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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The book offers a chronological study of select essays and lectures, both published and unpublished, written by Roger Fry between the 1890s and his death in 1934.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 V Fry’s Legacy


Once you’d read Roger Fry the whole thing was there. — Henry Moore, 19611 The Reception and Interpretation of Fry’s Theories It is only when one has a full grasp and awareness of Fry’s evolving theories that his inf luence upon art criticism and art appreciation can be put into some context. This chapter seeks to do this in two related ways: first, by charting aspects of the reception of Fry’s ideas; and second, by examining how his theories informed those of other formalist art critics, specifically, Kenneth Clark, Herbert Read and Clement Greenberg.2 Since both the reception and interpretation of Fry’s theories have shaped his legacy as a critic, these responses to his work will be examined in conjunction with 1 This statement is a recollection of Moore’s student days at the Royal College of Art in the 1920s. Reprinted in Philip James, ed., Henry Moore on Sculpture: A Collection of the Sculptor’s Writings and Spoken Words (London, 1968), 33. Moore also stated: ‘Roger Fry’s Vision and Design was the most lucky discovery for me’. Ibid., 49. 2 The examination of the writings of Fry’s art-critical successors will be contained to the period up to approximately 1960, after which time permutations of formalism developed that bear little resemblance to Fry’s thinking. The anti-essentialist views of Michael Fried are one obvious example, though he addressed Fry’s theories explicitly in ‘Roger Fry’s Formalism’, from The Tanner Lectures on Human Values, delivered at the University of Michigan in 2001. In this lecture, Fried...

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