Virginia Woolf, Vanessa Bell, the maternal and photography


Photographs preserve relationships. Any photo album's sequencing of photographs creates meaning out of random events. In this respect, albums are memories constructed in the present, but the principles of selection, montage and tableau in albums are the skeleton of a story. Psychoanalytically speaking, albums are often a testimony to our unconscious pasts rather than the pasts we consciously choose to remember. All photographs are a language and Woolf's language was maternal. `She has haunted me', Woolf wrote many years after her mother Julia’s death at 49, when Woolf was 13. I will argue that the death of her mother gave Woolf a visual blueprint. In Moments of Being, Woolf describes how it was her mother's death that `made me suddenly develop perception'. Woolf’s sister, the artist Vanessa Bell, also used the maternal as a `framing-structure' in her paintings and photographs. As Andre Green argues, a child can project its feelings back onto the mother through `revivifying repetitions'. Vanessa’s paintings taught Woolf that representations can resist death. In 'Vanessa Bell', a review of her sister’s exhibition, Woolf spoke of `this strange painter’s world, in which mortality does not enter and psychology is held at bay'. The photomontages in both sisters’ albums similarly suggest the pressure of the ‘matrixial’, as Ettinger suggests. I will argue that both sisters 'refuse' their mother’s death by constantly revivifying the maternal in art.

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Humm, M., (2010) “Virginia Woolf, Vanessa Bell, the maternal and photography”, Studies in the Maternal 2(1), 1-9. doi:


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Maggie Humm



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