“On or about December 1910 human character changed,” Virginia Woolf once famously said. If this statement be true, we have Roger Fry to thank for that. Woolf’s bold announcement came in the wake of her visiting an art exhibition in London called Manet and the Post-Impressionists, which introduced to the British public the art of Gaugin, Manet, Matisse, and Van Gogh, a group of then-modern artists whose art shared similarities in technique, theme and style but lacked a unifying group name until Fry coined the term Post-Impressionist to define them.
Roger Fry (1866-1934), as I’ve come to discover, lived an extraordinary, accomplished life: painter, art critic, curator, editor, teacher, mentor of the Bloomsbury Group, but in spite of the important things he achieved in these diverse roles, Fry, the only man ever to have his biography written by Virginia Woolf, is all but forgotten nowadays.
His paintings are probably not as well remembered as the paintings of the revolutionary artists he promoted and taught the British public to admire, but perhaps his most important cultural legacy was his ability to discuss, explain, inspire passion, and influence the taste, for art. Nothing demonstrates that better than his enduring classic book on art criticism, Vision and Design, still in print after its release in 1920. Collecting short articles Fry wrote over the course of two decades, the book is a monument to the scope of his erudition, to the elegance of his writing, and to the versatility of his tastes. In just less than 250 pages, Fry writes about: Bushman art, African sculpture, Native American art, Muslim art; Giotto, El Greco, Albrecht Dürer, William Blake; Paul Cézanne, Renoir, Jean Marchand, Aubrey Beardsley; kitsch, the role of the artist in a socialist state, Victorian curios, the relationship between art and science, art and realism, the rising phenomenon of art collecting as outward affirmation of social status rather than taste, and the commercialization of art.
It’s a remarkable book, but so vast I need a handful of posts to do it justice. Let us start with the opening paragraph of the first article, “Art and Life,” which offers the reader much to ponder:
When we look at ancient works of we habitually treat them not merely as objects of aesthetic enjoyment but also as successive deposits of the human imagination. It is indeed this view of works of art as crystallized history that accounts for much of the interest felt in ancient art by those who have but little aesthetic feeling and who find nothing to interest them in the work of their contemporaries, where the historical motive is lacking, and they are left face to face with bare aesthetic values.
It is important to stress that Fry was a proponent of art for art’s sake and the artist’s autonomy from social or political responsibilities. He also didn’t believe the visual arts as mere imitation of reality but as the representation of the artist’s inner life, his vision. He was also very much against the modern Philistines. He lambasts the modern magnates who accumulate collections of art without having sufficient good taste to appreciate them, for whom ‘art was merely a help to an imagined dream life’ which these serious, orderly businessmen no doubt imagine the bohemian life of artists to be. Surrounding oneself with art is also a form of leaving one’s period, and its dreariness, to slip into another era, or at least an era as it is imagined and captured by art, although to those who consume art the difference is but little. “Thus we picture our Middle Ages as almost entirely occupied with religion and war, our Renaissance as occupied in learning, an our eighteenth century as occupied in gallantry and wit,” sneers Fry. The truth is these things occurred in all eras, although for some reason art captures only an atmosphere, what he calls the ethos of a period.
He also challenges the accepted version that historical changes in life and art work in harmony. Fry makes a small survey of historical periods in order to debunk the assumption that one mirrors the other and vice-versa, with the notable exception of the Renaissance, which had a ‘true correspondence between the change in life and the change in art.”
For once then art and the other functions of the human spirit found themselves in perfect harmony and direct alliance, and to the harmony we may attribute much of the intensity and self-assurance of the work of the great Renaissance artists. It is one of the rarest good fortunes for an artist to find himself actually understood and appreciated by the mass of his educated contemporaries, and not only that, but moving alongside of and in step with them towards a similar goal.
And what was this correspondence between life and art? It was a change ‘towards the recognition of the rights of the individual, towards complete self-realization and the recognition of the objective reality of the material world which implied the whole scientific attitude,” writes Fry, reminding the reader that these first scientists were also artists knowledgeable about mathematics, geometry, anatomy, and more. How different from the art buyers of Fry’s time, the rich stockholders who bought art not as ends in themselves but as signs of their affluence. Perhaps for this reason art had to fight back with obscurity, and Fry also notices the widening disconnection between art and life in his time: “the artist of the new movement is moving into a sphere more and more remote from that of the ordinary man. In proportion as art becomes purer the number of people to whom it appeals gets less. It cuts out all the romantic overtones of life which are the usual bait by which men are induced to accept a work of art. It appeals only to the aesthetic sensibility, and that in most men is comparatively weak.”
This perhaps helps explains how Victorian art, just a few years after its twilight, became much desired by collectors, how an era that recently finished had lost all its vital texture and settled in a generalized image in the minds of people, meaning it had stopped being a real period to become one where its objects and utensils, remove of their utilitarian purposes, could be seen as works of art, or ‘art,’ better known as kitsch.
We have just got to this with the Victorian epoch. It has just got its vague and generalized Stimmung. We think as we look at Leech’s drawings, or sit in a beadwork chair, of a life which was the perfect flower of bourgeoisie. The aristocracy with their odd irregular ways, the Meredith heroines and heroes, are away in the background; the Victorian life is of the upper bourgeoisie. It is immensely leisured, untroubled by social problems, unblushingly sentimental, impentitently unintellectual, and devoted to sport. The women are exquisitely trained to their social functions: they respond unfailingly to every sentimental appeal; they are beautifully ill-informed, and yet yearning for instruction; they have adorable tempers and are ever so mildly mischievous. The men can afford, without fear or impish criticism, to flaunt their whiskers in the sea breeze, and to expatiate on their contempt for everything that is not correct.
This in turn results in a renewed interest in all things Victorian, without the least consideration about whether they are art or not. Drawings, figurines, beadwork, glasswork, tiles, furniture, anything that exhales a whiff of Victorianess sees its value reinterpreted in artistic importance. “All that is necessary is that they should have some margin of freedom from utility, some scope for the fancy of their creators. And the Victorian epoch is, I think, unusually rich in its capacity for emanation, for it was the great period of fancy work.” Thus the new class of art collectors could sate their hunger for art without having to deal with the unpleasantness and strangeness of real art, since a ready-made substitute existed full. How exasperating it must have been for Fry, trying to educate the public about the Post-Impressionists, and being surrounded by these people.
Next time, Fry, with the help of Leo Tolstoy, discusses the meaning of art.