In 1918, Virginia Woolf saw something special in Cézanne’s “Still Life with Apples” (1877-1878). Despite its small scale and muted hues, the modest canvas unlocked something in Woolf, who responded excitedly in her diary, “What can six apples not be?” That sense of possibility, and the desire to read deeply into the art of her own time, would characterize Woolf’s passionate but little-known art writing over the following years.
Oh, to Be a Painter! (David Zwirner Books) collects nine of Woolf’s published art reviews, catalogue essays, and experimental texts from 1920 to 1936. In them, Woolf focuses mainly on the tensions between painting and writing, but also addresses the act of looking, the possibilities of cinema, and the gender inequalities of her day, among other themes. As in her short stories and novels, Woolf analyzes paintings and films with unleashed imagination. Her writing on art is a space to reflect, conjecture, and explore, and offers a fascinating glimpse at a period when art’s look and meaning were shifting rapidly.
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Though she stated that writers were “the worst — the most prejudiced” judges of art, Woolf was uniquely positioned and even immersed in it. The product of a highly educated Victorian family, Woolf was surrounded by culture from an early age. Her father was a biographer and critic, her mother modeled for Pre-Raphaelite painters, and her aunt Julia Margaret Cameron was one of England’s most prominent 19th-century photographers. After her parents’ deaths, Woolf, her sister the painter Vanessa Bell, and their brother Thoby moved to 46 Gordon Square in Bloomsbury, where their home became a meeting point for pioneering artists and intellectuals of the day. Ideas and even direct quotations from these gatherings make their way into Woolf’s art writing; she also frequented London’s galleries and museums, and purchased and commissioned artworks from friends.
The book takes its title from a line at the end of “Pictures and Portraits” (1920), one of Woolf’s early published texts on art, which records her wide-ranging impressions as she walks through London’s National Portrait Gallery. Just before it, Woolf writes, “But words, words! How inadequate you are! How weary one gets of you.” Across her art writing, Woolf insists that the best painting is silent, and must remain so. “Painters lose their power directly [as soon as] they attempt to speak,” she proclaims in 1928. “A storytelling picture is as pathetic and ludicrous as a trick played by a dog, and we applaud it only because we know that it is as hard for a painter to tell a story with his brush as it is for a sheep-dog to balance a biscuit on its nose.” Later, she caustically asserts that “with half a sheet of notepaper we can tell all the stories of all the pictures in the world.”
Woolf’s insistence on silence is used to keep painting separate from her own field of writing, but the pendulum swings back and forth. “Words are an impure medium,” she states in 1934, “better far to have been born into the silent kingdom of art.” The theme finally fades in her 1936 text “The Artist in Politics” — written as the threat of Hitler and Mussolini grew — which sensitively argues for the necessity of artists’ political involvement in modern society. Whether the artist’s voice is overt or embedded in a group of apples, Woolf interprets art inventively. She once wrote that Cézanne’s work “seems to challenge us [writers], to press on some nerve, to stimulate, to excite.” Today, her lively art writing has the same effect on us.