Roger Fry, Clive Bell and American Modernism

by David Maddock (Author)
©2020 Monographs XVIII, 278 Pages


When the Bloomsbury critics Roger Fry and Clive Bell introduced an aesthetically conservative English public to recent Parisian avant-garde painting, they explained its disconcerting imagery by way of a late nineteenth-century metaphysical tradition which had long intrigued musicians and Symbolist writers on the European continent. The Post-Impressionist aesthetic they devised advocated a direct response to the formal ingenuity of the work of art without recourse to prior knowledge and emphasized the significance of visionary genius, albeit to the detriment of narrative acuity and technical accomplishment, values hitherto upheld by the Edwardian art establishment. The provocation was calculated, the author suggests, and its domestic ramifications were predictable: the reaction of an Anglo-conformist public in New York, on the other hand, was anything but.
Recreating an Anglo-American dialogue inspired by Fry and Bell, and framed within a period encompassing Fry’s Manet and the Post-Impressionists exhibition in 1910 and Alfred Barr Jr’s Cubism and Abstract Art exhibition in 1936, the author demonstrates how key components of Bloomsbury’s aesthetic bypassed a pre-existent modernist practice in New York and were instead taken up by an urban intelligentsia which adapted them to the requirements of an increasingly professionalized institutional practice during the 1920s.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Illustrations
  • Preface
  • Acknowledgements
  • Introduction
  • Part I An Anglo-American Aesthetic
  • Chapter 1 A Sort of Social-Historical Vividness
  • Chapter 2 Schopenhauer’s Contemplative Aesthetic
  • Chapter 3 The Genius as Artist and Modern Master
  • Part II Post-Impressionism as Cultural Discourse
  • Chapter 4 Aesthetic Theory as Cultural Cause
  • Chapter 5 Talk of Post-Impressionism
  • Part III Clive Bell: Middlebrow Conversations
  • Chapter 6 Mr Bell’s Aesthetical Joy-Ride
  • Chapter 7 An Ancient Deity: Significant Form in America
  • Chapter 8 ‘An Intimation of How to Look’: Form Encounters Pragmatism
  • Part IV Roger Fry: Towards a Formalist Orthodoxy
  • Chapter 9 I. A. Richards, the New Criticism and Charles Mauron
  • Chapter 10 Parallel Narratives: Fry’s Cézanne and Barr’s Picasso
  • Conclusion
  • Bibliography
  • Index
  • Series index


Figure 1. Roger Fry, Edward Carpenter, 1894.

Figure 2. Alvin Langdon Coburn, Edward Carpenter, 28 November 1905.

Figure 3. Alvin Langdon Coburn, Roger Fry, 27 February 1913.

Figure 4. Alvin Langdon Coburn, Max Weber, 7 February 1911.

Figure 5. Max Weber, Portrait of Alvin Langdon Coburn, 1911.

Figure 6. Alfred Barr Jr, Cubism and Abstract Art, 1936.

Figure 7. Nicolas Poussin (circle of), Achilles Discovered by Ulysses Among the Daughters of Lycomedon, c. 1635.

Figure 8. Sir Luke Fildes, The Doctor, 1891.

Figure 9. William Powell Frith, Paddington Station, 1862.

Figure 10. John Marin, Lower Manhattan, 1920.

Figure 11. Rembrandt van Rijn, Boy at His Lessons, 1655.

Figure 12. Paul Cézanne, Compotier, 1879–80.

Figure 13. Paul Cézanne, Portrait of Mme Cézanne, 1888–90.

Figure 14. Paul Cézanne, La Route du Château Noir, c. 1895.

Figure 15. Picasso, Portrait of Braque, 1909.

Figure 16. Picasso, The Poet, 1911.

Figure 17. Paul Cézanne, La Femme à la Cafetière, 1887.

Figure 18. Paul Cézanne, The Card Players, 1892–3.

Figure 19. Paul Cézanne, Bathers, 1900–6.

Figure 20. Georges Braque, Seaport, 1909.

Figure 21. Paul Cézanne, Pines and Rocks, 1896–9.

Every effort has been made to trace copyright holders and to obtain their permission for the use of copyright material. The publisher apologizes for any errors or omissions in the above list and would be grateful for notification of any corrections that should be incorporated in future reprints or editions of this book.


The cultural peripheries, where innovative ideas become, or fail to become, part of everyday life, are inherently unpredictable, as Roger Fry and Clive Bell had reason to appreciate. Fry’s exhibition, Manet and the Post-Impressionists, of 1910, is a case in point. Conceived as a stopgap in the end-of-season programme of a modest commercial gallery in Mayfair, the event not only undermined the values of the early twentieth-century English art Establishment, but also raised questions about the nature and continuity of art experience in the technologically adept societies of the English-speaking world.

