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Roger Fry’s ‘Difficult and Uncertain Science’

The Interpretation of Aesthetic Perception


Adrianne Rubin

This new study traces the development and evolution of the writings of Roger Fry (1866-1934), a highly influential art critic who introduced modern French painting to Britain in the early twentieth century. Through close analysis of his writings, the author examines the role that emerging psychological theories played in the formulation and expression of Fry’s aesthetic theories. She also discusses aspects of physiological psychology, Gestalt theory, psychoanalysis and adaptive psychology, arguing that detailed analyses of aesthetic perception comprise the core of Fry’s writings. Though he has rarely been credited with this goal, this volume shows that Fry sought to make art accessible to a wide audience and that highlighting the universal aspects of aesthetic perception was a means to this end.
The book offers a chronological study of select essays and lectures, both published and unpublished, written by Roger Fry between the 1890s and his death in 1934. Where relevant his writings are juxtaposed with those of other art critics and theorists to identify factors that shaped his thinking and his use of terminology and to clarify the critical context in which he was working. Since Fry’s work as a visual artist ran alongside his critical thinking, some attention is given to his paintings as a method of illustrating his practical experimentation with aesthetic principles, particularly formalist concepts.


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Why Roger Fry? It seems fitting, having just marked the centenary of ‘The Second Post- Impressionist Exhibition’, to re-examine the art-critical contributions of Roger Fry (1866–1934). Through his prolific critical writings and public lectures, as well as his organization of the two Post-Impressionist exhibi- tions at the Grafton Galleries in London in 1910 and 1912, Fry inf luenced the understanding and appreciation of modern art in England and beyond. Few could argue that he is a figure inseparable from twentieth-century art criticism. However, equally few have recognized that the goal of Fry’s pursuits was to make the experience of art accessible to a wider audience than ever before – an objective that still resonates today. The extent to which Fry shaped the aesthetic sensibilities of his age was recognized by Kenneth Clark, who, after Fry’s death, famously wrote: ‘In so far as taste can be changed by one man, it was changed by Roger Fry’.1 While there have been many over the years who have praised Fry, he has also been the subject of harsh criticism. What underlies much of the negative response is the association of his name with his most renowned concept: ‘significant form’.2 Although he gives this notion prevalence in his writings, there is a general lack of understanding of what Fry intended the term to mean, and where it fits within his body of work. Compounding the confusion is the fact that Fry’s forty-year career as a critic and writer on art is often reduced in...

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