How Contemporary Art Responds to Virginia Woolf's Orlando

September 9, 2018

In 1928, the iconic book Orlando: A Biography by Virginia Woolf was published. It was a truly modern novel which embodied best the use of stream of consciousness as a narrative device. The plot was inspired by the family history of poet and novelist of aristocratic background Vita Sackville-West, who was Woolf’s lover and close friend.

During the 1970s, the second wave of feminism rediscovered and appropriated Orlando as a crucial work for understanding gender and sexuality outside of the constraints of heteronormativity. This staggering piece of literature has been attracting scholars from different areas and is a constant inspiration to various artists.

At the famous Charleston, a property belonging to Bloomsbury group to which Woolf belonged, an exciting exhibition entirely focused on the novel Orlando is open. Under the simple title Orlando at the present time, it celebrates ninety years since the book’s original publication and it encompasses works by various artists as well as archival materials related to it.

The exhibition tends to explore the historical background of the novel as well as to determine its relevance in contemporary society.

Zanele Muholi - Somnyama Ngonyama II, Oslo, 2015
Zanele Muholi - Somnyama Ngonyama II, Oslo, 2015. Photograph © Zanele Muholi. Courtesy of Stevenson, Cape Town/Johannesburg and Yancey Richardson, New York

The Story of Orlando

Orlando covers a tale of an Elizabethan nobleman who changes sex from man to woman and lives for centuries, meeting the most important proponents of English literary history along the way. It can be perceived a sort of a love letter Virginia Woolf wrote to Vita Sackville-West, since Woolf used many anecdotes from her life and articulated them in a satirical manner. The writer managed to use that material in order to comment on the omnipresent conservatism of British society and the complexities of social nonacceptance of homosexuality.

In late 1927, the writer noted in her diary:

And instantly the usual exciting devices enter my mind: a biography beginning in the year 1500 and continuing to the present day, called Orlando: Vita; only with a change about from one sex to the other.

In order to understand better the novel and Woolf’s agenda, it is important to point out that both Woolf and Vita Sackville-West were members of the Bloomsbury Group, which gathered writers, intellectuals, philosophers and artists in the first half of the 20th century. Although the group was never formal, the majority of the most active proponents lived in a form of a community; they rejected values proposed by the society and shared extremely radical views on politics and sexuality.

In such an environment, Woolf and Sackville-West started an affair which lasted ten years, after which they remained friends.

Left Paul Kindersley - Oh! Right Kaye Donachie - Our tears for smiles
Left: Paul Kindersley - Oh!, 2018. iPhone photographic print on vinyl © Paul Kindersley. Courtesy the artist and Belmacz / Right: Kaye Donachie - Our tears for smiles, 2018. Oil on linen © Kaye Donachie. Courtesy Maureen Paley, London

Orlando at the present time - An Exciting Installment

The selection for the exhibition at the Charleston begins with two commissions by artist Paul Kindersley, who interpreted the themes present in the novel in an exciting and contemporary way. As a matter of fact, he produced the featured image for the exhibition based on a 16th-century allegorical painting chosen by Woolf for the novel’s original dust jacket.

On the other hand, Delaine Le Bas was commissioned to create a reaction to two photographs initially published in the novel - The Russian Princess as a Child is a portrait of Angelica, a portrait of the daughter of Vanessa Bell, sister of Virginia Woolf, and Duncan Grant (members of the Bloomsbury group), taken in 1928 at their house in the South of France, and the one of Vita Sackville-West dressed in embroidered shawls and a large hat, and was made by Vanessa Bell under the title Orlando around the Year 1840. Le Bas reinterpreted these images and underlined the notions of exoticism and cultural appropriation.

Matt Smith will show two found and re-edited embroidered versions of 18th-century portraiture by examining the notions of identity and status, while Kaye Donachie will show two works which depict gender-fluid characters from Orlando.

The cardboard costume worn by Duncan Grant for his performance of the Spanish Dancer at a party at Charleston in 1936 will be displayed in order to accentuate the atmosphere of the property. For the first time in there decade on display will be fourteen plates by Vanessa Bell, telling the story of Orlando: A Biography, a commission from Lord Eccles in the 1930s.

A few pieces from the Charleston collection are selected for the exhibition - photographs of Woolf’s study at Monk’s House and Sackville-West’s study at Sissinghurst by Annie Leibovitz, which will represent how the practices of Woolf and Sackville-West are being constantly appropriated and honored by the queer artists.

Finally, the exhibition will be wrapped with one hundred photographs of Vanessa Bell and Virginia Woolf’s family demonstrating the stiff conventions of the Victorian period that both Orlando and Bloomsbury rebelled against.

Left Matt Smith - Pink Right Vanessa Bell - Angelica as the Russian Princess
Left: Matt Smith – Pink, 2017. Wool © Matt Smith. Courtesy Matt Smith / Right: Vanessa Bell - Angelica as the Russian Princess, photographed in the south of France, 1928. Photograph © Estate of Vanessa Bell courtesy of Henrietta Garnett. Courtesy The Charleston Trust

Orlando Contemporary Art at the Charleston

The novel influenced a number of theatre and movie directors; notable is a single-actor theatrical production from 1989 released by the legendary avant-garde director Robert Wilson, while the same piece is then redone in French and performed by Isabelle Huppert in 1993. Sandy Powell directed a feature film Orlando in 1992, and the curiosity is that the costumes worn by Tilda Swinton from the same will be included in the exhibition.

Surely, the novel is of great cultural and social importance and it not only articulates ingeniously the notions of gender, identity and class, but it also underlines the importance of subversiveness as the most fierce tool for the political fight. Finally, the overall impression is that this exhibition is an important contribution to the mapping of queer strategies in visual arts.

The exhibition is accompanied by a new publication issued by The Charleston Press and a research journal.

Orlando at the present time will be on display at Charleston located in West Firle until 6 January 2019.

  Editors’ Tip: Orlando

Orlando is generally considered Woolf's most accessible and influential novels. Concerning the 300 year life of a man born during the reign of Elizabeth I and his quest to write a great poem, having love affairs as both man and women against the backdrop of some of the most important moments in European history. This novel has been hugely influential stylistically and is still an important moment in literary history and particularly in women's writing and gender studies.

Featured image: Left: Artist unknown - Virginia Woolf, c. 1934. Photograph. Courtesy The Charleston Trust / Right: Original dust jacket for Orlando: A Biography. Courtesy The Charleston Trust