Important Art by Roger Fry
Agony in the Garden (1465)
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".
The National Gallery, London
The Girl with Green Eyes (1908)
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.
Oil on canvas - San Francisco Museum of Modern Art
River with Poplars (c.1912)
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.
Oil paint on wood - Tate
The Post-Impressionist Room (1941)
Through his Bloomsbury Group connections Fry effectively created the Impressionist and Post-Impressionist rooms at the National Gallery in London. (John) Maynard Keynes would become a world renowned economist who helped found both the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. He was also the founder of the British Arts Council. In 1918, while still a Treasury advisor, Keynes became a member of the Bloomsbury Group and Fry showed him a way to combine his two great passions: money and art. Fry told Keynes about an upcoming auction in Paris in which it would be possible to buy paintings by the likes of Degas, Cezanne, Manet and Gauguin at bargain prices.
Fry convinced his friend that these geniuses of contemporary French art were still largely unrecognised by the British public and they needed to be permanently on display in its capital city (ideally, in the National Gallery). On Fry's advice, Keynes and the director of the National Gallery, Sir Charles Holmes, travelled to Paris with £20,000 in French currency. Fully aware that the French would be reluctant to sell to a British bidder, Holmes disguised himself by shaving off his moustache and adopting a faux French accent. The war was still raging in the trenches of Flanders and northern France, and, as luck would have it (from a British point of view at least), once the sale was underway the auction-house was physically shaken by the roar of shelling from a German super-gun leading many bidders to flee the building in fear for their lives. Keynes and Holmes stood their ground and as bidding fell off they were able to acquire several masterpieces at bargain prices. These acquisitions would lead to the formation of the Impressionist and Post-Impressionist rooms at the National Gallery which are now the most visited in the entire gallery.
The National Gallery, London
The Conversion of St. Paul (1600-01)
In October 1922, Fry published an article in The Burlington Magazine for Connoisseurs entitled 'Settecentismo' in which he lamented Caravaggio's style in a comparison with Futurism and modern cinematography ("what an impresario for the cinema Caravaggio would make" Fry exclaimed). Fry's argument was that Caravaggio's style instigated a long tradition in the visual arts that led to the "modern popular picture", namely: Salon painting, Victorian narrative painting, Futurism, and, finally, the new art of cinematography.
Fry's criticism of Caravaggio linked to the Italian Futurist movement in their shared "love of violent sensations and uncontrolled passions" which was in his view part of "the Italian spirit which also created Fascism [and a] ruffian and swash - buckling attitude [that attributed] aesthetic value to violent sensations". For Fry, this road led to nothing less than the "complete destruction of art". Fry's aesthetic preference was for a more authentic, less melodramatic, art that revealed the artists' sensations towards their material. It was this "sensibility" that the true artist could convey to the viewer through their unique designs of form and colour. Artists like Caravaggio merely denied the viewer the intellectual satisfaction of discovering this higher pleasure. The "modern popular picture" tended to fixate on pointless picture detail - or fragments of reality - which merited admiration but lacked the essence of what art should be. Reaching its current apotheosis in the cinema (with its fixation on the close-shot), the "modern popular picture" delivered a direct, but fleeting, emotional thrill.
In 1922 the language of cinema was still in its infancy and was considered strictly the art of the masses. Three years later Fry had joined the Film Society of London with the aim of raising awareness of the intellectual importance of cinema as an art form.
Oil on canvas - Santa Maria del Popolo, Rome
Preparation for the Funeral (The Autopsy) (1867-69)
Fry published Cézanne. A Study of his Development in 1927. Reviewing it in 2009, the historian Richard Verdi called it "a landmark book which is arguably still the most sensitive and penetrating of all explorations of Cézanne's paintings". Yet Fry's book had an inauspicious start. Written in French, and intended to serve as an introduction to the Pellerin Collection in Paris (the most complete collection of Cézanne's work) L'Amour de l'Art was published in 1926 but without commercial or critical success. Fry translated the book into English and published it through Leonard and Virginia Woolf's Hogarth Press allowing it to reach a much wider public.
There is a strong degree of ambiguity about Cézanne's Autopsy leading some historians to have speculated on whether it could be an observational scene from rural medical practice, or even a version of the entombment of Christ. For Fry, however, this painting, like The Banquet and The Lazarus to which he compared it, was about an inner vision that bore no direct reference to actual models of real life or to models of antiquity. Cézanne had, according to Fry, "resigned himself to accepting the thing seen as the nucleus of crystallization in place of poetic inspiration". For Fry, Cézanne's lack of the "common gift of illustration" and his lack of an ability, such as that possessed by Rubens, to use his imagination to render "under any conditions of light and shade [to relate objects] within a credible space", was more than compensated for in his "inner visions" that showed "extraordinary dramatic force, a reckless daring born of intense inner conviction and above all a strangeness and unfamiliarity, which suggest something like hallucination".
Oil on canvas - Private collection
Chiswick House (1933)
Chiswick House in West London is pictured in the grounds of a garden featuring two stone plinths in the foreground, of which one is crowned with a classical vase. The setting seems to be one of late afternoon as dark shadows from the trees are being cast over the grounds. From the early 1920's Fry's painting had become more representational, as evidenced in his many landscapes of this period, especially those produced on his visits to his beloved Provence. Chiswick House thus represents a late lyricism in Fry's technique in which the subject matter overtakes, or at least matches, the paintings' formal qualities by focusing heavily on a sense of setting.
Speaking of his landscape paintings, Fry stated that they were "no difference [...] to his other subjects" and that "in general in painting I try to express the emotions that the contemplation of the form produces in me". His shift in emphasis to a more harmonious picture plane can be seen to coincide with his relationship with Helen Anrep, with whom, after many setbacks, he had finally found lasting love. Adding to the patchwork-like arrangement of naturalistic tones - greens, salmon pinks, purples and oranges - Fry makes no attempt to disguise or subdue his fluent brushwork. Chiswick House thus represents an artist having found inner peace in the later years of life.
Oil on canvas - Manchester Art Gallery