British Art Critic, Artist, and Designer
Summary of Roger Fry
Roger Fry was Britain's most influential art critic during the first half of the twentieth century. He was, in point of fact, something of a polymath, showing a vast cultural range and an upper level of attainment as a painter, designer, broadcaster and curator. But it is for his legacy to art criticism and art history that Fry remains most admired. It was Fry who invented the term Post-Impressionism, and it was he who did more than any other individual to introduce contemporary French art to the British public. Fry was co-founder of one of Britain's most established art journals, The Burlington Magazine for Connoisseurs, while his own painting reflected the influence of his great hero, Paul Cézanne. Having become a member of the famous Bloomsbury Group, he established a design workshop - The Omega Workshops - to rival that of William Morris and his Arts and Crafts Movement. Towards the end of his career Fry added a series of radio broadcasts for the BBC and a professorship at Cambridge University to his already imposing résumé.
- Fry was amongst the first British art critics to advocate the importance of French modernism. Swimming against a tide of academic opinion, he saw a true artistic authenticity in their work and, with great verve and erudition, he defended the crude "child-like" qualities of the group that he would name the Post-Impressionists.
- Rejecting the tradition in art criticism established by John Ruskin through which the aesthetic judgement rested on the critics' moral position in relation to the work(s) under scrutiny, Fry formulated a more objective form of analysis. He demonstrated a more technical, more objective, approach to art criticism that focused on the way the psychology of the artist in question evolved in the style of his paintings.
- Through his Omega Workshop, Fry brought the decorative colors and designs of the Post-Impressionists and Cubists into interior design. There were obvious similarities between what Fry was trying to achieve and the goals of his predecessor William Morris. But Fry's Omega project was motivated by nothing more than to transfer fine art into the sphere of everyday living, whereas Morris's anti-industrialization Arts and Crafts Movement saw itself as part of a bigger social project.
- Fry did more than any other of its senior contributors to establish the critical integrity and credibility of the Burlington Magazine for Connoisseurs. Through the magazine, and indeed through his series of broadcasts on the BBC, Fry widened the geographic scope of Western art history by bringing Chinese and African art into its historiography.
Biography of Roger Fry
Roger Eliot Fry was the son of the Judge, Edward Fry. He and his two sisters (Joan and Margery) were raised in a wealthy Quaker family in the Highgate area of North London. He was educated at Clifton College and King's College Cambridge where he joined the so-called "Cambridge Apostles". The Apostles were (are) a secret society (founded in 1820 by George Tomlinson, the future First Bishop of Gibraltar) that met on Friday evenings to discuss topics such as truth, religion, art and ethics. The Apostles have included some of the most influential men in British public life including (John) Maynard Keynes, Leonard Woolf, Lytton and James Strachey, GE Moore and Rupert Brooke. It was as an Apostle that Fry fostered his interest in art and several members of the Bloomsbury Group were former Apostles including Fry, Keynes, Woolf, Lytton Strachey and Goldsworthy Lowes Dickinson.
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.
Influences and Connections
Useful Resources on Roger Fry
- "Fry, Roger" Oxford Dictionary of Art and ArtistsOur PickBy Ian Chilvers
- Roger Fry and the beginnings of formalist art criticismOur PickBy Jacqueline V. Falkenheim
- Among the Bohemians: Experiments in Living 1900-1939Our PickBy Virginia Nicholson
- Roger Fry, Art and LifeOur PickBy Frances Spalding
- Cézanne. A Study of his DevelopmentOur PickBy Roger Fry
- Art History Reviewed III: Roger Fry's Cézanne, a study of his developmentOur PickBy Richard Verdi / JSTOR / 2009
- Art Theory, "An Essay in Aesthetics"Our PickBy Roger Fry / Art Theory / 1909
- Art promotion by the Bloomsbury Group: 1. How Roger Fry changed historyOur PickThe Electric Light Company / November 20, 2015
- Art View; "Cezanne: Creating the Future Single-Handed"Our PickThe New York Times / March 5, 1989
- Sense and Sensibility: Roger Fry on Caravaggio and FuturismOur PickThe Burlington Magazine / April 19, 2020
- The shock of the old: 'Manet and the Post-ImpressionistsOur PickThe Burlington Magazine / December 2010
- The curious tale of the economist and the Cezanne in the hedgeOur PickBy Trevor Dann / BBC News Magazine / May 3, 2014
- Roger FryOur PickEnglish Heritage / 2010
- It's Time to Forgive Sargent For Making It Big in 1880'sOur PickBy Hilton Kramer / The Observer / August 12, 1997
- The paintings of Roger FryOur PickBy Frances Spalding / Sheffield Hallam Research Archive / June 5, 2018
- The story of Omega WorkshopsOur PickTate, Look Closer / April 19, 2020