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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The book offers a chronological study of select essays and lectures, both published and unpublished, written by Roger Fry between the 1890s and his death in 1934.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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Frances Spalding’s biography of Fry, the first work to analyse keenly his criti- cal contributions, paved the way for the numerous re-evaluations of Fry’s work that were to emerge in the 1990s. Apart from Christopher Reed’s A Roger Fry Reader, whose merits have been praised throughout this project, an enhanced understanding of Fry’s theories, as well as an increased appre- ciation for the scope of his endeavours, resulted from two exhibitions held concurrently in 1999; while Fry’s paintings were being showcased alongside those of Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant in the Tate Gallery exhibition The Art of Bloomsbury, his roles as painter, critic and collector were being celebrated at the Courtauld Gallery in Art Made Modern: Roger Fry’s Vision of Art. Beyond the exhibits themselves, the accompanying catalogue essays of fered insights into Fry which inspired the doctoral thesis from which this book emerged. The Art of Bloomsbury catalogue dispels the notion that Fry was solely a formalist. The exhibition’s curator, Richard Shone, notes of Fry: ‘Ironically, while he himself was considerably revising his views on the role of content in art, his earlier more rigid theoretical formalism came under attack’.1 It is James Beechey, however, who most eloquently defends Fry against the charges of staunch and exclusionary formalism. He writes, first of Fry alone, and then of Fry and Bell jointly: Recent re-evaluations of his critical practice have gone a long way towards demolishing the sterile formalist of so many myths […] evidence of genuine discrimination needs to be mustered,...

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