Notebook, 1993-


Roger Fry

B U L L E N:

What do we see when we look at a picture? Do we see the objects painted in pictures in the same way as we see them in real life? How is it that the calm passivity of a still life can stir us more deeply than all the noisy action of a battle-piece? How do we respond to the works of art from cultures about which we know nothing? When Roger Fry asked himself questions like this he was not posing academic puzzles. All through his life he thought of himself as a painter first and as a critic second, so every time he picked up his brush he was faced, as generations of painters before him had been faced, with the curious and paradoxical relationship between art and life.

The fact that Fry was a painter explains a great deal about Vision and Design. The essays that make it up were written between 1900 and 1920, covering roughly the first half of Fry's critical career, and all of them have some bearing on the practice of art. There is plenty of theory in them and a great deal of argumentative, controversial writing, but the important thing for Fry was how sculpture and paintng looked. He writes fluently using abstract ideas or historical facts, but his starting point is always in the realm of appearances. The underlying assumption of many essays in this volume is that a work of art is primarily a configuration of lines, shapes, and colours and must be judged as such. The psychology of the artist fascinated him, as did the physiology of vision. Inevitably he was preoccupied with the problems of art-history, but art-history was most valuable in what it said about the work and achievement of his contemporaries. Foreign art forms interested him, too, but not in a random eclectic way. Fry was selective and he chose those exotic forms which seemed to him to have a bearing on the visual sensibility of the modern mind. [p. xi]

Fry was not an aesthetician nor a philosopher; nor was he a psychologist or an art-historian. He saw prehistoric art not as an archaeologist would see it but as someone intimately concerned with the problems of vision. Similarly, his view of Negro art is not that of the anthropologist, nor his interpretation of El Greco or Claude that of the scholar. He once claimed that he was 'a middleman between the art-historian and the amateur' ['Art Before Giotto', Monthly Review, 1 [Oct. 1900], p. 126] and his intense empiricism reminds one of Ruskin. Like Ruskin he was a great talker and many of his friends--E. M.. Forester, Clive Bell and Virginia Woolf in particular--recall the delight and perplexity of being marched around exhibitions by him. The essays in Vision and Design preserve something of the quality of highly informed and original conversation. They are experimental and tentative. They are not theoretical statement, they are points of view. Their unity comes from Fry's curiosity about how art is made, how a piece of sculpture or a picture is constructed. He was well informed about the history of the art of a number of cultures, but the vitality of his point of view always comes from his subtle and close acquaintance with the creative process itself. [p. xxv]

The 'Essay in Aesthetics' comes exactly half-way through the period covered by Vision and Design and it is Fry's most important [p. xi] theoretical statement. It is easy to find fault with the logic of the argument but in the course of attempting to rationalize intuitive, powerful feelings about visual experience Fry described clearly why he thought form in art was of primary significance. In order to appreciate a picture, said Fry, the mind had to be cleared of debris. All the sentimental clutter of emotional or literary association had to be discarded. All the puzzles that the image might provide for the mind, all the talk of whether the picture was or was not like nature had to be forgotten if any just evaluation of its aesthetic merit was to be arrived at. As early as 1877 Walter Pater in his essay on the school of Giorgione had drawn attention to the fact that pictures were pictures before they were illustrations or reminders of natural appearances. He wrote that 'essentially pictorial qualities must first of all delight the sense, delight it as directly and sensuously as a fragment of Venetian glass', and that in its primary aspect 'a great picture has no more definite meaning for us than an accidental play of sun and shadow for a few moments on the wall or floor'. ['The School of Giorgione', in The Renaissance, ed. Donald L . Hill [California, 1980], p. 104.] When Fry took up this idea and applied it to all kinds of art, ancient and modern, familiar and unfamiliar, it appeared to his critics that either he was another mutation of late-nineteenth-century decadence or he was a blinkered formalist. In fact, Fry was waging a personal war. He was striking out against an effete critical tradition which tried to explain works of art in terms of some abstract notion of 'Beauty' or the degree to which they stimulated a sentimental response in the beholder. As he wryly commented in 'Art and Science' 'Without some previous knowledge of Caligula or Mary Queen of Scots we are likely to miss our way in a great deal of what passes for art today' [p. 56]. There is no doubt, however, that Fry's formalism imposed limitations on his taste. He never cared much for the 'coarse, turbulent, clumsy' art of the 19th century [p. 40] and he was always suspicious of the operatic gestures of the Baroque. But what he did was to bring certain important areas of artistic experience into extremely sharp focus. He went straight to the heart of Florentine art and its preoccupation with the third dimension, he argued persuasively for C┌zanne and the Post-Impressionists, and he was eloquent about South American sculpture and Negro art, both of which struck the sentimental critic dumb.

