This essay is part of an extended series by Jeanne Willette. You can find other pieces in this series (to date) in the Avant-Garde section of this website.
Summary: This two-part essay re-visits one of the discursive turning points in avant-garde art, Roger Fry’s exhibition “Manet and Post-Impressionism” at the Grafton Galleries in 1910. Although the French produced critics who explained and defended vanguard art, it was the British writers who developed both the historical time line for turn of the century French art and the aesthetics that explained its purpose and meaning.
By Jeanne Willette
It is one of the founding myths of the modern artist that genius, like murder, will out. One will be discovered, like Lana Turner wearing a tight sweater sitting in Schwab’s Drug store. One will find a patron, a Medici or a Durand-Ruel or, best of all, a Kahnweiler. Far more interesting than the myth of undiscovered genius, is the fact that although genius abounds, it is found according to the laws of chance. Genius is everywhere but must depend upon randomness to survive. The artists who came after the Impressionists had after-lives that were particularly precarious. Vincent van Gogh died, apparently of suicide or sheer carelessness from a fatal gunshot wound. Paul Gauguin died, poor and ill, in the furthermost reaches of the South Pacific. Georges Seurat died young, in the midst of a career half-built. And Paul Cézanne spent decades in obscurity. Like Édouard Manet, these artists were respected by a small circle of peers but sold few works. They were the subjects of a few bits of critical writings, but none, except for Cézanne, had lived long enough to have created a substantive reputation. All survived historically, not because their genius was discovered in their lifetimes, but because of the kindness of friends, family and strangers who protected their legacy. One of those strangers was an Englishman prosaically named Roger Fry[i] who created the pseudo-movement or quasi-grouping that gave these disparate French artists a discursive home: “Post-Impressionism.”
The naming of a movement and the appointment of its artists was as random as the anointing of the artists as leaders. A gallery – the Grafton Galleries – found itself with a gap in its schedule, and a recently fired curator – Roger Fry – needed a job. The gallery and the curator made connection in random during 1910. It is no coincidence that in 1924bVirginia Woolf made a statement in a lecture to the effect that “on or about December 1910 human character changed.” In making an apocryphal announcement of a new phase in modern art, Roger Fry not only introduced the art world to modern art, he also articulated this new phase in artistic evolution. Fry recognized the potentially crucial role of the well-planned art exhibition as compared to the open-ended envelope of the salon. This shift from the large gathering of disparate works of art, which the critic and the public had to sort out to a more organized coalition of like-minded artists, characterized avant-garde art before the Great War. The Fauve artists grouped themselves together in Room VII at the 1905 Salon d’Automne, a plan that allowed them to be not only recognized but also anointed as “wild beasts.” But Fry’s role was not that of an art critic, naming and blaming, as in the case of Louis Vauxcelles and the Fauves; he was to play the part of a historian who had to curate history, selecting who belonged and who would be excluded on the Modernist timeline. Most significantly, he had to take up the unfamiliar task of writing an aesthetic for modern art. It was the role of art critics to explain, defend or defame contemporary art; but the aesthetician must lay down a foundation for “art.” What are the grounds of art? The old purposes for art had evaporated and a new epistemology for new art had to be articulated. For Fry, who was not a philosopher, the new rasion d’être for art could be discerned only through the works themselves and not through pre-existing theories. His goal was to modernize and update an aesthetic perspective inherited from nineteenth century naturalism. Fry realized that aesthetics was facing a crisis and his aggregation of what would become a canon for modern art made its debut at the Grafton Galleries in a 1910 exhibition entitled “Manet and the Post-Impressionists.”
