Friday, 8 March 2013

Cézanne's Outbursts, Blake's Phenomenon, Beardsley's Perversions

This final post on Roger Fry has less purpose and structure than the previous ones. Before I latched onto overarching themes in Vision and Design. Now I just intend to regale the reader with a few passages from this critic’s opinions on three famous artists. When it came to sitting in judgement on visual artists, Fry, a painter himself, did so with the authority of a life-long study of the history of world art, and he doled out praise and censure with the same assuredness, untroubled about offending sacred cows.

Being ignorant as I am of William Blake and the way his paintings and engravings were received in the past, I don’t know where Fry’s article on him can be situated, but he’s the oldest art critic I know who admired and promoted his work to a large audience:

There assuredly never was a more singular, more inexplicable phenomenon than the intrusion, as though by direct intervention of Providence, of this Assyrian spirit into the vapidly polite circles of eighteenth-century London. The fact that, as far as the middle classes of England were concerned, Puritanism had for a century and a half blocked every inlet and outlet of poetical feeling and imaginative convictions save one, may give us a clue to the causes of such a phenomenon. It was the devotion of Puritan England to the Bible, to the Old Testament especially, that fed such a spirit as Blake’s directly from the sources of the most primeval, the vastest and most abstract imagery which we possess. Brooding on the vague and tremendous images of Hebrew and Chaldean poetry, he arrived at such indifference to the actual material world, at such an intimate perception of the elemental forces which sway the spirit with immortal hopes and infinite terrors when it is most withdrawn from its bodily conditions, that what was given to his internal visions became incomparably more definite, more precisely and more clearly articulated, than anything presented to his senses.

As those who have read my previous posts will know by now, Roger Fry opposed the view that art should be representative, that is, imitative of nature, or concerned with realism. Obviously Blake’s art was especially dear to him because it supported his own views. “Blake’s art indeed is a test case for our theories of aesthetics. It boldly makes the plea for art that it is a language for conveying impassioned thought and feeling, which takes up the objects of sense as a means to this end, wing them no allegiance and accepting from them only the service that they can render for this purpose.” Blake’s art, like his poetry, lived in its unique, autonomous world, and was anything but realistic, in theme, forms and proportions. In fact, Blake’s strange method of colouring, where colours and objects did not match our everyday assumptions, is not unlike the revolution carried forth by Fry’s Post-Impressionists.

Fry wasn’t just about praising though. He has a fascinating article on Albrecht Dürer that is quite balanced on praise and criticism, with Fry convinced the famous German engraver was a bit overrated. But his article on Aubrey Beardsley is my favourite putdown from the book. Fry seems to grudgingly acknowledge this decadent artist’s talent while simultaneously condemning him for his ‘perversion,’ a slur he repeats too often for my liking.

His style was constantly changing in accidentals, but always the same in essentials. He was a confirmed eclectic, borrowing from all ages and all countries. And true eclectic and genuine artist as he was, he converted all his borrowings to his own purposes. It mattered nothing what he fed on; the strange and perverse economy of his nature converted the food into a poison.

Fry chastises Beardsley for using everything in order to further his art of corruption and decay, which seems like an unfair thing to do to a man who clearly had no interest in art but to drawn grotesque and erotic figures of women. But Fry disagrees on Beardsley’s personal narrowness of theme.

The eighteenth century, China, Japan, even the purest Greek art, all were pressed into his service; the only thing he could do nothing with was nature itself. Here he was entirely at a loss, and whenever he yielded to the pressure of contemporary fashions and attempted to record impressions of things seen, as in the topical illustrations of plays which he contributed to the Pall Mall Magazine, he failed to be even mediocre. Everything that was to be the least expressive had to come entirely from within, from the nightmares of his own imagination.