The cardinal point in Fry's aesthetic is the radical distinction between art and nature. The similarities between art objects and natural effects, said Fry, were merely superficial. In reality they presented the human mind with experiences of quite different orders. Nature offers the mind a mass of undifferentiated stimuli with no purpose attached. Art, however, is organized, structured, and purposive. Of course Fry was restating in a subdued and rational way one of the central themes of Whistler's flamboyant Ten O'Clock Lecture of 1885. 'To say to the painter, that Nature is to be taken as she is', said Whistler, 'is to say to the player, that he may sit on the piano . . . . Nature is very rarely right.' Closer to home, Fry's first art teacher, Francis Bate, insisted on the independence of art from moral considerations [The Naturalistic School of Painting, 2nd ed. [1877], p. 92.] and in the works of both George Santayana and Denman Waldo Ross [with which Fry was familiar] there is no attempt to formulate theories which locate aesthetic satisfaction within the work of art itself. It was Bernard Berenson's description of Florentine painting, however, and his account of the work of Giotto in particular, that encouraged Fry in his analysis of the formal properties of art. According to Berenson the early Florentines created a kind of super-realism in their pictures. Giotto, said Berenson, conveys 'a keener sense of reality, of life-likeness than the objects themselves'. ['The Florentine Painters of the Renaissance' in Italian Painters of the Renaissance, new ed. [1952], p. 41.] This was achieved not by illusionist tricks or by slavish imitation of natural effects, but rather by the careful selection of telling formal relationships. It was, he said, 'upon form and form alone, that the great Florentine masters concentrated their efforts' so that 'finally we are forced to the belief that, in their pictures at least, form is the principal source of aesthetic enjoyment'. [Ibid., p. 42] [p. xiii]

Once again Fry's response was to try to expand Berenson's theory to account for a much wider compass of aesthetic experience and to make formal considerations the basis for the criticism of modern as well as ancient art. Fry also tried to find a psychological explanation for the appeal of form in art. The sharp distinction he made between what he called the 'instinctive life' and the 'imaginative life' of the mind may now seem to be too cut-and-dried for plausibility [as it seemed to critics like I. A. Richards at the time], [In his The Principles of Literary Criticism [1924].] but it must be grasped if we are to understand why Fry felt that some types of art were superior to others. For Fry, the 'instinctive life' is the life of practicalities, of doing, being, and striving. It is bound up with ideas of right and wrong and consequently with the moral side of our nature. By contrast the 'imaginative life', he said, is contemplative, objective, withdrawn from the pressures of everyday existence and remote from issues of morality. Both aspects of the mind have their own way of apprehending the external world. The instinctive life relies upon a utilitarian, analytical vision which is dominated by concepts. The imaginative life, however, operates according to a system of aesthetic values and is associated with an intuitive, creative, synthesizing view of the physical world. Both aspects of our mental life have their characteristic means of expression. The instinctive life is promoted through action and doing, whereas art, as Fry puts it, 'is the chief organ of the imaginative life' [p. 17].