Virginia Woolf and Roger Fry both faced the year 1910 as artists who were trying to find their place in this new world. Fry had just been relieved of his duties at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and was beginning to start over in London. Woolf was seeking her own literary voice, one suitable to the new century, and her famous article, “Mrs. Brown and Mr. Bennett” reflects her turn towards a new language. “All human relations have shifted—those between masters and servants, husbands and wives, parents and children,” she declared. “And when human relations change there is at the same time a change in religion, conduct, politics, and literature. Let us agree to place one of these changes about the year 1910.” Woolf expressed her concern about contemporary writing, explaining, “how serious a matter it is when the tools of one generation are useless for the next.” E. M. Forster and D. H. Lawrence, she asserted, had faltered early in their careers because, instead of throwing them away, they used the old tools of a now dead language. In 1910 literature had really found itself at a dead end. As Woolf explained it, “Surely one reason is that the men and women who began writing novels in 1910 or thereabouts had this great difficulty to face—that there was no English novelist living from whom they could learn their business.” Speaking in the aftermath of the Post-Impressionist exhibition and the huge uproar it caused among the British public, Virginia Woolf linked the year and the exhibition with her call to modernize literature and make it suitable for the new century. Indeed, 1910 was also the year of another event:[i] King Edward died, closing finally and for all time, the Victorian period and its aftermath, the Edwardian era, marking the end of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth century. However, it would be too simplistic to place much emphasis on a mere date, for Woolf was announcing a shift from literature being based in a naturalist objectivity to a writing emanating from a psychological or subjective perspective, a process of many decades.
At the beginning of the twentieth century, both British literature and British art had reached the end of its natural life span. English art had exhausted itself after decades of Pre-Raphaelite narrative and symbolism, and English literature had reached the end of its dependence upon old conventions. In her 1919 essay, “Modern Fiction,” Woolf asserted that modern “life” was too complex for the writer to describe or explain:
Life is not a series of gig lamps symmetrically arranged; life is a luminous halo, a semi-transparent envelope surrounding us from the beginning of consciousness to the end. Is it not the task of the novelist to convey this varying, this unknown and uncircumscribed spirit, whatever aberration or complexity it may display, with as little mixture of the alien and external as possible?
In other words, true English literature had to reinvent itself, free of old conventions, for the new age. Eventually Virginia Woolf herself, along with James Joyce, would create modern writing; but years earlier Roger Fry realized that art was ahead of literature and had already developed its own new language, a syntax that had emerged out of Impressionism. In 1905 the Impressionist dealer, Paul Durand-Ruel, had mounted an exhibition of Impressionism in London to little effect – except on Roger Fry, who was the first English writer to discuss Cézanne in which he admitted to having been “skeptical” about the artist. Therefore despite British indifference, modern art already existed, was fully formed and being produced in Paris at a dizzying rate. With the Post-Impressionist exhibition at the Grafton Galleries, Fry would provide both a timeline – a history of modern art – and an overarching aesthetic for these seemingly unrelated styles and distinct movements. A historian and curator of Renaissance art by trade, Fry disapproved of Impressionism; its dependence upon nature; its lack of form and structure; and its lack of seriousness. As early as 1910 he thought that, “It now seems to me possible by a more searching analysis of our experience in front of a work of art to disentangle our reaction to pure form from our reaction to its implied associated ideas.”[ii] And in 1906 he had discovered late works by Cézanne, and was beginning to think that this artist had returned form and structure – now all-important to Fry – to art. Fry was able to “see” Cézanne through the filter of his own field of expertise, Italian art.
During the years leading up to the exhibition at the Grafton Galleries, Fry wrote a number of articles that built on the theories of artistic freedom put forward by Whistler in the “Ten O’ Clock Lecture.” In helping the English (and himself) to recover from the John Ruskin hangover of morality and purpose in art, Fry translated the piety and spiritualism in Renaissance art into modern expression or feeling, or what was being called psychology or the appropriate reaction to art in the twentieth century. Here was where the meaning of modern art lay: in the reaction the elite educated viewer experienced when looking at advanced art – a response that the British art writer Clive Bell referred to as the “aesthetic experience.” Here was where the purpose of modern art located, in the expressive subjectivity of the artist who expressed feelings through form. The experience of form and feeling was the only appropriate mode of contemplation for modern art. Fry positioned himself to remove art out of the reach of Ruskin’s demand that art should be moral in both its execution and content. Although Fry who was not a scholar, and he did not provide his readers with a provenance for his aesthetic theory, it is clear that he combined the new – Freudian theory with the old – Kantian philosophy. It is at this point in his thinking about art that Fry, at serious loose ends, without a steady job, was offered the opportunity to mount an exhibition in London at the Grafton Galleries. Although the Galleries were owned by a bank, which expected a return on its investment, it seems that Fry was on a mission to educate the British about the new art being made in France. But, given his relative inexperience with French avant-garde art, he needed help.