It will hardly seem contradictory that these two critics, whose reputations were vested in an aesthetic tradition that detaches art values from the values of everyday life, should also have professed an interest in the modernity of society as a whole. As avowed modernists, they believed that the point of formal autonomy in the visual arts was not to negate the experience of modernity, but rather to affirm it by revising the terms of one’s engagement with it; and to do so in such a way that modernist art might become the lingua franca of modern experience. It was to this end that their contributions to the public debate during and after the exhibition were largely predicated on the value of authenticity. The sense of shared experience that defines this quality was paramount. Fry allotted much of his time to what might be described as a ‘mission’ among the provincial cities of England where he lectured and otherwise encouraged the veritable groundswell of opinion stirred by the prospect of a new and accessible modern movement in the visual arts. Indeed, he was probably not as surprised as he professed himself to be when, in 1913, he was greeted by an inordinately large audience at the municipal museum in Leicester, where he was due to deliver one of his many lectures on the new art, although, such was the event’s effect upon him that, in her biography of Fry, Virginia Woolf suggested that the occasion represented something of a pivotal moment. She relayed his reflections thus: ‘The moment had come, he believed; that was proved ←xi | xii→by a show in Leicester. People flocked to look at the pictures […] The artists and the public seemed to be coming together’.1 The congress of artists and public merited mention because it bore out the commonality of vision that lay at the heart of his aesthetic thesis, together with its concomitant critique of a supposedly aloof art Establishment.

Arguably, it is the modernist successor to that turn-of-the-century Establishment practice that now survives as the enduring legacy of both Fry and Bell long after their formalist aesthetic has run its course. Predicated on the idea of ‘Post-Impressionism’, a highly mediated version of continental European modernism, the once-new institutional modernist orthodoxy they helped to establish bequeathed to Anglophone culture that distinctly detached appreciation of art which has become the common lot of an overwhelming majority of the public lay audience in our time. One of its many paradoxes is that, as a conventionalized practice, it affords access to the object of its existence while simultaneously withholding access from it because, in the adherence of institutions to their respective methodologies, institutionalized practices inevitably become detached from the vital impulse that brought them into being in the first place. Put simply, modernist institutions can only offer modernism on their own terms, and the institutions we know and with which we now engage are no exception to the rule. Our experience of the arts is generally circumscribed by institutional constraints.

On one level, the modernism that we have come to identify with Fry and Bell was disarmingly simple for it lay in classic aesthetics’ appeal to universal and timeless principles, although it should be added that they complicated matters by adding their respective qualifications about the ordering of forms that elicit aesthetic experience. On another level, though, their otherwise simple formulation was (further) complicated by the fact that, in making the claim on behalf of Post-Impressionism, they took on vested interests, not least of which were those of an entrenched discipline of iconographical scholarship, a tradition to which Fry, at least, had shown due deference and, when he had occasion to confront it, did so with judicious caution.

←xii | xiii→

During the arguments in the immediate aftermath of the Post-Impressionist exhibitions, both he and Bell made a point of disavowing such cerebral traditions in their appeal to the ‘uncultured’ audience. It would be naïve, however, to suggest that their offer to enfranchise a broad swathe of untutored middle-class opinion on the strength of its ‘sensitivity’ to those elusive configurations of form was born of magnanimity, although, as Kenneth Clark suggested in 1939, when he accredited Fry with transforming suburban taste, the general effect of Fry’s contribution at least, more or less amounted to just that. The impression is reinforced by Noel (later, Lord) Annan, who identified both Fry and Bell with an English intellectual elite that transformed the professional and cultural life of the nation between the late nineteenth and early to mid-twentieth centuries. Moreover, Raymond Williams’ sociological critique of Annan accredits Bloomsbury with a far-reaching hegemony that shaped middle-class cultural mores and laid the foundations for an ‘arm’s-length’ patronage system that is embodied in the Arts Council. That being said, the significance attached to their socio-cultural standing has been, and largely remains, marginal in conventional historiographies of modernism, in which Fry and Bell are more usually bracketed as proponents of ‘significant form’, conjoined, so to speak, in their advocacy of the rudimentary English version of aesthetic formalism.

The reality of their twenty-four-year collaboration was rather more complicated than such accounts lead us to believe for the two critics had their differences and readily accepted them, feeling little compunction about advertising points of divergence in published material, albeit in the spirit of fraternal critique as opposed to the surprisingly antipathetic spirit that characterized their critique of some of their more dubious allies and outright adversaries. The fact is that they were quite unlike one another both temperamentally and in background. Fry was sixteen years older than Bell and had established his reputation as a Renaissance scholar by the time they met. Born into a distinguished Quaker lineage in 1866, the second son of the judge Sir Edward Fry and his wife, Lady Mirabella, two of his eight siblings, Joan Mary Fry, the Quaker campaigner, and Margery Fry, the secretary of the Howard League for Penal Reform and one-time principal of Somerville College, Oxford, achieved distinction in their own ←xiii | xiv→right. During an austere childhood, his early interest in nature had been warmly encouraged, but, in 1886, having attained a Double First in the Natural Sciences at King’s College, Cambridge, and with it the prospect of a long-cherished academic career, it was to the consternation of his parents that he turned his back on the opportunity and became a painter.