It was Tolstoy's book What is Art? [1898] that helped Fry in the next stage of his theory. Though Tolstoy's judgments of specific works of art are extraordinarily perverse, [According to Tolstoy, folk and peasant art had a more profound and more widespread effect than the work of Michelangelo, Raphael, Titan and Beethoven which, as Fry points out, [p. 20], Tolstoy was forced to condemn as being 'bad or false art'.] his idea about the nature of art itself was invaluable to Fry. All previous aesthetic theories, Tolstoy pointed out, assumed that aesthetic value was an abstract notion - that 'Beauty' was a condition to which all art aspired. In actual fact '"Beauty" "Truth" and "Goodness"', said Tolstoy, 'not only have no definite meaning, but [p. xiv] they hinder us in attaching any definitive meaning to existing art.═ [Tolstoy on Art, ed. and trans. Aylmer Maude [Oxford, 1925], p. 189.] So Tolstoy developed an expressive theory of art. He put it like this: "To evoke in oneself a feeling, one has once experienced and, having evoked it in oneself, then by means of movements, lines, colours, sounds or forms expressed in words, so to transmit that feeling that others experience the same feeling - this is the activity of art.' [Ibid., p. 173.] In other words, for Tolstoy, art is not the creation of beauty, it is the generation of expressive forms which communicate emotion. When Tolstoy went on to insist that the power of art was to be measured by its effect on the instinctive life, Fry disagreed. For Fry art could not be measured by moral criteria, but he transferred Tolstoy's expressive theory to the context of the imaginative life. Art, said Fry, was to be judged by the subtlety and power with which it communicated the emotions of the imaginative life. The means by which it did this were formal - movements, lines, and colours. Form in the graphic arts, he concluded, was the expressive medium of the imaginative life.

Fry's explanation of how form affects the contemplative mind is probably the least satisfactory part of his theory and is based largely on another idea suggested by Berenson . . . . the notion of what he called 'tactile values' . . . . Similarly Fry resorted to a physiological explanation of the power of form. In 'An Essay on Aesthetics' he tried to show how by manipulating rhythm and mass, space, chiaroscuro, and colour the artist manages to evoke physical responses through retinal impressions. Fry's explanation of the effects of form on the central nervous system might not be convincing, but his understanding of the function [p. xv.] of the imaginative life was crucial to his interpretation of the works of specific artists.

As Fry saw it, the tendency of western art since the High Renaissance [with some notable and important exceptions] had been to forget that the artist's primary function was to give expression to the imaginative life. Instead art had gradually slipped into a series of brilliant but superficial tricks to entertain the mind. The 'Kodak Company method', ['The Case of the late Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema, O. M.', Athenaeum, 18 Jan. 1913, p. 667.] as he once called it, reached it apogee in the Impressionist pursuit of fleeting images [about which he had ambivalent feelings] and reached its nadir in what Fry considered to be Alma-Tandems painful attempt to paint all the spectators in his reconstruction of Roman games at the Colosseum. It is strange to find Sir Joshua Reynolds in the vanguard of modernism, but in 1905 when Fry edited the Discourses he felt more in sympathy with Reynolds's views than with those of most of his English contemporaries. Both Fry and Reynolds believed in classical values and in the power of tradition in art. Fry, like Reynolds before him, stressed the notion that art was primarily concerned with the selection of types and not with imitation and that a painting was a structured artifact and not a random impression. It was not long after 1905, however, that Fry was using similar terms to support modern art. In the work of the Frenchman Maurice Denis and the German Julius Meier-Graefe [Maurice Denis, 'Cézanne', L'Occident, Sept. 1907. Translated by Fry in the Burlington Magazine, Jan. - Feb. 1910. Denis's writings on art were collected together in Theories [Paris, 1912]. Julius Meier-Graefe, Modern Art, trans. F. Simmonds and G. Chrystal [1908].] Fry discovered a defence of Post-Impressionism which contained echoes of Reynold's wise remarks to the students of the Royal Academy. The Post-Impressionists looked upon 'woods and meadows' as 'no more than a purely mechanical medium such as . . . . brushes or . . . . palette' [Modern Art, p. 3] said Meier-Graefe, and Cézanne was a modern classic who painstakingly constructed his works in a manner similar to that of the 'art of museums'. Byzantine work was [p. xvi] invoked to describe the hierarchic dignity of Cézanne's pictures whose 'magical mosaic of colour . . . . expresses only exact realities'. [Ibid., p. 267] In his introduction to the catalogue of the second Post-Impressionist exhibition [reprinted in Vision and Design as 'The French Post-Impressionists'] Fry summed up the connection between art as the formal expression of the imaginative life and the work of the moderns. 'These artists', he wrote, referring to the followers of Cézanne, "do not seek to give what can, after all, be but a pale reflex of actual appearance, but to arouse the conviction of a new and definite reality. They do not seek to imitate form, but to create form; not to imitate life, but to find an equivalent for life. By that I mean that they wish to make images which by the clearness of their logical structure, and by their closely-knit unity of texture, shall appeal to our disinterested and contemplative imagination with something of the same vividness as the things of actual life appeal to our practical activities. In fact, they aim not at illusion but at reality. " [p. 167]

