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1919 Virginia Woolf and Cocaine

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The first Academy Summer Exhibition after the end of the First World War simultaneously looked back at the great national tragedy of the war, and forward to a new era of fashion, fun, and social change. Reviewers traditionally used the occasion of the Summer Exhibition to reflect on the status of British art, and in 1919, such questions took on an even greater weight of diagnosis and prophecy. The gravity and scale of the upheaval, however, seemed to some commentators to be more than the art on view could support:

We are at a moment of climax in the world’s history, and, not unnaturally, have expected it to be accompanied by a turning-point in the world’s art. If … the present exhibition adequately represents what British art is at the present moment … we might come to the conclusion that things are much as they were—that the great wave of human passion, the great flame of destruction, had enveloped us and passed on, leaving but scant traces behind.1

The Exhibition seemed split between pictures that directly addressed the war and its after-effects, and pictures that seemed relics of an earlier age. The place of honour in Gallery III was given to John Singer Sargent’s massive war picture Gassed (Fig. 1). In the aftermath of a mustard gas attack, a line of blinded soldiers walks towards a medical tent, each holding the shoulder of the man before him in a sombre frieze-like composition, reminiscent of images of religious processions and allegories of the blind leading the blind. In what was a common assessment, The Morning Post critic praised the painting as the best in the show ethically, visually, and technically, and concluded “Art is of the greatest service to humanity when it commemorates noble deeds.”2

But there was an uneasy relationship between the gravity of this and other war subjects on view, and more mundane representations of modern life. In particular, Alfred Priest’s Cocaine struck some viewers as a trivial return to the concerns of an earlier era (Fig. 2). The Times called it an example of “the regular Academy subject-picture”, designed to engage spectators in speculation, linking it to the popular craze for “problem pictures” in the pre-war years.3 The scene of a young wife looking despairingly at the viewer over the slumped shoulders of her passed-out husband was an updated version of the shattered domestic idyll familiar from Victorian stories of fallen women and gambling men, and for some viewers, the issues it raised seemed trite in the face of the horrors of the war.4 But the larger question of art’s function—and the purpose of large national art exhibitions in a post-war world—exceeded this perceived dichotomy of subject matter.

Virginia Woolf’s review of the Academy Exhibition for The Athenaeum highlights these larger tensions. Woolf was a member of the Bloomsbury group with art critics Roger Fry and Clive Bell, both vocal champions of French Post-Impressionist painting, and so it is not surprising that she is critical of the Academy.5 Her attack, however, is not really aimed at the representational and narrative qualities of the work on view, as might be expected. Her real target is the kind of emotional and interpersonal work that paintings on view at the Exhibition requires, and the compulsory nature of that demand.

The essay is a fascinating and very unusual review of the Academy, which takes the form of an almost stream of consciousness recounting of the writer’s experience from entering the Exhibition to her final break into exhaustion.6 Evoking the “heated and romantic” state of mind the crowded entrance to Burlington House creates, Woolf begins her tour of the Academy by ventriloquising the various portraits that line the walls, imagining their conversation, relationships, and histories.7 She then turns to the subject pictures on view, focusing on Cocaine. After spinning a story about the picture, she pauses to reflect, “But the queer thing is that one wants to be her. For a moment one pretends that one sits alone, disillusioned, in pink satin.” The emotional whirlwind continues, “Every picture … seemed to radiate the strange power to make the beholder more heroic and more romantic; memories of childhood, visions of possibilities, illusions of all kinds poured down upon us from the walls.”8 And then she sees the Sargent, and her capacity to respond to the incessant emotional stimuli reaches its breaking point:

A large picture by Mr. Sargent called “Gassed” at last pricked some nerve of protest, or perhaps of humanity. In order to emphasize his point that soldiers wearing bandages round their eyes cannot see, and therefore claim our compassion, he makes one of them raise his leg to the level of his elbow in order to mount a step an inch or two above the ground. This little piece of over-emphasis was the final scratch of the surgeon’s knife which is said to hurt more than the whole operation. After all, one had been jabbed and stabbed, slashed and sliced for close on two hours … From first to last each canvas had rubbed in some emotion, and what the paint failed to say the catalogue had enforced in words.9

Overcome, Woolf flees.

The overwhelming scale of the Summer Exhibition had long been a source of complaint for critics tasked with reviewing it. But Woolf’s focus on the emotional toll of the viewing experience is unique—and somewhat tongue-in-cheek. Woolf’s language here suggests a protest against what she perceived as the overly prescriptive, maybe even manipulative, emotional effects of the pictures on view.

  1. Claude Phillips, “Royal Academy”, The Daily Telegraph, 3 May 1919, 9.↩︎

  2. “The Royal Academy”, The Morning Post, 3 May 1919, 9.↩︎

  3. “The Royal Academy II”, The Times, 5 May 1919, 18.↩︎

  4. Pamela Fletcher, “Narrative Painting and Visual Gossip at the Early Twentieth-Century Royal Academy”, Oxford Art Journal 32, no. 2 (2009): 253–255. Some viewers did connect the picture to the war, see Julia Skelly, “Advertising Masculine Vulnerability: Cocaine and Cigarettes after the First World War”, Visual Culture in Britain 14, no. 2 (2013): 179–198.↩︎

  5. Maggie Humm, “Editing Virginia Woolf and the Arts: Woolf and the Royal Academy”, in Eleanor McNees and Sara Veglahn (eds), Woolf Editing/Editing Woolf: Selected Papers from the Eighteenth Annual Conference on Virginia Woolf (Clemson, SC: Clemson University Digital Press, 2009), 154–159,↩︎

  6. Virginia Woolf, “The Royal Academy”, The Athenaeum, 22 August 1919, 774–776.↩︎

  7. Woolf, “The Royal Academy”, 774.↩︎

  8. Woolf, “The Royal Academy”, 775.↩︎

  9. Woolf, “The Royal Academy”, 776.↩︎

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Explore the 1919 catalogue