Charleston’s opening exhibition, ‘Orlando at the present time’, brought together contemporary artistic responses to Virginia Woolf’s landmark novel Orlando: A Biography, and marked 90 years since the novel’s original publication. Works by artists including Kaye Donachie, Paul Kindersley, Delaine Le Bas and Matt Smith appeared alongside rarely seen letters, photographs and objects pertaining to the original publication of the novel.
The exhibition, which took place in Charleston’s new Wolfson Gallery, followed the narrative of Virginia Woolf’s 1928 novel, Orlando: A Biography. This novel tells the tale of an Elizabethan nobleman through a narrative which covers 400 years of history, exploring themes of gender, sexuality and identity. ‘Orlando at the present time’ examined the historical background to the novel, while considering its relevance and resonance in contemporary society, through an engaging display of historical and contemporary artworks, costumes, archival evidence and new commissions.
Paul Kindersley (b. 1985) brought Orlando into the present with two commissions, utilising his unique visual imagination to dissect the themes and feelings of the book and represent them in exciting and engaging ways. Like the spontaneous manipulation of the everyday and found objects used by the Bloomsbury group in their art and play, Paul transformed the mundane into the magical. Paul created the lead image for ‘Orlando at the present time’, a reinterpretation of a 16th century allegorical painting (destroyed in the Blitz) chosen by Woolf for the novel’s original dust jacket. Delaine Le Bas (b. 1965) was commissioned to respond to two photographs published in Orlando: A Biography. The first, ‘The Russian Princess as a Child’, was a portrait of Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant’s daughter Angelica, taken in the 1928 at their house in the South of France. The second, ‘Orlando around the Year 1840’, shows Vita Sackville-West dressed in embroidered shawls and a large hat in a photograph by Vanessa Bell. Both images interested Le Bas for the way they borrowed from and manipulated other cultures. Her Romany background informs much of her work, and Le Bas was struck by Woolf’s insightful descriptions of gypsy life and culture and Orlando’s responses to it. Her photographic response engaged with notions of exoticism and cultural appropriation.
Other contemporary works in ‘Orlando at the present time’ included pieces by Matt Smith and Kaye Donachie. In a departure from Smith’s ceramic work, two found and re-purposed embroidered interpretations of 18th-century portraiture questioned notions of identity and status. Two works by Kaye Donachie sat alongside historic paintings, both gender-fluid characters from Orlando, highlighting the subtle androgyny of Donachie’s quiet but resolute portraits. The exhibition also included original costumes, designed by Sandy Powell and worn by Tilda Swinton in the 1992 film – ‘Orlando’, directed by Sally Potter. The exhibition also featured several pieces from the Charleston collection including photographs by Annie Leibowitz of Woolf’s study at Monk’s House and Sackville-West’s study at Sissinghurst, demonstrating the continued fascination on the part of a number of queer artists with Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville-West.
100 studio photographs of Vanessa Bell and Virginia Woolf’s’ family demonstrated the stiff conventions and buttoned up oppressions of the Victorian period that both Orlando and Bloomsbury fought against. One of the curiosities in the exhibition was Vita Sackville-West’s mother’s copy of Orlando: A Biography; filled with annotations and damnations of Woolf, it illustrates her attempts to besmirch Orlando in order to quell rumours about the unconventional marriage of her daughter and son-in-law.
Also on display was Duncan Grant’s cardboard costume for his performance of the Spanish Dancer at a party at Charleston in 1936, exquisitely described by Vanessa Bell: “I have never seen anything quite so indecent. He has made himself a figure in cardboard of a nude female, which is none too securely attached by tapes to his own figure, and then he wears a simpering mask, a black wig and Spanish comb and mantilla, which partly conceals and reveals the obscene figure, while a Spanish air is played on the gramophone and Duncan flirts gracefully with a fan. I can’t imagine what the audience will think of it.” Vanessa Bell, 29 August 1936.
On public display for the first time in 30 years, were also 14 plates decorated by Vanessa Bell, telling the story of Orlando: A Biography, a commission from Lord Eccles in the 1930s.
The exhibition was accompanied by a new publication, The Charleston Press and a research journal.
‘Faces and Phases’ is an ongoing series of black-and-white photographic portraits by Zanele Muholi, commemorating and celebrating black lesbian and transgender experiences. Describing the project, Muholi has said that ‘Faces and Phases’ is an “insider’s perspective that both commemorates and celebrates the lives of the black queers I have met in my journeys. I set out to establish relationships with them based on a mutual understanding of what it means to be a black member of the LGBTQIA+ community today.” ‘Faces and Phases’ was displayed in 2018 in Charleston’s South Gallery.