“Do you think we have the same pair of eyes, only different spectacles?” (L6 158).
This very well-known question, posed by Virginia Woolf to Vanessa Bell, is not a simple one. Issues of how the arts and the visual in general were perceived, and employed, by the sisters, bear heavily on all their auto/biographical encounters. Reading Virginia's accounts of art, particularly descriptions of her sister's art, is also to read a palimpsest of Virginia's anxious feelings about self representation. This is of particular importance in any examination of modernist writing since, although modernist literature was initially characterised as a movement from outside to inside (Meisel), new modernism is a continuum of theories about representations of subjectivity in both visual and narrative practices.
Woolf, as we know, had an “abiding obsession” with autobiography, just as the autobiographical “is never far from the surface of modernist writing” (Albright 1, Saunders 12). Woolf's own inter-weavings of the autobiographical with narrative have been the focus of many critics, although this epistemic community has mutated over the years. Woolf certainly places the subjectivity of the narrator/Woolf at the heart of her critical writings. I would argue that Woolf's haptic selfis most prominent in her accounts of her sister Vanessa Bell's art. Virginia Woolf's writings on art of ten create a kind of prosopopoeia – coming to know herself, her identity, by constructing figures of artists and artistic events, for example in “The Royal Academy” (1919). But while “The Royal Academy” shows Woolf abjecting her fears, her writings on Vanessa show Woolf constructing a more complex identity. From the momentary rupture in Woolf's description of Vanessa in “Reminiscences”(1976), to the very brief “It is strange as one enters the Mansard Gallery…” (1924), and to the “Foreword to Recent Paintings of Vanessa Bell” (1930), Woolf ';s empathetic understandings of Vanessa's art, reveal Woolf's developing sense of “being.”
Woolf did, after all, entitle her autobiography “A Sketch of the Past” (1976), the piece was written at Vanessa's request: “Nessa said that if I did not start my memoirs I should soon be too old,” and “A Sketch” foregrounds Woolf's aestheticizing of life events (MOB 64). Just as in “A Sketch,” Woolf's art writings address the issue of the self's representation.