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Reading: Virginia Woolf, Vanessa Bell, the maternal and photography


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Maternal Writing

Virginia Woolf, Vanessa Bell, the maternal and photography


Maggie Humm

About Maggie
Maggie Humm is a Professor of Cultural Studies, University of East London UK. She has been a Distinguished Visiting Scholar and Professor at many universities including Massachusetts, San Diego State, Stanford, Rutgers, Queen’s Belfast, and Karachi. Recent publications include Snapshots of Bloomsbury: the Private Lives of Virginia Woolf and Vanessa Bell (Rutgers and the Tate, 2006) and the Edinburgh Companion to Virginia Woolf and the Arts (Edinburgh University Press, 2010).
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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.
How to Cite: Humm, M., 2010. Virginia Woolf, Vanessa Bell, the maternal and photography. Studies in the Maternal, 2(1), pp.1–9. DOI:
Published on 01 Jan 2010.
Peer Reviewed


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