This is unfair indeed coming from Fry, who spends so much time defending art from imitation and representation and promoting it as the singular vision of the artist. It’s like he makes a 180 degree turn here. Also his grievances seem to stem from a lingering Puritanism over Beardsley’s sexual themes, which is ironic considering Fry spends so much time deriding the repressiveness of Victorian epoch in other articles. He makes an interesting remark, however, which I think worth thinking about:

But if we are right in our analysis of his work, the finest qualities of design can never be appropriated to the expression of such morbid and perverted ideals; nobility and geniality of design are attained only those who, whatever their actual temperaments, cherish these qualities in their imagination.

This is a curious and thought-provoking passage. What is the link between nobility and geniality? And does one really need to have this nobility Fry speaks of in order to be an artist? I personally disagree but it’d be interesting to know what others think. Artists, it has to be said, are not good people, in fact they’re downright spiteful, childish and sometimes just evil. Which brings me to his panegyric of Paul Cézanne:

In a society which is as indifferent to works of art as our modern industrialism it seems paradoxical that artists of all kinds should loom so large in the general consciousness of mankind – that they should be remembered with reverence and boasted of as national assets when statesmen, lawyers, and soldiers are forgotten. The great mass of modern men could rub along happily enough without works of art or at least without new ones, but society would be sensibly more bored if it the artist died out altogether. The fact is that every honest bourgeois, however sedate and correct his life, keeps a hidden and scarce-admitted yearning for that other life of complete individualism which hard necessity or the desire for success has denied him. In contemplating the artist he tastes vicariously these forbidden joys. He regards the artist as a strange species, half idiot, half divine, but above all irresponsibly and irredeemably himself. He seems equally strange in his outrageous egoism and his superb devotion to an idea.

When he properly starts talking about Cézanne, he paints a remarkable, if frightening, figure:

In one very important detail Cézanne was spared by life – he always had enough to live on. The thought of a Cézanne having to earn his living is altogether too tragic. But if life spared him in this respect his temperaments spared him nothing – for this rough Provençal countryman had so exasperated a sensibility that the smallest detail of daily life, the barking of a dog, the noise of a lift in a neighbouring house, the dread of being touched even by his own son might produced at any moment a nervous explosion. At such times his first relief was in cursing and swearing, but if this failed the chances were that his anger vented itself on his pictures – he could cut one to pieces wit his palette knife, or failing that roll it up and throw it into the stove.

That artists are no better or worse than mere mortals is no surprise to me, almost anyway, sometimes I’m still blinded by the notion of artists as great, magnificent, superior men, forgive me, but I never cease to relish at the infinity of their ways of being strange, unpleasant, rude and misanthropic. 

My journey with Roger Fry must end here so I can move on to other things. I just wish to repeat that reading this book was a tremendous pleasure. I kept it on my shelves for some eight years, shuffling it around from time to time, before I finally opened it to give it a serious reading, and I was pleasantly surprised. For those who love elegant prose or are interested in aesthetics or visual arts, Vision and Design is a worthwhile classic.


  1. Great commentary Miguel - That quote about nobility and geniality is indeed an interesting one to focus upon. I agree that it is off base, if we restricted ourselves to only appreciating art created by people who displayed such characteristics I think that it would be a very boring world.

    1. Indeed, it's a strange passage to decipher, but I have a hard time believing a rather intelligent man like Fry could really believe that.

  2. Hi, I am doing my PHD on Blake and Neo-Romantic Culture, a lot of which is based on the opposing attitudes of Fry.
    It is important to note that Fry was only an advocate of Blake's as a younger man, he latterly described him as a lunatic,with a 'well known mental condition' and his work the mere by-product of hallucinations. He also condemned his use of less representative forms - Blakean images were initially shocking but this effect waned with further study. This is all based around the changing attitudes of The Bloomsbury Group and the Classical (good) vs Romantic (bad), the latter of which loosely includes Blake. If you want to know more look at Fry's French, 'Flemish and British Art'.
    Fry is an iconoclast in his writings so he can be very contradictory.

    1. Thank you very much for this post, it's interesting information. I'm sad he dismissed Blake as a crackpot, that's so easy and predictable.

      Good luck with your PhD.