Girl Reading

A few months ago, I was approached by Beth Batton, a curator at the Mississippi Museum of Art (MMA), about the possibility of my giving a talk about a work in their collection: Vanessa Bell’s lithograph of a Girl Reading.

Vanessa Bell, Girl Reading

I immediately accepted the invitation, which came as a very pleasant surprise: pleasant because, though I’ve now lived in Mississippi for seven years and am an employee of the state, I have yet to talk at its museum of art; and a surprise because I had no idea they owned a work by Vanessa Bell, even though I’ve written quite extensively about Bell and her work as a printmaker. Perhaps the curators of the recent show A Room of Their Own: Bloomsbury Artists in American Collections were also unaware of the work. At any rate, it didn’t appear in that excellent exhibition.

My preliminary research, in fact, has only turned up one brief mention of the lithograph–it is included (though not reproduced) in Tony Bradshaw’s The Bloomsbury Artists: Prints and Book Design.

And apart from some basic facts about its provenance, MMA’s file devoted to the work is entirely bereft of information.

I’m perhaps most excited about the format of the talk. (If you live in the area, it’s on December 7, 2010.) It’s part of the museum’s Unburied Treasures series, which typically features a program consisting of some live music, a literary reading, and a talk. Each relates to the same object in the museum’s collection.

I’m going to be providing the second and third elements, but Beth asked me if I could think of any appropriate music to accompany the print. One of my suggestions was Philip Glass’s music for The Hours, the film based on Michael Cunningham’s novel. What could be better? The Hours is about more than just the difficulties and rewards of creation; it also treats the transformative power of reading, of a woman reading. (I’ll put to one side my reservations about the film: its depiction of Vanessa Bell, for example.)

So I’m feeling inspired, and a little daunted, by the prospect of having to follow a concert pianist (Lynn Raley) playing this.  (Perhaps we should swap places. Then I, not the pianist, could perform the more modest sounding role of the warm-up act.) And I’m looking forward to finding out more about the work and to sharing my findings in Jackson this December. I should be able to hand Beth something to fatten up that file a little, and I’ll certainly be giving my audience a firm answer to one basic question raised by the print. Just who is this “girl reading”?