In his two roles as painter and as critic, Fry inevitably developed an interest in what he called 'the handling of natural appearances' - how we perceive the world around us. Most of the time, said Fry, we do not actually look at anything. The objects of our everyday existence take the form of so many ideas in our mind. The chairs and tables around us are used in a practical way, discarded and rarely looked at. In 'The Ottoman and the Whatnot' Fry shows how some objects acquire sentimental or romantic associations connected with the period in which they were made. The curios which fill antique shops are seen in a different way from everyday objects because of the associations which cluster about them. Consequently many antiques go in or out of fashion according to current attitudes to the period which produced them. In 'The Artist's Vision' Fry continues this theme and suggests two further categories of vision even more removed from practical life - aesthetic vision and creative vision. Aesthetic vision is connected with a true appraisal of the retinal impression. When we look at something not for its practical value but for its formal uniqueness we [p. xvii] empty aesthetic vision. The aesthetic critic and the modern Impressionist use this mode - the one to give an account of works of art, the other to capture the effects of light and atmosphere. In his essay on Bushman art Fry suggested that some primitive tribes also shared this ability to respond to the forms of nature in a visual and non-conceptual way. Impressed by Helen Tongue's copies of Bushman paintings, Fry noticed the way in which the primitive African tribesmen managed to capture the fleeting movements of animals and the foreshortening of figures with an even greater facility than the Impressionists. Why, he wondered, had the civilizing process dimmed our ability to apprehend true formal relationships but enhanced our tendency to see things as concepts? More sophisticated cultures perceive the world in a way not unlike that of the modern child. Objects are ideas first and images only second. Aesthetic vision, Fry implies, might with effort be achieved to some extent by all, but the more sophisticated creative vision is the prerogative of the artist alone. While aesthetic vision is passive and self-conscious, creative vision is active and curiously undiscriminating. It searches out new and remote visual experiences. It obeys no conventional laws of correctness or propriety. It refuses to accept what is ordinarily considered tasteful. In fact taste, says Fry, is created by the artist and for this he must have freedom. In order that the artistic sensibility might operate freely it must be released from psychological pressures and from financial restraints, and in 'Art and Socialism' Fry proposes the ideal conditions for the creation of art.

When Fry wrote his contribution to H. G. Well's anthology of essays Socialism and the Great State [1912] he was about to set up the Omega Workshop, The story that Duncan Grant could not take up Fry's invitation to visit him in Guildford for want of the train fare is probably apocryphal but it points up Fry's concern for the financial state of young artists . . . . [p. xix.] Fry's own bott┌ga - the Omega Workshop - invited artists to contribute designs for chairs, tables, trays, rugs, ceramics and so on in return for a small but regular income . . . . [p. xix]

