- "Fry, Roger" Oxford Dictionary of Art and ArtistsOur PickBy Ian Chilvers
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Important Art by Roger Fry
Originally published in 1899, Giovanni Bellini was Roger Fry's first book-length monograph and was presented as a "rediscovery" of the great Venetian master for a twentieth century audience. The book, which remains a source text for Bellini scholars, stands also as a document of Fry's critical method - which he offered as a move away from the idea of perception towards a more technical means of analysis by which one might investigate the stylistic evolution of the artist and psychological "performances" of his subjects. Fry would return to Bellini through a series of further essays over subsequent years.
Fry argued that Agony in the Garden represented a major turning point in Bellini's career; marking a transition period from his early "Paduan" style towards the "Venetian" style through which he became world renowned. Though a native of Venice, Bellini worked as an assistant to his father in Padua, a city to the west of Venice. While working on a chapel in Santo, Bellini fell under the tutorship of Francesco Squarcione who had already trained well over one hundred painters in the so-called "Paduan style". The "Paduan style" involved linear designs based on an old Paduan tempera technique whereby, in Fry's words, "light and shade were put on by small hatched strokes with the point of the brush". Fry compared Bellini's version of Agony in the Garden to that of Andrea Mantegna's; the latter being an exemplar of the Paduan style. While Bellini's Agony shared similarities with Mantegna's Agony (such as the figure of Christ), Bellini's technique was not consistent throughout the painting with the hill (on which Christ kneels), the distant valley and the flowing drapery of Saint Peter all breaking with the linear conventions of the Paduan style. Given that Bellini's technique expressed the artist's personal relationship with his natural surroundings (it amounted to more than a methodological exercise in other words), Agony in the Garden represented a religious interpretation born of an artistic imagination that Fry argued was far ahead of its time. As he put it, "Bellini shows already that perception of the emotional value of passing effects of atmosphere, which is often supposed to be a peculiarity of the art of this [the nineteenth] century".
Before 1910, progressive overseas art had rarely been seen in Britain. Because it was so alien, the Manet and the Post-Impressionists opened, in the words of The Burlington Magazine for Connoisseurs' editorial to celebrate the exhibition's centenary, "to a hailstorm of critical abuse". It quoted the views of one visitor "who thought most of the pictures were 'abortions'" while bemoaning the fact that the galleries themselves were "'uncomfortably crowded with a horde of giggling and laughing women'". The general consensus amongst critics and public alike was that the collected works were "boring, ordinary, unelevated [and] without distinction". It was agreed, for instance, that Cézanne's Portrait of Mme Cézanne had "no feminine allure to recommend her", Matisse's The Girl with Green Eyes "was common, even brazen", and while Gauguin's Tahitian scenes "had some exotic pulling power", his "'savages' could hardly be hung on one's wall". The Burlington recorded that the exhibition had amounted to "an unsettling visual democracy that undermined the cultured assumptions of the educated classes" and even "the brilliant colour was an affront to such refined sensibilities, conditioned as they were by the muted palette of the New English Art Club, by Whistlerian tonalities or the decorum of society portraiture".
The Burlington noted that while the exhibition had not made its "leading artists household names overnight", Fry had effectively set the ground for their widespread acceptance which reached its full fruition over the next decade or so: "Gauguin [...] became a figure of romance and rebellion, his life evoked a few years later in Somerset Maugham's bestselling novel The Moon and Sixpence; Van Gogh was the deranged genius of popular imagination, although the publication of his letters in the following decade evidenced the idea of him as an undisciplined lunatic; and Cézanne, from being an incompetent 'bungler', rapidly assumed shaman-like status in the development of Modernism". The Burlington's centenary editorial paid glowing tribute to Fry's daring, suggesting that it was the magazine's good fortune that its co-founder was using its pages to lead a celebration of the exhibition when other journals and critics were roundly condemning the "reckless" collection of works.
Fry painted River with Poplars from a bridge at Angles sur l'Anglin near Poitiers in France. The painting was produced at the height of Fry's involvement with his two Post-Impressionist exhibitions at the Grafton Galleries and very clearly reflects the influence of Manet, Matisse, Gaugin, and Cézanne (around whom he had built his own theory on aesthetics). The style of this painting follows - even exaggerates - Cézanne through the subdual of all picture detail to the point of near abstraction. Here the emphasis is on organizing color into blocks with shapes - the clouds, river, the banks of the reeds - rendered as solid mass.
The work, which draws on the decorative qualities he had admired so much in the work of the Impressionists, Post-Impressionists, and the Fauvists. These mid-career works demonstrate Fry's willingness to experiment with radical forms, in the case of the latter, with the Cubist collage techniques being explored by Braque and Picasso. These experimental pieces were followed by a series of landscapes, such as The Artist's Garden at Durbins, Guilford (1915), which maintained his affection for Cézanne's "inner vision" while reintroducing his commitment to picture detail and a general shift towards a more naturalistic style that would follow him into the 1920s and 30s.