibition this poses the question: where would our room, our ‘studio’, sit in a world exclusively dominated by paintings of old white men by old white men?
Woolf urges to ‘think back through our mothers’. She does not refer to the female bloodline here, but instead towards the said matrilineal network and the artistic lineages from which we can draw inspiration when forging our own rooms and deciding “with whom are (we) going to share (them) with and on what terms”.
France-Lise McGurn’s illustrations cover the walls of this exhibition. And yet, the freehand figures spanning every available white space, neither crowd nor detract from the others’ work. The wall paintings instead make the room entirely owned by the artists; the art is not being displayed, it belongs there. This exhibition gives us a nudge forward. It asks us to tap into the network of female creativity that surrounds us. It also shows us what it looks like to really own the space.