Arts · Emotions · Health

Great Women Artists

And how they transport me, and how they bring me home again

‘Without stopping to choose my way, in the sure and certain knowledge that it will find itself – or if not it will not matter – I begin: […]
‘It is more convenient artistically to suppose that we were going to St Ives, for that will lead to my other memory, which also seems to be my first memory, and in fact it is the most important of all my memories. If life has a base that it stands upon, if it is a bowl that one fills and fills and fills – then my bowl without a doubt stands upon this memory. It is of lying half asleep, half awake, in bed in the nursery at St Ives. It is of hearing the waves breaking, one, two, one, two, and sending a splash of water over the beach; and then breaking, one, two, one, two, behind a yellow blind. It is of hearing the blind draw its little acorn across the floor as the wind blew the blind out. It is of lying and hearing this splash and seeing this light, and feeling, it is almost impossible that I should be here; of feeling the purest ecstasy I can conceive.’ – Virginia Woolf, Sketch of the Past

I’ve used this quote on my blog before. I’ve written it out in more detail this time. I’ll gladly use it again. I think these might well be my favourite words ever put on a page. I certainly couldn’t conceive how pure the ecstasy was that I felt, when I read them again on the wall in the Tate St Ives last week, at the Virginia Woolf exhibition. I love these words so much, it almost felt like coming home.

It hadn’t been a happy day, up until that point. I love going to St Ives, but on that day it did not feel like mine, like the favourite place that it had previously been. It was glorious sunshine, a true promise of summer, there were people on the beach in their swimming costumes, and yet I was cold in my winter clothes, feeling as if I were an apparition projected from another world where the sun was not shining. I was in a lot of pain, and I was exhausted, and I was worried I wouldn’t be able to see – my photosensitivity has become much worse, it seems – so I was in foul mood and it was not until much later that I realised my brain fog was so stifling I was unable to say to anyone that I was struggling. We didn’t realise just how much bigger the Tate is with the new extension, we had not allowed enough time to look at everything, we had to rush through the exhibition. It was not an ecstatic day. And yet I felt it, just in that moment. This was why I wanted to come to the Tate in the first place – to be transported. There are few things that make me feel further from myself than getting lost in a really good painting, and on that day I wanted to be as far from myself as possible.

There was something else that had changed, in the Tate, and it was not until I had been through four galleries of Modern Art and St Ives and was well into the Virginia Woolf exhibition that I figured it out: there were so many works by women. I had never noticed before just how bloke-centric the Tate has previously been. It put me in mind of a Dior t-shirt I’ve seen in magazines and on social media, with the slogan ‘Why have there ben no great women artists?’ And yet there I was, transported by Marlow Moss, Romaine Brooks, Dora Carrington, Laura Knight, Wihelmina Barns-Graham – among many, many others. Not to mention the great Virginia Woolf herself, for surely it is not only painters and sculptors who can be called ‘artists’? The slogan comes from a 1971 essay by Linda Nochlin, and while she argued that there were no great women artists, because of the systems in place that had prevented any women artists from becoming great, 50 years later I feel confident that there are, and they are here.

I walk through the ‘Self in Public’ room, and these great women artists and their muses stare self-assuredly at me from the walls, and I seethe with envy. I would love to be self-assured, to write well enough for it to be called art, to flit between Cornwall and London and New York and Paris honing my craft. (It is important to point out, at this stage, that a lot of these artists were/are very rich.) I ask myself: where am I going to put my bowl, and when will I get to put some good stuff in it? (I forget that I answered this question in a blog post last year.)

It was only when I typed this Woolf quote out again today that I really noticed the blind for the first time. The blindness. Before, as I read, it had only gotten in the way of what was important: the water, the sun, the beach. I had even wondered whether to cut it out, when I typed out the quote for my previous post. But I trust Woolf. She wouldn’t put it in there if it wasn’t important. She implies in the lines beforehand that she is a very, very young child in this memory. So she is not free. Her life is regulated by her parents, or whoever is taking care of her, there is inescapable domesticity, and while it irks me, perhaps it makes her feel safe. Still, the blind seems to rock with the waves, the wind blows in, there is promise.

I am reading so much of myself into these words. How can I not? Isn’t that what we all do, when we read things we love? What is this light, I wonder, that she speaks as if it has always been there, yet she only mentions in the final sentence? Of course it has always been there, it is the silvery St Ives light, it is so clear and pure it hurts your eyes, it is not a metaphor, it is what has drawn so many artists here. And to me it is the sensitivity to light that I didn’t realise had increased so enormously until we went to the beach last weekend, on one of these first glorious days, and I couldn’t stand it. It hurt to look into the distance. It was like nothing I’d ever experienced, so when I went to St Ives, I had to wear sunglasses, I had to tint it and taint it, I did not get to see it after all. I, too, am not free. None of us are. The ecstasy is regulated; indeed, if it was ecstasy all the time, we would cease to be ecstatic. Still, I would very much like to be unhappy a little less.

There are very few things that could induce me to go back to studying English Literature academically again. But Woolf – Woolf is perhaps the only thing. She was, after all, my final essay that I completed in those last struggling weeks of my degree, my final beacon of a 70% amongst an increasing quagmire of 2:2. My proof that I could have done it, if only if only I had not been so ill.

‘I could spend hours trying to write that as it should be written, in order to give the feeling which is even at this moment very strong in me. But I should fail’.

I missed this bit, before, though it is the sentence straight after the quote above. She thought she could not capture the feeling; she decides she should not waste too much time trying. She does, however, tell us how she would paint the scene, were she a painter. There is no way of knowing exactly what she felt, but still I feel something, more than something, and as a very small aspiring ‘artist’, that seems to me an enormous achievement on Woolf’s part. I stand in the Tate and I look at shapes that are somewhere between abstract and real, and I recognise them instantly: it is the Cornish coastline. I’ve walked those cliffs before. I was there just the other day. For a few moments, I see the world through someone else’s eyes, eyes that see in different colours, eyes that are strained from different troubles, and still we have common ground.

I don’t know where I’m going to put my bowl. I thought I knew, but I’ve discovered I don’t want to decide yet. I don’t like what I’m putting into it right now, but what choice do I have? I cannot bring myself to write an optimistic one-day-I-will-get-better conclusion. I will say only that it is a warm day again today. I am wearing summer clothes this time. I will see what I can through my sunglasses.


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