Fry is known primarily as the impresario of the two postimpressionist exhibitions held at the Grafton Gallery, London, in 1910 and 1912, which introduced modern French painting (Cézanne, Gauguin, Van Gogh, Matisse) to the English public. It would be difficult to overestimate the significance of these for visual culture and MODERNISM in the early 20th c. Fry’s important role as organizer, curator, and acquisitions director in New York and London is also well recognized—as is his involvement with the circle of painters and writers known as the BLOOMSBURY GROUP. His own work, as a painter and critic concerned with the function and meaning of art, was comparatively neglected until a recent exhibition at the Courtauld Gallery, London (October 1999–January 2000).
Fry came from a distinguished Quaker family that included the 19th-c. philanthropist Elizabeth Fry. At Cambridge reading natural sciences, he first became seriously interested in the history and philosophy of painting. Friendships with Goldsworthy Lowes Dickinson and John McTaggart, the neo-Hegelian philosopher, were formative influences and while Dickinson became interested in the application of dialectics to history and politics, Fry early decided that he was concerned with the phenomenal world, with the Hegelian “Absolute” only as it manifested itself in “Appearances.” Painting was the art of appearances and it was to this art that he devoted the rest of his life.
He became an indefatigable traveler, visiting the major galleries and museums across Europe, writing regularly on classical and Renaissance art, publishing a monograph on Giovanni Bellini (1899), helping to establish the Burlington Magazine in 1903, and discovering modern French painting through the work of Cézanne in 1906. Organizing the exhibition “Manet and the Post-Impressionists” (1910) brought him into contact with Clive and Vanessa BELL, Leonard and Virginia WOOLF, Lytton STRACHEY, and Duncan Grant, among others. He weathered public hostility to the postimpressionist exhibitions and went on to found, with Grant and Vanessa Bell, the Omega Workshops (1913–19). These workshops produced furniture, furnishings, and objects for everyday use, designed by contemporary artists—which included at one time Wyndham LEWIS, Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, and Nina Hamnett. Although short-lived, the Omega was important in introducing modernist design to a wider public and Fry went on to become an enormously popular lecturer, attracting audiences of thousands.
His essays, lectures, and critical reviews appeared after World War I in two main anthologies: Vision and Design (1920) and Transformations (1926). Vision and Design became a standard reference work for the interwar years and was one of the first books to be published by Penguin in 1937. Containing some twenty-four essays, written between 1901 and 1919 (with a Retrospect written by Fry), it is itself a modernist bricolage. As Virginia Woolf commented in her biography of Fry, the collection has something of the enthrallment of a novel and the excitement of a detective story.
The opening essays entitled “Art and Life,” “An Essay in Aesthetics,” “The Artist’s Vision,” and “Art and Science” set forth Fry’s claims for the importance of art as distinct from those of science or economics.
In life, he argues, the field of vision is organized around action; we learn to see only what is necessary for living. Art, the art of painting, on the other hand, is “pure vision abstracted from necessity”; it allows us to see objects and the world not for their human uses and functions but as a set of phenomena. Thus, painting exposes the conventional nature of “seeing” and teaches the spectator to “look” again, at the objects represented and at the emotions called into being. He rejects both John RUSKIN’s demand for a moral evaluation of art and the claims of REALISM. While Fry’s emphasis on form and “design” links him with formalists like Clive Bell (for which he was attacked by I. A. RICHARDS), his theory of “vision” anticipates some of the points later made by Maurice Merleau-Ponty and other phenomenologists.
The group of mainly prewar essays on African sculpture, ancient American art, bushman art, and Mohammedan art, make a case against the eurocentricity of Victorian art history. Arguing against the assumption that “Greece was the only source of culture,” Fry identifies qualities of “significant form” (plasticity, vitality) across different periods and cultures. Despite his anti-imperialist views, like other modernists, Fry’s appreciation of “primitivism” contains a number of evolutionary assumptions as later critics have pointed out. Other essays in the collection, like those in Transformations, which follow, display a continuing tension between formalism and Fry’s historical awareness. Despite, or because of, these unresolved theoretical points, Fry remains a key figure in 20th-c. debates on the nature of art.
Bibliography Green, C., ed., Art Made Modern: R. F.’s Vision of Art (2000); Reed, C., A R. F. Reader (1996); Spalding, F., R. F. (1980); Woolf, V., R. F. (1940)
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