Bloomsbury at Duke

October 1, 2008

Bloomsbury coterie: Lady Ottoline Morrell, Maria Huxley, Lytton Strachey, Duncan Grant, and Vanessa Bell, from left.

As incoming freshmen arrive on campus eager to begin their college careers this fall, the university will begin the academic year by celebrating the Bloomsbury group, an influential assortment of thinkers, writers, and artists that began 100 years ago, when many of the eventual members enrolled at Cambridge University. Diverse yet like-minded in their intellectual curiosity, these students, who included budding art critic Clive Bell, painter Duncan Grant, economist John Maynard Keynes, and novelists E.M. Forster and Virginia Woolf, regularly met to discuss everything from politics and economics to art and literature.
 
The Nasher Museum of Art will play a prominent role in a yearlong, campus-wide program about the Bloomsbury group that will culminate in an exhibit, "A Room of Their Own: The Bloomsbury Artists in American Collections," scheduled to open December 18 and run through April 5. Assembled in conjunction with Cornell University's Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art, the exhibit will include paintings, works on paper, decorative arts, and book arts borrowed from public and private collections throughout the U.S.
 
In keeping with the Bloomsbury Group's belief that "art should be wherever people live," the exhibit will feature a wide variety of different pieces such as clothing, mantelpieces, and lampshades that could be found in an average home.
 
Not all the art on display will be commonplace, though. Commissioned to paint three panels on the RMS Queen Mary, Grant created a twelve-by-twenty-foot depiction of a Spanish festival titled Seguidilla. The piece was eventually rejected and broken into four separate sections, but a newly restored section depicting a man with cymbals will be prominently displayed in the exhibit.

There's been significant interest in creating a Bloomsbury exhibit at the Nasher for the past few years, according to Craufurd Goodwin Ph.D. '58, James B. Duke Professor of economics, who has helped to organize both the exhibit and the programming that surrounds it. It became a reality when staff members at the Johnson Museum secured a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, and agreed to a collaboration with the Nasher.

Goodwin became interested in the Bloomsbury group after being asked to teach a freshman seminar on the topic. His students, he says, quickly became engaged with the material, and even continued to meet periodically as upperclassmen to discuss the group's work.

"Bloomsbury art essentially asks the question of how you want to live your life," he says. "I think that's why students relate so well with it. Basically, the artists were dealing with the same things—sexual identity, antiwar feelings, feeling of purpose, to name a few—that students today deal with."

Since then, he has published numerous articles and a book about Bloomsbury.

The Bloomsbury celebration kicks off September 16 with a panel discussion on the group's treatment of the issues of gender and sexuality. A presentation on the group's influence on concepts of empire and state and a discussion of "creative communities" follow in October and November.

After debuting at the Nasher, the exhibit will travel to Cornell's Johnson Museum and then to Northwestern University's Mary and Leigh Block Museum of Art, the Smith College Museum of Art, and the Palmer Museum of Art at the Pennsylvania State University.