Catalogue: Virginia Woolf: Art, Life and Vision

Frances Spalding, Issue 114/10, p71, 01.10.2014
Frances Spalding on how she devised a fresh approach to one of literature's most important authors
Virginia Woolf: Art, Life and Vision by Frances Spalding, National Portrait Gallery, £22.50, ISBN -13 978-1-8551-4481-1

The question – “Who’s afraid of Virginia Woolf?” – began life as the title of Edward Albee’s award-winning play which, in 1966, was adapted for film, with huge success. But who today is afraid of Virginia Woolf? This question came to mind when writing the catalogue to the National Portrait Gallery’s exhibition on Woolf, for which I acted as guest curator.

The answer to this question, seemingly, is no one: no other 20th-century writer has been so extensively admired, imitated, analysed, satirised, appropriated and contested.

There are more than a dozen biographies of Woolf, and commentary on her work is myriad. What contribution could my catalogue make to this mountain of scholarship?
One thing I noticed was that very few books on Woolf are addressed to the “common reader”.

This I found slightly ironic, for Woolf today is praised for being a “democratic highbrow”, a public intellectual committed to inclusiveness and equal opportunities.

She wanted the best to be accessible to all, and argued in one radio programme that ideally books should be as cheap as cigarettes were in her day. She would have abhorred the chasm that exists today between specialised theoretical discourse and the general reader.

It seemed, therefore, a timely moment to lift Woolf out of the fierce embrace of academia and revisit her story, with fresh emphasis on her own words as well as on recent scholarship.

The exhibition is divided into six sections, and these tally with the prologue and five chapters in my catalogue. Knowing that only a limited amount can be conveyed in wall panels and labels, the catalogue needed to expand on contextual information, on ideas and relationships.

I wanted also to break with chronology at the start and offer a surprise. Hence the decision to begin with the house in Tavistock Square where Virginia Woolf lived for 16 years, wrote some of her most famous books and which was completely gutted by a bomb in the second world war.

By showing a photograph of its damaged state and quoting from her diary, written soon after she viewed the damage, I was able to introduce the reader to the theme of vulnerability that ran through her fertile, constructive and creative life.

Each section in the catalogue has a particular focus, be it her recurrent need to revisit the past, or her pursuit of modernity; the impact of the visual arts on her experiments as a writer; her interest in fashion and her “frock-consciousness”, as she called it; and the impact of the Spanish civil war on her increasingly politicised stance.

What I was not trying to do was to return the viewer to some fixed, definite view of Woolf. No such thing is possible: Woolf herself did much to unfix and unsettle identity, and to question the notion of a core self.

I wanted to convey not only her interest in mutability, but also her ability to cross boundaries and to mix genres. But above all I wanted to send readers back to her work, in pursuit of one of her novels or her two far-reaching political texts.

Frances Spalding is the guest curator of Virginia Woolf: Art, Life and Vision and a professor of art history at Newcastle University

The exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery, London, ends on 26 October