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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The book offers a chronological study of select essays and lectures, both published and unpublished, written by Roger Fry between the 1890s and his death in 1934.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 IV Unity and Necessity: 1917-1934


Chapter IV Unity and Necessity: 1917–19341 It is indeed only by acquiring a certain humility and dif fidence in our judgments that we can hope constantly to improve our sensibility and lay ourselves open to fresh experiences. — Roger Fry, 19332 Years of Expansion and Synthesis It was perhaps with an air of self-deprecation that, in the 1920s, Fry declared: ‘It’s dreadful how dif fident getting a little deeper into things makes one – one sees too much to say anything’.3 While he never hesitated to express his views, Fry realized by this point in his career that the more one sees, the less one actually knows. This acknowledgement, coupled with the openness to experience of which the above quotation speaks, mark Fry’s mature attitude towards aesthetic perception. More than any other time 1 The first part of this title is a phrase Fry used in a letter of 1920 to Marie Mauron. In it he claims that the artist must focus his attention solely on ‘the perception of unity and necessity’ in order to preserve the integrity of his artistic vision. See Sutton, ed., Letters of Roger Fry, Vol. II, 497. It is to be noted that the year 1916 has been omit- ted from the sequence because Fry produced very little writing then. He was chief ly occupied with the operation of the Omega Workshops, and he was so interested in collaborative and communal projects at this time that, in a 1916 letter to Charles and Rose Vildrac, he...

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