Once again, random chance played a part for Fry’s endeavor. He was fortunate enough to fall in with the most intellectual people in London, the Bloomsbury group. Artist Vanessa Bell – sister to Virginia Woolf and wife to art writer Clive Bell – approached Fry at a train station, reintroducing herself and her husband. The three shared a compartment during their journey and an alliance was formed that would have profound effects on the tenets of formalist aesthetics for the first half of the twentieth century. Thanks to his friendship with Clive and Vanessa Bell, Fry now had artistic and conceptual partners for his plan to bring contemporary art to London, a city still sunk in the nostalgia of Post-Pre Raphaelite art. Bell admired Fry’s 1909 “Essay in Aesthetics,” which defined the artist in the task of description: “When the artist passes from pure sensations to emotions aroused by means of sensations, he uses natural forms which, in themselves, are calculated to move our emotions, and he presents these in such a manner that the forms themselves generate in us emotional states, based upon the fundamental necessities of our physical and physiological nature.” Distinguished British author, Antony Powell, a trenchant observer of human nature wrote amusingly of “The Bloomburies,” as he called them: “Roger Fry … / was a bad painter and a strikingly original art critic … /Clive Bell was his understrapper, a farceur with some appreciation of pictures” Indeed, Powell quoted Lytton Strachey describing Fry as “a most shifty and wormy character,” and Bell as having a “fat little mind”.[i] But the Bloomsbury group stuck together, which explains the presence of Desmond MacCarthy, a member of the group and a drama critic who accompanied Roger Fry on the quest for modern art. All the random pieces had fallen into place.
And so it was that Roger Fry and the secretary of the exhibition at the Grafton Galleries, Desmond MacCarthy, descended upon Paris in search of art that was new and French. There is no doubt that Fry was looking for art that would fit his vision of what a modern visual language, unfettered from content, should be. Only when Fry came upon Matisse, he was able to articulate his idea that contemporary art was born of the tension between representation and design. He was seeking those paintings where the pictorial tension was present and the formal balance was maintained. Fin-de-siècle art had been shown in London before; but, whether by accident or by design, previous exhibitions had placed these works within a large and disparate group of paintings, thus blunting their impact. Fry proposed to present these revolutionary works without apology or reservation. In Paris, Fry was able to get all the art he requested – there was scant demand for modern art – from the Parisian galleries that dealt in contemporary art, Bernheim-Jeune and Ambroise Vollard. And very importantly, in providing a complete account Post-Impressionism, Desmond MacCarthy scored a great coup. He convinced Johanna (van Gogh) Gosschalk-Bonger, Theo van Gogh’s brother and keeper of the Vincent van Gogh oeuvre, to lend a group of her brother-in-law’s paintings to the exhibition. Only three van Goghs existed in England, all in private collections. As MacCarthy recounted, “…they were still admirably cheap. When we came to price them she was asking a hundred and twenty pounds or less for some admirable examples of his art…”. He arrived in London with van Gogh’s late work Crows over Wheatfield (1890), which even at that early date was romanticized with rumors of the artist’s mental illness. Other prominent lenders included members of the Stein family, the important Munich curator, Hugo von Tschudi, and the artists themselves, such as Picasso and Matisse. Having amassed the collection of their dreams, the Englishmen had to come up with an organizing principle.
