- “One Drifts Apart”: To the Lighthouse as Art of Response
“. . . friendships, even the best of them, are frail things. One drifts apart.”
Describing her visit, in a letter to Duncan Grant in 1916, to the Omega Workshop founded by Roger Fry for the employment of artists and the development of Post-Impressionist style art and furniture, Virginia Woolf writes: “I was taken round by Roger . . . I was very much struck by his sensibility: he showed me minute patches of black, and scrapings of a sort of graining upon which the whole composition depended. And I believe it did too. Certainly, it is a most remarkable art.” 1 A year later in a letter to her sister after another visit to the Omega, Woolf admits that although she “only saw the Show in half light the other day,” she “got some quite strong feelings from it, good or bad.” Woolf even offends Fry on this occasion by suggesting that his “cold hard little compositions” are “literary” (2:195). Here Woolf may have been projecting onto Fry the association she would develop between the artistic and the literary in her own works. For example, in a letter to Fry in 1918, pleased with his praise of her story “The Mark on the Wall,” Woolf wonders if “a perverted plastic sense,” the notion of “plasticity” being part of Fry’s lexicon for “design,” “doesn’t somehow work itself out in words for me” (2:285). This opinion seems also to have been shared by Fry who, in a review of an exhibition of modern French art in the Athenaeum on August 9, 1919, declares, “I see, now that I have done it, that it was meant for Mrs. Virginia Woolf—that Survage is almost precisely the same thing in paint that Mrs. Virginia Woolf is in prose.” 2 Just over a year later the tide appears to be turning [End Page 78] slightly against Roger as Woolf, after attending an exhibit of “Negro sculpture” with Fry, appears to be less willing to accept blindly his aesthetic opinion, but continues nevertheless to see a correspondence between the work of the visual artist and her own literary production. She writes to Vanessa: “I went to see the carvings and I found them dismal and impressive, but heaven knows what real feeling I have about anything after hearing Roger discourse. I dimly see that something in their style might be written” (2:429).
The association between Woolf and Fry is well documented 3 and critics generally see in Woolf’s art a faithful representation in literature of Fry’s aestheticism. This essay attempts to revisit this assumption of a one-to-one correspondence between Woolf’s literary production and Fry’s artistic philosophy through a reading of Woolf’s masterpiece, To the Lighthouse, and through an examination of the influence on that work of the philosophy of G. E. Moore. Just as with Fry, critics have found in Woolf’s text resonances with Moore’s philosophy; 4 however, if we read To the Lighthouse as a dialogue between Woolf and Fry and Moore, rather than Woolf’s homage or tribute to the two men, the novel opens itself up to a new interpretation: as Woolf’s philosophical and artistic response to—and not, as many have suggested, an unequivocal adoption of—that tradition of philosophy espoused by Moore, and that theory of aesthetics promulgated by Fry. The dialogue between Woolf and these, what we might call, aesthetic philosophers can be seen to compose yet another of the Lighthouse’s “opposed masses,” but in this case it is an external rather than an internal opposition we are speaking of as the novel itself comes to be produced in the conversation between Woolf and Fry and Moore.
Woolf’s association with Fry began initially in 1910 as a result of Fry’s professional relationship with Clive Bell and his later intimate one with Vanessa Bell (Quick, pp. 550–51), and subsequently through Leonard Woolf’s involvement as the secretary to Fry’s second Post-Impressionist Exhibition in 1912 (2:10n). As Fry’s involvement with Bloomsbury grew, he and Woolf formed an intense professional and intellectual...