Printable version

Experiments in Constructing The Visual Field: Conversations with Woolf and Stein and Painting The Waves

Suzanne Bellamy

(A version of this paper was first published in Virginia Woolf Out of Bounds:Selected Papers of the International Virginia Woolf Conference (eds.) Jessica Berman and Jane Goldman. UMBC Baltimore. Publ by Pace Univ Press. 2001. Out of print)

My experiment in the form of the Visual Essay has now ranged across four projects and over four conferences. I began with the Virginia Woolf print exhibition at New Hampshire (1997), then the collaborations with Isota Tucker Epes in painting and writing about To The Lighthouse and The Waves (1999,2000) and now the exhibition and presentation Conversations With Woolf and Stein at Baltimore in 2000. Each phase has refined the process, giving equal weight to the intellectual and scholarly, and the more elusive creations from my studio, in printmaking and painting. I began with a general idea that I could explore Woolf’s ideas on creativity and the creative process, moving from her influences, through biographical contexts and on to her most experimental texts. As with all such grand plans, the journey has been rather different and yet richly worthwhile to me personally. The ideas of dual creativity underpin this series of projects, from Woolf’s lifelong conversation with her sister Vanessa Bell, from my own reading and visual research, and from the critically important work of scholar Diane Gillespie. It could be said that Gillespie’s work forms the backbone of this whole experiment.

Conversations With Virginia Woolf and Gertrude Stein

Linking Woolf and Stein in conversation had its beginnings for me in the research I had done over many years on Virginia Woolf’s place within the post-impressionist world of ideas. Gertrude Stein also lived within and worked off the edges of an art movement and inhabited a world of painters, aesthetic theorists and passionate friends of the arts. It is

known that they met, that the Hogarth Press published Stein’s essay Composition As Explanation, and that there was frisson between them. Here was a fruitful field of connection open to exploration. My goal was to focus on the work that specifically dealt with language, processes, writing itself. I hoped to compare Composition As Explanation and Stein’s other essays and lectures with Woolf ‘s essays “The Narrow Bridge of Art” and “A Sketch of the Past.” Of course this idea needed some preparation of the ground. What resulted in the prints was more introductory, narrative, diplomatic, political, humorous. One cannot force two such women into forms preconceived and imposed. As with the previous work I had made on Woolf, I found myself drawn into a field of action where it was better to take advice than give it, and the participants opened all the doors.

My methods as usual were diverse. I read widely, helped especially again by Diane Gillespie who sent me the influential article “Woolfenstein” by Rachel Blau DuPlessis. In this work, DuPlessis strongly suggests that Woolf was influenced by Stein’s ideas in writing The Waves particularly. My Stein reading of 20 years became more disciplined and I finally tried to sort out the difficult strands from Cezanne to Matisse to Picasso.

Setting up the creative meditation proved to be the most complicated part of the process. Sitting in my studio, I tried to bring Virginia and Gertrude together. From the start, this was problematic, and was going to take delicate diplomacy. They would not sit facing each other at all, and only over time did I manage to have them sit, a la cafe, across a table, slightly leaning towards conversation. Over a period of months this thawed as I took the view that this was not a comparison in any sense but a three-way exploration, myself included. The final raprochment I will not forget, when Stein leaned across and offerred her hand, and they shook hands at last. We were away !!!

In this initial series there are twelve Conversations. I offer here the briefest summaries of what are to be extended essays on each Conversation. It has become clear to me that this is a much bigger project than I first thought, and that this is the first part.

No.1 SETTING THE SCENE : Still Life, Perception . Here the stage is created. They sit looking at pears on the table, each seeing something different. They discuss refraction, the nature of objects and the “real”, cubism and prismatic light. They become a still life as they discuss the still life. The curtain rises.

No.2 COLLISIONS : “Lying Under the Whole of Gertrude Stein.” This print tells the story of their meetings and business transactions. Rejecting the manuscript of The Making of Americans, perhaps not ever reading it, Woolf wrote various letters to friends parodying Stein’s weighty work, body and presence. Here Alice faces the backdrop of their own Parisian life as Gertrude hurtles through the air on her magical manuscript and Woolf deftly avoids being crushed. The subsequent Hogarth printing of Composition As Explanation testifies to a shift in position over the value of Stein’s work and worth.

No.3 CARS - POSITIONING gives each her vehicle, dangerous and beautiful.Stein, like Toad, is up for the contest, Woolf more reflective but curious to move through the scene. Both wrote about cars, Stein composed to the sounds of her pistons, Woolf considered the nature of speed and the past on an evening in Sussex.

No.4 RITUAL and DEEP RHYTHM concerns the different ways each writer draws upon forms and myths from the ancient and matriarchal worlds. The work of Gloria Feman Orenstein on Stein’s use of the Seder ritual and Jewish iconography sits here with Woolf’s involvement with the work and ideas of Jane Ellen Harrison. As with all the Conversations, this theme shows how there can be deep points of connection between these two women artists if certain doors are opened.

