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Unifying “Psychological Entities” and “Spatial Relations”: The Aesthetic Formalism of Vanessa Bell and Virginia Woolf

1 July 2021

Amber Jenkins, University of South Wales

Debates concerning the nature of form and representation are a particular point of focus for scholars of the Bloomsbury Group. Despite the increasing body of research that highlights the complex theories developed by its members,[1] the dominant notion of ‘Bloomsbury aesthetics’ is a theory of art committed to the intrinsic values of pure form rather than representation. This definition is largely based on the early work of Roger Fry, which, as Simon Watney suggests, was ‘founded upon the belief [… that] art is constantly restoring itself to a state of Edenic “purity”, which is to be identified by a concern with particular internal formal values.’[2] While Watney’s definition summarises the ideas outlined in Fry’s ‘An Essay in Aesthetics’ (1909), in his later work, Transformations (1926), Fry attempts to resolve the conflict between pure form and representation by finding a balance between ‘the psychological and plastic aspects of a picture.’[3] Yet Fry continues to take note of a division between the ‘aesthetic experience’ of art and that of ‘ordinary life’ because of the distinct ‘mental disposition’ required to negotiate them. He writes, ‘it is not impossible to draw a fairly sharp dividing line between our mental disposition in the case of esthetic [sic.] responses and that of the responses of ordinary life’.[4] Here, Fry suggests that the distinction between form and representation is a result of the latter’s evocation of everyday experiences, which leads to a response to visual art based on ‘ordinary’ human interests. Although in Transformations Fry attempts to find harmony between these two aspects of painting, the predominant art historical emphasis upon ‘pure’ or ‘significant form’ has obscured the complexity of Bloomsbury discussions about the representative elements of a work of art.[5] It has also contributed to a critical oversight of the alternative formalist theories developed by the women of Bloomsbury.

Throughout their creative work, and reflections on aesthetics, Vanessa Bell and Virginia Woolf display a commitment to unifying representation and form, as well as a shared concern for the human or social elements of art.[6] In their writings about their work, both sisters place an emphasis on art as dialogic and open to varying means of interpretation often founded upon personal, social and subjective experience. For Bell, painting is a space in which the artist can communicate emotional resonances. Bell’s works, according to Frances Spalding, ‘contain or reproduce feeling or sensitivity in such a way that others can share it.’[7] Although often reluctant to articulate her ideas in writing, Bell’s art offers an insight into her own aesthetic theories.[8] As Benjamin D. Hagen notes, Bell’s ‘paintings and designs visualize philosophical problems bound up with how and what we see’.[9] This emphasis on feeling and emotion also allows Bell to unify form and representation in her own theory of art. In a letter to Leonard Woolf in 1913, for example, she suggests that ‘great art’ can be inclusive of representation as long as it emphasises human emotion: ‘It is clearly possible to use imitation and representation […] but it can’t be the object of a great artist to tell you facts at the cost of telling you what he feels about them.’[10] In the same letter, Bell outlines her opinion that formal structures, like representational elements, can also convey emotion. Recalling a painting by Picasso, she notes: ‘I got quite a strong emotion from the forms and colours, but it wasn’t changed when weeks afterwards it was pointed out to me by chance that the blue was a lake […] we do first feel the emotion and then look at the picture[.]’[11]

With the representational elements of Picasso’s painting only becoming apparent to her after viewing it, Bell implies that the plastic elements of art (here forms and colours) can also achieve an emotional or psychological effect. For her, it is the effect of these psychological elements that is first perceived by a viewer regardless of whether it is conveyed through form or representation. Bell’s theory of aesthetics, based upon emotional significance, diverges from Fry’s claim that painting contains ‘two elements’ that must be read separately: ‘How can we keep the attention equally fixed on the spaceless world of psychological entities and relations and upon the apprehension of spatial relations?’ [12] For Bell, ‘emotion’ resolves the distinction between these elements by unifying ‘psychological entities’ (representative qualities) and ‘spatial relations’ (purely formal structures).

