Still Life, Strange Lives: On a Painting by Vanessa Bell
A painting purchased some years ago with the help of the Friends and on display in the Friends Gallery stays in my mind. I cannot remember its title, so I’ll call it simply Still Life, with Sash Window. Just now, many of us are having to live strange lives, with plenty of time for gazing out of windows, but I doubt if any of us have a view quite as strange, yet strangely familiar, as the scene V. BELL (the italic capitals of her signature just legible in the corner) has painted here.
At first the picture seems straightforward. Close to a wide-open window stands a small table on which are positioned two bottles and an earthenware bowl. Behind the table something is propped against the wall, perhaps a canvas on a stretcher. Is this the artist’s studio, the objects on the table placed on what could be a superannuated palette?
The room appears to be high up: through the window the painter looks out and down on the roofs of much lower buildings. But here the difficulties begin, for the roof lines suggest the houses are crowding together at impossible angles, pressing up indeed against the wall of the studio. No less oddly, a great gabled chimney stack seems to have become dislodged and now hovers between two roofs, one thatched and one tiled. What creates this disturbance is the cascade of trees, huge green boulders tumbling down a hillside and colliding with the houses that stand in their way.
So, the two halves of the painting confront each other, the studio’s still life opposing the strange confusion outside. Actually, ‘observing’ would be more accurate than ‘opposing’: the two bottles, one a bouteille de vin with an orange-striped label and dainty neck, the other a grey broad-shouldered demijohn, stand like a couple, looking out. Isolated behind the window they wait, watching as the chaos comes ever closer: the orange ridge tiles of the nearest roof are even now edging above the windowsill.
How unexpectedly the artist speaks of our times!