According to the emerging consensus at the time, Cézanne was the fountainhead for these new artists; however, because Édouard Manet had been finally accepted by the larger public, the “old master” was included and accidentally became not just a conciliatory headliner of the exhibition but also the historical leader, the father of modernist art. But what should the group of artists who came “after” Manet be called? The collection, curated with the assistance of Clive Bell who accompanied Fry on his second trip to Paris, was broad and comprehensive and provided a definitive title. Fry, who seems to have not known about contemporary German art, wanted to use the term “expressionism.” But in the end, he and MacCarthy settled for a word more inclusive: “Post-Impressionism,” because these artists came after Manet and after his followers, the Impressionists. Although the term has been previously used, the subsequent importance of the exhibition resulted in the term naming a historic series of artistic generations. The exhibition, like the selection itself, was done in haste, with Fry deciding the placement of the paintings as the catalogue was being organized, resulting in a mistitling of certain works, perhaps explaining why the final catalogue was without images and was replete with typos (“Aveu”). The second edition of the catalogue corrected the typing mistakes and the artists’ names and the titles of the images. Nevertheless, due to the vague titles, we know more about the reaction to the exhibition than the actual content of the show itself. Anna Gruetzner Robins painstakingly reconstructed as much of the exhibition as possible from collections of catalogues annotated by those who visited the Galleries, including Bloomsbury member John Maynard Keynes. Although the exhibition actually opened on November 8, MacCarthy held the press preview on the 5th, Guy Fawkes Day, to announce the explosion targeting the conservative London art audiences.
The large gallery was well equipped to handle the large quantity of art. According to Peter Stansky,[i] the visitors were confronted with a daunting array of over two hundred paintings, drawings and sculptures. The sheer quality of the exhibition is a testament to the “eye” of Roger Fry, who selected Manet’s Un bar aux Folies-Bergère and Au Café, examples of Cézanne’s paintings at Estaque, of Bathers, of Mount Saint-Victoire, and of his wife, one of which, according to MacCarthy, caused an old man such mirth that he had to be escorted out of the gallery. Also on display were thirty-seven of Gauguin’s paintings, including The Spirit of the Dead Watching and Le Christ au Jardin des Oliviers. Gauguin’s great rival, Georges Seurat and his followers, were represented with far fewer works, as was the newcomer, Pablo Picasso, whose main dealer, Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler, did not lend until Fry’s second exhibition at the Galleries. The selection of works by Matisse, taken from his studio as well as from the Stein collections, showed the widest range of any of the artists, including paintings, La femme aux yeux verts, an early work from Collioure, plus sculptures and drawings. Unimpressed with the scope of the exhibition and under the influence of Ruskin and his emphasis on the morality of art, the London press did not react well to what is now, in the present day, considered to be a grouping of masterpieces. According to Samuel Hynes, “The public came to mock and stayed to mock.” Even intelligent and educated people were outraged, and those were the critiques that annoyed Fry the most. Noting his reaction in his private diary, the poet Wilfrid Blunt opined:
The exhibition is either an extremely bad joke or a swindle. I am inclined to think that latter, for there is no trace of humor in it. Still less is there a trace of sense of skill or taste, good or bad, or art of cleverness. Nothing but gross puerility, which scrawls indecencies on the walls of a privy. The drawing is on the level of that of an untaught child of seven or eight years old, the sense of color that of a tea tray painter, the method that of a schoolboy who wipes his fingers on a slate after spitting on them…In all the 300 or 400 pictures there is not one worthy of attention even by its singularity, or appealing to any feeling but disgust…Apart from the frames, the whole collection should not be worth £5, and then only for the pleasure of making a bonfire of them…These are not works of art at all, unless throwing a handful of mud against a wall may be called. One. These are the works of idleness and impotent stupidity, a pornographic show.[ii]
Indeed, the most vindictive reproaches came from the literati of London. Hurling the expected accusations of barbarism, savagery, and degeneracy, critics such as Charles Ricketts complained, “To revert in the name of novelty to the aims of the savage and the child – out of lassitude of the present – is to act as the anarchist, who would destroy what he cannot change.” None other than the superintendent of Bedlam, T. B. Hyslop, who would know, stated, “Certain of the insane lose the power of giving adequate expression to what is actually perceived. Thus the pathological process underlying reversion to a primitive type of simulation of barbaric art is frequently characteristic of brain degeneration.” In The Globe Arthur Heober wrote, “it all seems decadent, unhealthy, certainly unreal, like some dreadful nightmare.” Former Slade Professor Sir William Richmond took to the Morning Post to write, “For a moment there came a fierce feeling of terror lest the youth of England, young promising fellows, might be contaminated here. On reflection I was reassured that the youth of England, being healthy, mind and body, is far too virile to be moved save in resentment against the providers of this unmanly show.” But how did the “providers” of the “unmanly” show explain themselves?