Like Bell, Woolf challenges the assumption that the purity of art is undermined by any reference to human or emotional concerns. The third section of To the Lighthouse (1927), for example, echoes Bell’s idea that emotion is central to the creation and reception of art. At this point in the novel, Woolf questions the purely inherent values of a work of art by demonstrating the emotional significance of memory in aesthetic expression. It is the memory of Mrs Ramsay that enables Lily Briscoe to complete her picture, and to unify the human and formal elements in her art. Faced with the ‘uncompromising white stare’ of the canvas, Lily is unable to relinquish feeling and emotion aroused from the past: ‘[H]er mind kept throwing up from its depths scenes, and names, and sayings, and memories and ideas, […] while she modelled it with greens and blues.’[13] Here, Woolf mirrors Bell’s ideas by emphasising the interplay between emotion and the plastic aspects of paint; she, therefore, enacts Bell’s emotional theory of aesthetics by centralising human and social feeling in the literary representation of the painting process. In To the Lighthouse, and in Bell’s writings about aesthetics, both sisters work to resolve the conflict between form and representation, by keeping ‘attention equally fixed’ on the emotional effects that can be achieved by both elements of a work of art.   

[1] For more on the complexity of these aesthetic theories and practices, see Maggie Humm, ‘Bloomsbury and the Arts’, in The Handbook to the Bloomsbury Group, ed. Derek Ryan and Stephen Ross(London: Bloomsbury, 2018), pp. 45-59 (p. 45). Jane Goldman details various theories of Post-Impressionism by members of the Bloomsbury Group and more generally in The Feminist Aesthetics of Virginia Woolf: Modernism, Post-Impressionism and the Politics of the Visual (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), pp. 124-37.

[2] Simon Watney, English Post-Impressionism (London: Studio Vista, 1980), p. 3.

[3] Roger Fry, Transformations (London: Chatto and Windus, 1926), p. 21.

[4] Ibid, p. 6.

[5] Christopher Reed discusses how the coopting of Fry’s theory of pure form in American post-war art criticism resulted in an ‘ideology strongly marked by patriarchal values: a penchant for hierarchization and the assumption of unchallengeable authority among critics, a model of isolated and antisocial creativity for artists and a bias towards art that emphasizes size and brawn[.]’ Reed, ‘Through Formalism: Feminism and Virginia Woolf’s Relation to Visual Aesthetics’, in The Multiple Muses of Virginia Woolf, ed. Diane F. Gillespie (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1993), pp. 11-35 (pp. 11-12). 

[6] There are, however, major exceptions to this in Bell’s series of abstract paintings from 1914-15, including Abstract Composition (1914) and Abstract Painting (c. 1914). Similarly, Woolf’s short fictions “BLUE. & GREEN.” (1921) refrain from the representation of human concerns. 

[7] Frances Spalding, Vanessa Bell (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1983), p. 204.

[8] The exception to this being her lecture given at Leighton Park School, which was later published in Sketches in Pen and Ink, ed. Lia Giachero (London: Bloomsbury, 1997).

[9] Benjamin D. Hagen, “Bloomsbury and Philosophy”, in The Handbook to the Bloomsbury Group, ed. Derek Ryan and Stephen Ross (London: Bloomsbury, 2020), pp. 135-50 (p. 143). 

[10] Vanessa Bell, Selected Letters, ed. Regina Marler (London: Bloomsbury, 1993), p. 133.

[11] Bell, Selected Letters, p. 133.

[12] Fry, Transformations, p. 23.

[13] Woolf, To the Lighthouse (London: Penguin, 2011), p. 174.

Image Credits

Image One:

Julian Bell; Vanessa Bell by Unknown photographer vintage snapshot print, 1910, NPG x136462 © National Portrait Gallery, London Creative Commons License.

Image Two:

Virginia Woolf by Lady Ottoline Morrell vintage snapshot, print, June 1926 NPG Ax142598 © National Portrait Gallery, London Creative Commons License.


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