No.5 PATTERNS : Repetition, Sentences, Words, Grammar. This print in particular deals with and embodies the actual processes of repetition and structure. I set up the printing block as an experiment in repetition of form, then subjected it to great downward pressure through the press. The result is clear, repetition subverts itself and shifts the frame. Although Stein writes more specifically about grammar and the sentence, they have strong points of reference in this area. Stein’s essays on the development of sentences and paragraphs can be richly compared with Woolf on Anon and Chaucer in particular.

No.6 COSMOLOGY : Sun Moon Light Shadow places each in their direct relation to the cosmos, ideas and realities. More than absorbing the science of their day, each became part of their solar and lunar landscape, travelling in very different ways. We know from Alice that Gertrude used to lie in full sunlight with open eyes staring into the light. For me Woolf travelled more like the comets, in the eclipses and shadows of the heavens. In all the art work of these series, the ideas of eclipse, light and shadow are significant.

No.7 BIOGRAPHY : Country, the Twentieth Century

Both Woolf and Stein lived lives where the boundaries of art and life merged, where as women artists their lives became the material of movements. Here they pre-empt those who sought to study them, as they discuss the idea of the 20th century itself, its mythic potency for each of them in separate ways, the experience of being subjects of their own writing and the life writing each tried to reinvent. Basket listens, and wonders why Virginia’s dogs are not here too. I tried so hard to have Pinker in the frame but it would not happen. I finally decided that this was because in the end the dogs were truly Leonard’s.

No.8 VISUAL GEOGRAPHY : Colors in the Field

This print floats upon a Picassoesque collograph of a broken frame. In abandoning the traditional narrative structure, and in radically different ways, Woolf and Stein choose what to illuminate with color. Their atonal experiments act here like spots on a stage.

No.9 MASKS : Personas and Production explores the different ways each writer created a persona within the text, and within the life.

No.10 OUTSIDERS : Porpoise, Cow, Patriarchy broadly considers the nature of each writer’s feminism and sexual politics. Both clearly experienced lives outside mainstream predictabilities and lived with secrets. This is the debate about the degree to which each invented little and private languages, codes and jokes to explore sexual games and layers of erotic meaning, and the ways in which private life, lovers and lesbian experience informed their politics.

No.11 USE EVERYTHING : Outside The Frame

Stein’s marvellous invocation to use everything inspires this print, where the frame of reference is shattered, they consider each other no longer adversarily but as revolutionaries in the invention of new forms.

No.12 LEGACY : “Not Since Lesbos...” is a print for the present. Rising above their curtain and stage, Woolf and Stein take on the harlequinesque joy of a circus act and float to the surface. Two hot air balloons bear them aloft, carried by the words of Woolf who mused that not since Sappho had there been conditions to produce great work among women artists and writers. In some recent perspectives, they have been named the two greatest lesbian modernists. What does this mean? What is their tradition? What is the legacy they each separately and together leave for women writing and fighting now ?

A Postscript.

Working each year with Isota Tucker Epes in collaboration on the painting projects has led me to expect a certain magical quality in our combinations. This year we painted The Waves. It had not been a book I had liked much but it was Isota’s choice this time, and I embraced it heartily.

On the morning we set up the exhibition, something wonderful happened. Isota, her daughter Maria and I were hanging and organizing the paintings, prints and floor installation. Its my favorite time really, our time just with all the work, in an empty room.

Suddenly Isota dropped a bombshell.

“By the way, Suzanne, I forgot to tell you. I met Gertrude Stein.”

With my complete attention, she told the story of being a young student at Bryn Mawr in 1936, when Stein visited to give a lecture. Stein would not come straight out onto the stage from the side and instead insisted on walking the full length of a marble floor up through the assembled crowd to the stage. It was a long walk and she was wearing espadrilles, a floppy sandshoe kind of thing. At this point Isota demonstrated the scene. She re-enacted Stein’s long slow purposeful walk, especially the sound effects of those shoes, kaplunk kaplunk kaplunk...on and on all the way, in the otherwise total silence as the audience waited.

Maria and I were in the land of legends, and I know at that moment I felt in the presence of Stein as I never had before,reading her. Something in the sound of that repetitious cheeky walk did it, and the particular sharpness of Isota’s memory of the event, and of Alice B Toklas’s moustache at the meal later, rivetting to a 17 year old.

Later, during my session talking about the Woolf and Stein print series, I asked Isota if she would tell the story again to the audience, as a way of illuminating the print on Cars, Positioning. The sound of those shoes kaplunking across the marble hall brought to life all the stories about Stein sitting in the car writing to the sound of her pistons. It was pure jazz, syncopated rhythms coming across a 65 year bridge through the memory of a young student and into the woolf conference. How that filled me with joy.

Works Cited

DuPlessis, Rachel Blau. “Woolfenstein.” Breaking The Sequence : Women’s

Experimental Fiction. Eds. Friedman, Ellen.G and Fuchs, Miriam. Princeton, 1989.

Gillespie, Diane F. The Sisters’ Arts. The Writing and Painting of Virginia Woolf and Vanessa Bell. New York. Syracuse University Press, 1988.

Orenstein, Gloria. “Decoding the Hieroglyphics of Feminist Matristic Subversion :

Patriarchal Symbol Systems as Decoys. Gertrude Stein.” The Reflowering of the Goddess. Pergamon Press, 1990.