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  • Writer's pictureGabi Heptinstall

Virginia Woolf and Bloomsbury: Inventing Life

On February 12th, 2023, The Bloomsbury exhibition in the National Roman Museum closed after opening to the public late October last year. The exhibit’s five rooms included copies of Virginia Woolf’s works from the time they were published and paintings from the National Portraits Gallery in London. Each room was fashioned to tell a different part of the story of the Bloomsbury group, including how Woolf got her start and the coming together of key literary and artistic figures of the time.

There was historical information about the Bloomsbury group and the lessons they learned from their experiences written in Italian and English. Many of the paintings loaned by the National Portraits Gallery in London had never left England until this exhibition, which made the experience all the more unique.

The first section was titled “Virginia Woolf: A Room of One’s Own.” This was a reference to her famous essay and a reflection of her determination to create mental, physical, and metaphysical spaces for her passions and feminist ideas.

“Society is the happiness of life” was the second section. Based on a quote from Shakespeare’s Love’s Labour’s Lost, this room aimed to express the happiness the Bloomsberries (which included Virginia Woolf, Vanessa Woolf, Thoby Stephen, Duncan Grant, Clive Bell, Roger Fry, Leonard Woolf, Lytton Strachey, and John Maynard Keynes) felt through their creative collaboration and focus on making valuable human relationships. Virginia Woolf, along with many other intellectuals listed above, used Bloomsbury as their space to invent the modern novel and modern art.

The exhibit shows the importance of collaboration and finding a supportive community through Bloomsbury’s story. During the Victorian Era, it was easy to get caught in bourgeois egoism and social conformity as members of the middle and upper classes. However, the Bloomsberries wanted a space where men and women could engage with their talents, knowledge, and creativity as an escape from class constraints.

The exhibit expressed that “Bloomsbury’s revolution would subvert ethical, aesthetic, and political paradigms.” While a work of literature or the arts may sprout from personal or even private emotions, it is nurtured best in good company. Most importantly, it grows in a space all one’s own that was made to cultivate its prosperity.

The second section featured short biographies of the Bloomsberries, along with portraits and sketches from the National Portraits Gallery in London.

Next, “The Hogarth Press: the printers and the authors” displayed early essays and memoirs of Virginia Woolf, Leonard Woolf, E. M. Forster, and Roger Fry. This third section along with the fourth section titled “Hogarth Press books in Italy” represented when the Woolfs set up their publishing enterprise in 1915.

Virginia Woolf struggled with bipolar disorder, which led to other mental health complications; the printing press, according to one of Leonard Woolf’s memoirs, was intended to act as occupational therapy. It became a showcase of Virginia and Leonard Woolf’s best works (along with pieces by their close friends) and a project of making brilliant literature monetarily accessible.

The final section of the exhibition was “Roger Fry and Post-Impressionism.” It focused on Roger Fry’s creation of a contemporary art exhibit in the Grafton Galleries. He referred to all of the pieces he collected (which included paintings by Cézanne, Gauguin, Van Gogh, Rouault, Derain, Picasso, Manet, and Matisse) as “post-impressionist.” Fry received a lot of negative push-back in England because the gallery featured a new art style, however, they were monetarily successful since even those who hated post-impressionist art paid only to curse at the artwork.

The “art-quake” caused by the emergence of post-impressionist art, specifically works by Cézanne, inspired Virginia Woolf to write Jacob’s Room, Mrs. Dalloway, and To the Lighthouse.

“Virginia Woolf and Bloomsbury: Inventing Life” was created and curated by Nadia Fusini partnered with Luca Scarlini– both talented writers and experts in their fields– and was intended to tell the story of the Bloomsbury group’s extraordinary friendship. It not only accomplished its intended goal but also inspired viewers of the exhibition across the world.

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