. . . . it was Fry's love of early Italian art which was so important in conditioning his view of Post-Impressionism. In 'The Art of Florence' he explains the appeal for him of this 'intellectual' school of painting. Giotto, Bernardo Daddi and Masaccio all 'refused to admit the given facts of nature except in so far as they could become amenable to the generalizing power of their art' [p. 125]. And elaborating on the theme, Fry explores the balance between Vision and Design in the work of three pictures from the Jacquemart-Andr┌ collection [p. xix] in Paris - one by Uccello, one by Baldovinetti and one by Signorelli. He scotches the myth that Uccello's passion for representational devices in any way anticipated the illusionism of Van Eyck or the naturalism of William Powell Frith. Uccello, said Fry, created an 'abstract art' of rhythmic forms and if his St George is judged as illustration it is merely 'quaint, innocent and slightly childish'. Judged as design, however, 'it must rank among the great masterpieces' [p. 133]. The creative impulse behind much Florentine art seemed to Fry to resemble the creativity of science. Fry himself had received a fine scientific education at Cambridge [in 1885 Fry went up to King's College to read natural sciences. He obtained a first-class degree in the Tripos.] and was always fascinated by the links between the methods of science and those of art. In the case of the Florentines, they resemble the scientists in their preoccupation with 'the discovery of fundamental relations between . . . . objects' and by 'the construction of a synthetic system which satisfies the mind, both for its truth to facts and its logical coherence' [p. 124]. The emphasis on construction and logical coherence is central to all that Fry has to say about art. He was brought up in the techniques of Impressionism in the school of Francis Bate, but he rebelled against what he felt to be its formlessness when he discovered the 'logical coherence' of early Italian art. In 1894 he despaired of ever finding in modern art the same tightly-knit massive simplicity of earlier work and wrote to his father: 'the more I study the Old Masters the more terrible does the chaos of modern art seem to me.' [Letter of 27 Sept. 1894 in Letters of Roger Fry, ed Deny Sutton [1972]. p. 159] The change came in 1906 when he found what he was looking for in the work of Cézanne. He suddenly realized that a revolution had been going on in art - 'the greatest revolution in art that had taken place since Graeco-Roman impressionism became converted into Byzantine formalism' [p. 8]. Cézanne, said Fry, followed by Gauguin and Van Gogh, and at a greater distance by Matisse and Picasso, had created a new pictorial language in which form and structure had taken precedence over imitation, symbolism and sentiment. [p. xx]

This discovery meant that in Fry's view the early Italians now had worthy modern counterparts and most of the essays in Vision and Design were written with this understanding. By 1910 his art-historical ideas moved easily between the two poles of Byzantium and Post-Impressionism and the success of other artists could be measured by their relationship to these antipodes. William Blake, for example, looked back to the Byzantines while El Greco anticipated Cézanne. In his essay on Blake, Fry points out how, like the mosaics of Ravenna, Blake's tempera paintings are quite removed from the stress of the immediate. They give us 'an experience freed from the disturbing conditions of actual life' [p. 153] and in his account of the El Greco acquired in 1919 for the National Gallery, Fry develops Maurice Denis's idea that Cézanne 'a du Greco en lui'. ['Cézanne', L'Occident, Sept. 1907] Both artists, says Fry, adopted the same uncompromising directness in their rendering of natural forms. 'Nowhere', says Fry, 'is a violent form softened, nowhere is the expressive quality of brushwork blurred in order to give verisimilitude of texture' [p. 146]. Elsewhere Fry adopts similar historical comparisons. The firm sense of structure in the drawing of Ingres looks back to the Italian primitives ['Drawings at Burlington'] while some of Claude's effects anticipate those of the Impressionists ['Claude'].


[Bullen, J. B., ed. Roger Fry. Vision and Design. London: Oxford Univ. P Ress. 1981.]



The contents of this site, including all images and text, are for personal, educational, non-commercial use only. The contents of this site may not be reproduced in any form without proper reference to Text, Author, Publisher, and Date of Publication [and page #s when suitable].