Wednesday, 6 March 2013

Roger Fry's Cosmopolitanism

Although Roger Fry was an expert on the Old Masters, and gradually became a proponent of contemporary art, coining the term Post-Impressionism when he exhibited these painters’ work for the first time in England, he was also a cosmopolitan art critic, curious enough to appraise ancient South African art, African sculptures, Native American art and Islamic art. In some cases, Fry’s interest seems to result particularly from the sense of strangeness these different art cultures provoke. For instance in discussing Bushman art, he’s impressed by the similarities with children’s drawings:

The primitive drawing of our own race is singularly like that of children. Its most striking peculiarity is the extent to which it is dominated by the concepts of language. In a child’s drawing, we find a number of forms which have scarcely any reference to actual appearance, but which directly symbolise the most significant concepts of the thing being represented. For a child, a man is the sum of the concept’s head (which n turn consists of eyes, nose, mouth), of his arms, his hands (five fingers), his legs and his feet. Torso is not a concept which interests him, and it is, therefore, usually reduced to a single line which serves to link the concept-symbol head with those of the legs. The child does, of course, know that the figure thus drawn is not like a man, but it is a kind of hieroglyphic script for a man, and satisfies his desire for expression. Precisely the same phenomenon occurs in primitive art; the symbols for concepts gradually take on more and more of the likeness of the appearance, but the mode of approach remains even in comparatively advanced periods the same. The artist does not seek to transfer a visual sensation to paper, but to express a mental image which is coloured by his conceptual habits.

Two things are important here. First his admiration comes from the non-representative style found in primitive art. As we saw in previous posts, Fry was against the charge that painting is the art of imitating objects on a canvas. For him art is in fact the expression of an artist’s vision, not mimicry, like photography, it’s rather transfiguration of reality. So it makes sense that he’d be a proponent of this art too. Secondly, he wasn’t alone in his admiration for primitive art at the time. It is now well-known that Picasso invented Cubism, and got modern art started, when he started studying African masks (indeed Les Demoiselles d'Avignon openly references them), and this in turn was just part of a wider movement to liberate art from the academy. As I discovered reading Colin Rhodes’ excellent Outsider Art, there were three strands of new influence on art at the time: primitive art, children’s art, and art by mental patients. All three shared the virtue, to artists seeking new possibilities, of a purer form of art, untainted by formalism, standards and good taste.

What this gives to artists, argues Fry, is freedom to choose, to give one more, different tradition to opt from. “The artist of today has therefore to some extent a choice before him of whether he will think form like the early artists of European races or merely see it like the Bushmen. Whichever his choice, the study of these drawings can hardly fail to be of profound interest.”

When moving to the subject of African sculptures, Fry mordantly writes:

We have the habit of thinking that the power to create expressive plastic form is one of the greatest human achievements, and the names of great sculptors are handed down from generation to generation, so that it seems unfair to be forced to admit that certain nameless savages have possessed this power not only in a higher degree than we at this moment, but than we as a nation have ever possessed it. And yet that is where find myself. I have to admit that some of these things are great sculpture – greater, I think, than anything we produced even in the Middle Ages. Certainly they have the special qualities of sculptures in a higher degree. They have indeed complete plastic freedom; that is to say, these African artisans really conceive form in three dimensions. Now this is rare in sculpture.

This is indeed high praise, and it must have been quite upsetting and shocking to readers of the time, when Europe could still feel secure about its superiority amongst civilizations. When he turns his attention to pre-Columbian art, it’s not the child-like simplicity that fascinates him but its magnificence and intricacy.

What Fry’s interest in world art also reveals is the historian’s need to organize things, put them together as a whole, and so attending a Munich exhibition on ‘Mohammedan art’ he pauses to ponder on the ‘great transformation of Graeco-Roman into medieval art.”

And on this problem the Munich exhibition throws many illuminating side-lights. Early Mohammedan art is seen to be a meeting-point of many influences. There are still traces of the once widespread Hellenistic tradition, though this is seen to be retreating before the refluent wave of aboriginal ideas. Sassanid art had already been the outcome of these contending forces, and the pre-eminence of Sassanid art in forming early Mohammedan styles is clearly brought out in this exhibition.

Fry then changes the direction of the essay and instead investigates the cultural interchanges between Islamic and Chinese art, with Byzantium in the middle. Fry was not one given to specialization, he was dauntless in tackling any subject, epoch or culture in order to piece together the great tapestry that is the history of art. A methodology not in itself useless to those who also dabble in books.

In the final part, Roger Fry’s opinions on lots of artists.


  1. I tend to really like what I am hearing about fry in your commentary Miguel. Your point about fry being interest in the entire spectrum of art, like one might be interested in books is very much in line with the way that I usually go about things.

    1. Yes, in order to be good at something, and knowledgeable, and to fully love something, one needs to experience it in all its possibilities.