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Art Book Reviews

The Bloomsbury Look by Wendy Hitchmough

This book is a wonderful and engaging exploration of how the Bloomsbury Group visually expressed their identity and aesthetic. I was immediately drawn to its arresting cover, which shows the bottom section of Vanessa Bell’s painting Mrs St John Hutchinson. Its texture mimics the roughness of a real painting, yet is still pleasing to the touch. The illustrations inside are also stunning; the book is as much a visual treat as it is a literary one.

The first chapter explores the roots of Virginia and her sister Vanessa’s awareness of their own image. Both women grew up learning to curate their image and identity through photographs – something we are now all too familiar with in the age of social media! Chapter two looks at how the Bloomsbury Group used dress and undress to express their identity. I found Hitchmough’s analysis of the role of nudity in their self-expression particularly interesting. The third chapter covers the Omega Workshops, which exhibited the Group’s aesthetics and values, taking inspiration from Post-Impressionist art.

My favourite part of the book was in the final chapter. There’s an entertaining account of Vanessa Bell going to Maynard Keynes’ house while he was on his honeymoon, unscrewing one of his pictures from the bathroom wall, and taking it. This task was the sole purpose of her trip from Sussex to London; she was apparent terrified of Keynes’ reaction when he found out. It really emphasised the contrast between the Bloomsbury Group’s collective identity and the individual power dynamics within it. As glamorous and iconic as the Group seem, I kept thinking how suffocating being part of it must have been. Hitchmough describes how the ‘back-biting and bitchiness’ within the circle is ‘both entertaining and appalling.’ I feel like Bell’s picture theft illustrates this brilliantly!

My knowledge of the Bloomsbury Group was limited before reading this book, but I found it both riveting and accessible and would totally recommend it. Plus, its visual presence really brightens up my bookshelf!

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Art

Artemisia Gentileschi: The Language of Painting by Jesse M. Locker

I’ve mentioned Artemisia Gentileschi enough on my Bookstagram and blog, so it’s about time this book got a review! To begin with, it’s a gorgeous book: it has some stunning illustrations and the pages are thick and glossy. The cover exhibits a beautiful painting of Artemisia by Simon Vouet. 

Artemisia Gentileschi has exploded into fame over the past few years. As I’ve mentioned in a previous post, she’s been the subject of plays, TV, and a whole host of other media. The Artemisia exhibition at the National Gallery has contributed to this significantly, bringing together a collection of her best-known work. She’s become an art history celebrity.

However, the focus tends to be on the traumatic events in her personal life: her father’s friend, Agostino Tassi, raping her, and the trial that followed, where she was subjected to torture. While these events would undoubtedly have had a significant influence on her art, they do not define it. This tunnel vision is something Jesse M. Locker warns against, citing the issues with interpreting her work only through the lens of her trauma. He points out that early sources do not mention the rape: it wasn’t the focus when her works were initially received.

The book focuses on Artemisia’s life and art from the 1620s onwards. Artemisia was only semi-literate, but Locker unearths numerous sources referencing poetry by Neapolitan poets who knew Artemisia. The poems were full of praise for her and marked her out as a figure sitting in the heart of political and cultural power in Naples. Locker examines Artemisia’s reception in Venice, Rome, Naples, and Florence through both visual and literary evidence. It seems that she had close relationships with multiple leading cultural figures during her career. While her level of literacy wasn’t advanced, she was still well-educated through other avenues. The time she spent at the academies was most essential to her artistic development. Also much emphasised is the significance of the oral tradition in Baroque culture, which translated to Artemisia’s paintings.

The penultimate chapter observes the line between Artemisia’s true self and her self-portraits, where she dons multiple disguises as various figures and personas. The book ends with a chapter on Artemisia’s 18th century biographers, mainly discussing the artist Averardo de Medici’s biography on her, which seemed to be unaware of her rape and personal background.

This book was a detailed, nuanced, and fascinating exploration and analysis of Artemisia’s life and work. I learnt so much reading it and recommend it 1000%. The book is now out in paperback for those who want to nab it! I’d also highly recommend Jesse M. Locker’s article on ‘Artemisia’s Fame, Present, and Past.’