Making Modernism

Arts Club Correspondence with Clive Bell, 1930, 1939

This correspondence with influential art critic Clive Bell discusses the possibility of an exhibit of paintings by Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant, and points to an American receptivity to Bloomsbury’s distinctive versions, both textual and visual, of the modernist avant-garde. Arts Club president Elizabeth “Bobsy” Goodspeed writes to Bell, “you made the happy suggestion that Virginia Woolf write the introduction to the catalogue and I hope this also will still be possible,” and he responds “I’m sure Virginia Woolf will do what is asked of her.” Woolf’s influence was well established by the late 1930s. Man Ray’s portrait of Woolf graced a 1937 cover of Time magazine after Woolf’s multigenerational family saga, The Years, became a bestseller in the U.S. The influence of Bloombsury’s visual artists was also growing. Prohibitively expensive shipping costs estimated by a London art shipper prevented the Arts Club exhibit itself, but the correspondence reveals the keen early interest among Americans in Bloomsbury’s visual art, as well as its texts. After the Second World War, Americans would become avid collectors of Bloomsbury’s visual art, and the Arts Club correspondence provides a prescient sense of an emergent trend. Chicago’s tastemakers were at the forefront of an important 20th-century American engagement with British art. The intimate tone of Bell’s earlier note to Arts Club staff member Alice Roullier, proclaiming his loyalty to women, suggests that Bell’s Chicago connection was entirely consistent with Bloomsbury’s famous cultivation of personal relations, and its feminism. While American interest in Bloomsbury’s writers is well known, pre-WWII American familiarity with Bloomsbury visual art has been regarded as almost non-existent. The Arts Club Papers indicate that Chicago audiences were, in fact, helping to establish the reputation not only of Bloomsbury, but of 20th-century modernist British artists, generally: Arts Clubs announcements and schedules include exhibits of paintings by central Bloomsbury figure Roger Fry in the early 1930s, as well as exhibits by J.D. Fergusson, important Scottish Colourist, graphic designer for Rhythm magazine, and husband of dance educator Margaret Morris. Lecturers included Tate curator H.S. Ede on iconic avant-garde sculptor Gaudier-Brzeska (Ede’s biography of Gaudier-Brzeska was a Book-of-the-Month Club selection), Wyndham Lewis on Le Corbusier, and innovative choreographer Ninette de Valois, who worked extensively with Yeats’ Abbey Theatre. The Arts Club Papers invite us to consider the meaning, value, and importance of a British avant-garde exhibited alongside works by continental European masters such as Brancusi, Braque, Duchamp, Ernst, and Picasso.

Rishona Zimring, Lewis and Clark College

Link to finding aid for this collection

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