Its been said of the Bloomsbury group that they “lived in squares, loved in triangles and painted in circles” and so they did! My own favourite quote from episode one of the new BBC dramatisation, “Life in Squares“, depicting the life and times of this infamous arty set, is “I find I’m only interested in theories of painting when I can’t actually paint”; a statement with which I couldn’t agree more.
These were young people exploring a new way of being, breaking out of a paradigm that had tried to truss them up and hold them in every bit as sucurely as the corsets thrown out of the window in episode one. Artists often lead the way in such social experimentation – its social synaesthesia in action; their most experimental brushstrokes and lurid, muddied colours spilling out onto the very canvas of life and, of course, it can sometimes seem like a swirling mess to others, as all first attempts at something new tend to be. Yet at least, like the true artist, they are open to trying something new and seeing what that looks like.
An energetically sensitive friend of mine told me she recently visited Charleston Farmhouse (the beautifully preserved location where many of these early twentieth century characters created, lived and loved together. She liked the garden – which I have painted twice already – but couldn’t bear to be inside their wonderfullyeccentric house (which I also adore) with all its decoratively painted surfaces; too many “dark, heavy” energies from all their “sordid” goings-on, the ghosts of their convoluted love-triangles and all the emotional turmoil that she sensed took place there. I don’t think she found it an easy fit with how she liked to think of artists being and art being created. Yet to expect creation to only come from a place of purity and high-mindedness is to keep it locked in a pretty box…and, when that “ideal” ever seems to exist on canvas, it is so often just that – an ideal in paint; frequently the work of “dark” and troubled minds that strove to immortalise the very opposite of their daily preoccupations (you’ve only got to watch the recent exploration of the rather sordid personal life of Mr Turner in the recent biopic to appreciate the extreme contrast with the radiant scenes he loved to paint). Instead, is the art of the Bloomsbury set not more honest, more real for having been so thoroughly mixed-in with “real” life and all its experimentation; literally woven into the domestic fabric of all the furniture they sat upon, ate off and slept in together?
I suspect this art-spilling-into-life-spilling-into art factor is what most attracted my student-self to these characters and their output, thirty long years ago and, without judgement, I still feel the appeal of their willingness to experiment, without having become tied to any of their particular preoccupations (fascinating as they are to revisit, at arm’s length, via the new TV dramatisation). Within the ability to openly appreciate all that came before us, the many diverse roads taken by others towards something new (even destinations we fail to identify with), the pushing of curious tendrils into new cracks to see where they might lead, lies the path to our own evolution because we get to appreciate what it took to outgrow the old-stuck patterns of their times. In a myriad ways, their small, era-specific revolutions – through words and through paint – helped to make our world what it now is, with all its inherent possibilities, on the brink of realising a whole new layer of newness that is poised to push and stretch and birth itself (sometimes controversially) into existence. Artists (and I use that term broadly) are so often amongst those most eager, most committed to, and most matter-of-fact about, innovation and even total reinvention; after all, its just like overpainting something you didn’t like very much or even starting work on a fresh new canvas.
“Life in Squares” might not be everyone’s idea of escapist-drama and I can see how it might leave some people cold or bewildered. According to one review, many first-night viewers complained that they couldn’t follow the plot without the help of Wikipedia, though having the distinct advantage of having embroiled myself in their (very) convoluted affairs for my degree project, I can’t say I had that much difficulty. For my own part, I really enjoyed seeing these literary and painterly characters “brought to life” in authentic-feeling period colour and detail (and, I’ll freely admit, it was the first television I had felt enticed to watch in a very long time). Episode 2 of this three-parter airs on the BBC (in the UK) next Monday at 10pm. and, I’m sure, will turn up on a TV screen near most people fairly soon after.
Painting Backgrounds – A Weekend of Art Films (about the film “Mr Turner”)
See more at www.helenwhite.org