As if anticipating the roar of dismay, the catalogue essay, written by MacCarthy and ghosted by Fry himself, made a statement that subsequently became famous: “And there is no denying that the work of the Post-Impressionists is sufficiently disconcerting. It may even appear ridiculous to those who do not recall the fact that a good rocking-horse often has more of the true horse than an instantaneous photograph of a Derby winner”. The essay, while placing Manet as the inspiration for the Post-Impressionists, pointed out that it was Cézanne who inaugurated the “post” by activating “that side of Manet which Monet and the other Impressionists ignored.” The “later designers” “recognized in him a guide capable of leading them out of the cul de sac into which naturalism had led them.” In an interesting echo of charges of “barbarism,” the author/s praised Matisse, stating that, “The general effect of his pictures is that of a return to primitive, even perhaps of a return to barbaric, art.” Reflecting Fry’s recent interest in “primitive” art, the essay explained that, “Primitive art, like the art of children, consists not so much in an attempt to represent what the eye perceives, as to put a line around a mental conception of an object.” The very short essay concluded by defending the artist who simplified drawing and painting “in order to recover the lost expressiveness and life. He aims at synthesis in design; that is to say, he is prepared to subordinate consciously his power of representing the parts of his picture as plausibly as possible to the expressiveness of his whole design.” As an augmentation, Fry defended the exhibition in the Nation a few days after the opening of the exhibition, stating that the Post-Impressionists artists were “in revolt against the photographic vision of the nineteenth century, and even against the tempered realism of the last four hundred years …/ These artists have, as it were, stumbled upon he principles of primitive design out of a perception of the sheer necessities of the actual situation.”
Despite the writers’ attempts to explain art that was actually twenty or thirty years old, the British public, which had not seen fin-de-siècle art gathered together in one place before, was stunned. Robert Ross said that the exhibition was nothing other than a sign of “the existence of a widespread plot to destroy the whole fabric of European painting.” Part of what Robert Hughes would later call “The Shock of the New” was the coexistence of conservative and radical art in the same year, 1910, suggesting that either the art dealers of Paris were trying to cheat naïve Londoners or that the Post-Impressionist artists were insane, or that all that had been valued and celebrated for one hundred years in England was now somehow out of step with the time. Quentin Bell, son of Clive, described the exhibition as: “That tremendous aesthetic upheaval which set the pattern for the development of he fine arts for the rest of the century” and declared that Fry “destroyed the falsehoods on which that age based its views of beauty, propriety, and decorum.” But as Virginia Woolf explained in her biography of her friend, it was more important to Fry that he had won the youth to his side: “And to explain and to expound the meaning of the new movement, to help the young English painters to leave the little backwater of provincial art and to take their place in the mainstream, became from this time one of Roger Fry’s main preoccupations.” Remarking on a centenary show of Cézanne in the London if 1939, she observed that “the gallery is daily crowded with devout and submissive worshippers” and that it was difficult “to realize that what violent emotions those pictures excited less than thirty years ago. The pictures are the same; it is the pubic that has changed.” One could also add that the “period eye” had changed from the eye primed for naturalism to an eye searching for abstract design. This is the eye of the twentieth century, the eye of Roger Fry, and the aesthetics of Fry and Bell, articulated over the next decade, explaining to the world: how to look at modern art.
[i] Frances Spalding. Roger Fry. Art and Life (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1980)
[ii] Edwin J. Kennedy. “The Moment, 1910: Virginia Woolf, Arnold Bennett, and Turn of the Century Consciousness.” Colby Quarterly (Volume 13, Issue 1, March 1977)
[iv] Anthony Powell. Under Review: Further Writings on Writers, 1946-1990 (University of Chicago, 1991)
[v] Peter Stansky. On Or about December 1910: Early Bloomsbury and its Intimate World (Harvard University Press, 1996)
[vi] Samuel Hynes. Edwardian Turn of Mind (Princeton University Press, 1968)
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