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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The book offers a chronological study of select essays and lectures, both published and unpublished, written by Roger Fry between the 1890s and his death in 1934.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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Chapter I The Centrality of Sensation: 1891-1905


Chapter I The Centrality of Sensation: 1891–1905 […] the artist should be a physiologist […] — Roger Fry, 18881 Evidence of Fry’s Interest in Psychology Of the many diverse factors that informed Roger Fry’s art criticism, perhaps the most significant and overlooked is that of psychology. While at times he was deeply resistant to contemporary schools of psychological thought, most notably to psychoanalysis, Fry’s underlying interest in the subject was inscribed into his critical thinking. From his earliest unpublished writings to his Last Lectures, psychology played an important role in the conception and expression of Fry’s aesthetic constructs. This is evident in his choice of subject matter as well as in his use of specific terminology. As early as 1899, Fry remarked: ‘I suppose it must remain quite mysterious to each of us what the mechanism of the other’s aesthetic psychology is’.2 Through the phrase ‘aesthetic psychology’ Fry ef fectively describes the focus of his analyses, which, paradoxically, begin with an awareness of such subjectiv- ity, yet come to emphasize the common aspects of aesthetic experience. Fry’s attention to psychology included his interest in individual psy- chology and group psychology, as his choice of personal reading illustrates. 1 REF/1/10 Autograph manuscript papers to the Cambridge Conversazione Society, the ‘Apostles’, ‘Must Mahomet [sic] Go to the Mountain?’ ( June 1888), 1. 2 Sutton, ed., Letters of Roger Fry, Vol. I, 175. 10 Chapter I Among the Fry Papers held in the Modern Archive Centre at King’s College, Cambridge, there are diaries belonging to...

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