He toyed with scientific interests over the next two years (to placate his father, it is said), as well as studying painting. In 1891, he travelled to Italy, where he resolved to take up art more seriously. In 1892, he spent a brief period at the Académie Julian in Paris before returning to Italy, where he became acquainted with Bernard Berenson and read works by Giovanni Morelli and Walter Pater. On his return to England, he established his reputation as a Renaissance scholar while lecturing with the Cambridge Extension Movement, consolidating his position in 1899 when he published his monograph on Giovanni Bellini. In 1904, he took up an appointment as Curator of European Painting at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. While there, he met Matthew Pritchard, the Curator of Antiquities at Boston Museum of Fine Art, who drew his attention to the work of Henri Bergson and alerted him to its museological relevance. Tensions with J. P. Morgan, the museum’s president, and anxiety regarding the deteriorating mental health of his wife, Helen, necessitated a return to England in 1909, where, the following year, he resigned from his by-then diminished role as ‘European Advisor’, thereby terminating his ties with the Metropolitan Museum permanently. At the age of 44, when he met Clive Bell, he was ready and eminently qualified to champion the cause of modern art in England.

Bell, with whom he collaborated until his death in 1934, was one of the original members of ‘Bloomsbury’, as it became known, having met Thoby Stephen, Lytton Strachey, Saxon Sidney-Turner and Leonard Woolf at Trinity College, Cambridge, where they fell in with one another as freshers in autumn 1899. Born in 1881 to nouveau-riche parents, William Heward Bell, a civil engineer with holdings in the coal mining industry, and Hannah Taylor Cory, he was the third of four children. Evidently, his industrial bourgeois background set him apart socially from the remainder of Bloomsbury, most of whom hailed from the professional upper middle classes or landed gentry. As Quentin Bell, his son, noted, conversation at Cleve House, the neo-Gothic family pile in Wiltshire, seldom strayed ←xiv | xv→from matters sporting or the topic of the weather, but Cambridge, it seems, awakened him to the inner life of the mind and, although he was excluded by his peers from the Apostles because he was thought to be too worldly, he began to show an interest in the arts. On graduation in 1902 with a Second Class in both parts of his Historical Tripos, he was awarded an Earl of Derby scholarship to further his studies in Paris, which he proceeded to do in 1904 following a big game hunting tour to British Columbia. Having by then read G. E. Moore’s Principia Ethica, he conducted historical research in Paris on the Congress of Verona, frequenting the Louvre as and when he could and doing the rounds of artists’ studios with the Irish painter Roderic O’Conner. On his return to London, he began to attend Thoby Stephen’s ‘Thursday Evenings’ at 46, Gordon Square, where he met Vanessa and Virginia. He got engaged to Vanessa shortly after Thoby’s untimely death in 1906, and married her the following year. When he met Fry in 1910, he was probably more knowledgeable than him about the Parisian avant-garde and he willingly took up his invitation to collaborate on The Second Post-Impressionist Exhibition in 1912.

Direct comparison between the two critics is instructive up to a point, but it fails to register the dynamic of their collaboration. That interplay may be inferred, however, from published material provided we interpret the written text as documentary evidence of the wider discursive process and recognize the authorial intent of our protagonists and their interlocutors. Therefore, taking a body of written material published during the period between the Manet and the Post-Impressionists exhibition in 1910 and the Cubism and Abstract Art exhibition in 1936 as our primary source, we proceed on the assumption that, in the culturally permissive societies of England and America, articulate opinion was generated through the processes of public discourse. Texts are cross-referenced and scrutinized for common assumptions, patterns of correspondence, continuities of argument and, indeed, the breaks in continuity that might constitute the coherence and parameters of discourse. The shaping influence of Fry and Bell on a marginal aesthetic conversation propagated concurrently on both sides of the Atlantic is followed thereby to the point where its implications for an institutional practice are realized. As we are aware, that institutional modernism came to prominence in the 1930s and then to hegemonic dominance in the aftermath of the Second World War.

←xv |
 xvi→←xvi | xvii→

1 Virginia Woolf, Roger Fry: A Biography, 1940 (London: Hogarth Press 1969), 189.


XVIII, 278
ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2020 (May)
Anglo-American Modernism Aesthetic Formalism Cultural Discourse Bloomsbury Roger Fry Clive Bell
Oxford, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, New York, Wien, 2020. XVIII, 278 pp., 21 fig. col.

Biographical notes

David Maddock (Author)

Having studied Fine Art at Bristol and then Goldsmith’s College, David Maddock taught art while continuing to practice as a painter. In 1989, he enrolled on the Art History master’s course at the University of Leeds, where he catalogued the works of George Clausen in the Sam Wilson Bequest at the City Art Gallery, before submitting a thesis on English modernist theory between 1910 and 1914. He returned to the topic, expanding upon it, some years later when he undertook his PhD at Leicester University. He is currently Head of Art and Art History at Leicester Grammar School where, in addition to normal teaching duties, he co-ordinates a programme of exhibitions and visits to cities of cultural interest, finding time, when he can, to paint.


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