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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The book offers a chronological study of select essays and lectures, both published and unpublished, written by Roger Fry between the 1890s and his death in 1934.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 II Emotion Articulated through Form: 1906-1909


Chapter II Emotion Articulated through Form: 1906–1909 Modern painting had to strike through a Quaker upbringing, through a scientific education; through Cambridge and Cambridge talk of morals and philosophy, and finally through an intensive study of the Old Italian Masters before it reached him. — Virginia Woolf, 19401 From the Old Masters to Modern Art ‘The more I study the Old Masters, the more terrible does the chaos of modern art seem to me […]’2 So declared Roger Fry in an 1894 letter to his father. This statement has an ironic twist, given that, with hindsight, we can see that Fry’s work with Old Master paintings in fact inspired his appreciation for modern art. While in the 1890s Fry used the word ‘modern’ to describe the art of the French Impressionists, in this chapter the term will mostly be applied, as in the above quotation by Virginia Woolf, to the art Fry labelled ‘Post-Impressionist’. By the time he gained an admiration for the paintings of Cézanne, Gauguin and Matisse, modern art seemed neither terrible nor chaotic to Fry.3 1 Woolf, Roger Fry: A Biography, 80. 2 Sutton, ed., Letters of Roger Fry, Vol. I, 159. 3 As will be discussed in the following chapter, Fry coined the chronologically descrip- tive label ‘Post-Impressionist’ to describe the work of these artists, though he was well aware that they were not part of an organized, conscious artistic movement. Instead they were a collective borne out of his interest in the principles of...

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