The nineteenth century gave rise to a veritable explosion of ‘isms’- post impressionism, imagism, surrealism, cubism. Collectively all movements revolutionised form, style and subject matter in almost all artistic genres. Pablo Picasso’s Analytic and Synthetic Cubist movement suggested to writers new ways of constructing both narrative and character as composites, as not singular but an assembly of fragments. Peter Child concisely depicts Cubism: ‘the Cubist aimed to show several sides to the object, maybe from five or six angles, and, because they dispensed with fixed perspective, the Cubists did not paint to size’ (Literature, 597). This artistic technique echoes that of Lily Briscoe. She is a post- impressionist, preoccupied with the ‘shape’ and form of her art, rather than with realistic detail. She explains to William Bankes: ‘no one could tell it for a human shape. But she had made no attempt at likeness.’ Rather, Lily is absorbed in ‘the relations of masses, of light and shadows.’ Her artistic ideals are for the underlying form and inner truth, the fundamental arrangement of fragments and subsequent problems of balance. ‘She would move the tree rather more to the middle’- this was her greatest concern. There are moments in Woolf’s writing where distinctions between words and image, the page and canvas, blur, to the point where each dissolves into the other and, figuratively speaking, a written portrait is created on the page.
For example, consider the first of two scenes in Mrs Dalloway’s drawing room. Here she is freed from both the influences of another and the constraints of society. However, in this isolated space Clarissa is at her most vulnerable. Imminent fears of age and death begin to encroach upon her, as she is ‘plunged’ by ‘icy claws’ into ‘her fifty second year’. This idea could be argued to find its visual representation in Pablo Picasso’s ‘Weeping Woman’. Woolf employs a multitude of binary opposites in an attempt to expose the tensions that exist between the complete and the incomplete, the fragmented and the ‘fixed’ sense of self. The juxtaposing of the words ‘whole’ and ‘incompatible’, ‘transfixed’ and ‘falling’ encourages a disjuncture and jarring effect. This is exaggerated more so when the reader learns that Clarissa is ‘mending’ her dress. The image of Clarissa darning the ‘tear’ with ‘needle’ and ‘thimble’ in hand, serves to reiterate further the underlying tensions between the broken and repaired.
Although Picasso’s ‘Weeping Woman’ was not completed until 1937, some years after Mrs Dalloway was published, the connections between the two should not be overlooked. Woolf’s depiction of Clarissa and Picasso’s ‘Weeping Woman’ are at once strongly connected, and emblematic of their time. Picasso quotes, with reference to his work: ‘I was just obeying a vision that forced itself upon me; it was a deep reality, not the superficial one’. Clarissa too discovers her ‘deep reality, not the superficial one’ in the reflection projected from the glass mirror. It is a physical image composed of ‘incompatible’ ‘parts’. This can be directly compared to the angular and incongruous shapes which create an overriding sense of disarray and confusion in Picasso’s piece. Both women, the illustrated and the fictional, desperately seek to impose a reigning sense of order over a self which refuses to be controlled.
Clarissa ‘pursed her lips when she looked in the glass’ ‘assembling that diamond shape, that single person.’ Similarly, the ‘Weeping Woman’ holds a ‘diamond shape’ handkerchief to her mouth. It could be suggested that she is consuming the ‘pointed; dart-like; definite’ handkerchief for the same reason Clarissa allows her figure to be engulfed by the glass mirror. Both characters are hungry to be ‘one centre’ and ‘one woman.’ The impossibility of this is subtly highlighted in the very object Clarissa relies upon to assert order over herself. It is perhaps the perfect irony that Clarissa attempts to assemble her ‘parts’ before a ‘glass mirror’. This is an object commonly associated with fragility and temporality. In the same way the mirror could shatter into one thousand pieces at any given moment, we are encouraged to perceive her vision of the self as a ‘whole’ an impossible one.
The question is: what prompted Woolf, Picasso and quite broadly speaking ‘The Modernists’ to become so entirely preoccupied by the divided nature of the self? Without doubt, The First World War acted as a potent catalyst. The fundamental feeling of explosion and subsequent destruction pervading England pushed images and symbols of fragmentation to the forefront of one’s mind. London metaphorically became a war-torn canvas, from which all artists on a mass scale could now draw their inspiration. D.H Lawrence depicts the harsh realities: ‘the spirit of the old London collapsed, the city, in some way, perished, perished from being a heart of the world, and became a vortex of broken passions, lusts, hopes and fears and horrors’ (Literature, 559- 560). Lawrence effectively employs the word ‘vortex’ in his depiction which is defined as: ‘a whirling, rotating mass of fluid - a whirlpool’. Europe was no longer hospitable to the imagination, in fact, it was culturally dying, a mere whirlpool inhibited by matter not substance. Subsequently, Woolf was suddenly forced to make a ‘scientific examination of her canvas’. She must follow in the footsteps of the scientist by analyzing her matter and then synthesizing it back together.