Tuesday, 12 April 2011

Looking forward: Looking Back (A Contradiction)

Exploring Concepts

Looking forward: Looking back
(A Contradiction)

Art Made Modern: Roger Fry’s Visions of Art
Edited by Christopher Green
Merrell Holberton Publishers in association with the Courtauld Gallery, Courtauld Institute of Art

Looking Back (to see forward)

My personal artistic journey has perpetuated the idea that in order to make progress I must prove (to myself) that I am capable of producing a realistic painting of an object using form, line and colour.  In order to achieve this I have spent much time pursuing the ‘academic’ line refuted by the Impressionists in the last century and discouraged today as a means of learning and progress because of its stultifying affects on creativity, spontaneity and loose associations of ideas expressed by feelings. Knowing that I want to get to the point where my work is looser and expresses ideas in a more creative way, do I now need to think about dispensing with the academic approach?

I have explored the basic building blocks of understanding colour through the colour wheel and by knowing the properties of various colours, i.e. transparency, opacity etc., the fugitive nature of contrasting colours, the importance of cool colours and warm colours, etc.  I have read Joseph Albers book on understanding the effects of placement and how pigments can seem to alter in tone relative to the juxtaposition of colours.

I have looked at Japanese paintings Hokusai, Ultamaro, Hiroshige and various artists who use line in succinct and innovative ways including people  Gaudier-Bzreska, Degas, Watteau, Kupka.

The importance of texture has been looked at through the Expressionists, Kokoshka. Van Gogh, Freud, Schnabel, Auerbach.

Various schools that have been scrutinized: Futurism, Vorticism, Surrealism, Cubism,  Impressionism, Pluralism and so on.  Learning the distinctions between their styles and the variations between artists within the movements, seeing how they use paint and how they compose their paintings, modulate their tone and arrive at a finished work.

I have looked at illustrations of cave paintings and early mediaeval artists, through the Italian Rennaissance to the Twentieth Century.

This odyssey has not just been a quest in the pursuit of learning for the sake of improvement of style, but has been, and will continue to be, a pleasure in itself. There is always a new artist to discover and admire a new painting that sparks your enthusiasm and touches your imagination.

Roger Fry was a well known critic and art historian at the beginning of the 20th century, who was a formalist in the sense that he felt form was essential but more than that he felt there was “pure” art and “suggestive” art the pure art being the substance, and the suggestive was like jam which helped the “pure” to go down, but he later defined this as “pure form” with “associated ideas”, and that “pure form” needed to be disentangled from social, political and art history.  This grain of thought develops throughout his career and in 1910 he arranges the first British exhibition: Manet and the Post-Impressionists at the Grafton Gallery featuring Manet, Cezanne, Gauguin, Van Gogh and Matisse. Fry had been part of the Bloomsbury set and disliked the elitist label that attached to it.  He was also involved with the Slade, giving lectures, and by the time of the exhibition he deplored the low standard of artistic conscience, and talked of Britain being a “minor school”, despite his efforts through the Omega Workshop to develop untapped talent.  The Exhibition caused mayhem with much criticism from some at the Royal Academy who denounced it as “nightmare art”.  Nonetheless aspirant painters realised the opportunities that had been opened up enabling them to challenge orthodox thinking and ideas.

Fry did not initially recognize Cubism but in his second Post-Impressionist Exhibition at the Grafton he included work by Picasso, Matisse, Braque, and the English contingent included Grant, Etchells, Gill, Gore, Henry Lamb and Wyndham Lewis.

This exhibition upset the Slade artists, and Prof. Tonks discouraged his students from going. But eventually artist like Paul Nash, who contributed to the Omega Workshop until it was disbanded, saw the importance of the avant-garde.

At the time of the demise of the Omega Workshops, Frank Rutter, an avant-guard himself, mounted an exhibition which included Futurists, German Expressionists, Robert Delaunay and Nevinson along with about 20 English artists, a considerably higher number than represented in Fry’s Exhibition.

Nonetheless, the two Exhibitions produced by Fry provided an inspirational effect on young artists.  Henry Moore later talked favourably of Fry’s contribution to the art scene saying “once you’d read Roger Fry the whole thing was there.” However, Fry was right as far as British art was concerned, German Expressonists, American Abstract Expressionists and to a lesser extent the Italian Futurists become strong movements with very little being talked about on the National scene about British Art, except perhaps the Glasgow Boys.

Looking Forward  (to see back)

Roger Fry was open to re-evaluation and questioning of the canonical judgements. He became open to non-European art, to the “savage” or “primitive” in art.  This in itself had been criticised by a critic of The Times “Really primitive art is attractive because it is unconscious; but this (the work on view at the Grafton Galleries – Second Exhibition) is deliberate – it is a rejection of what civilization has done, the good with the bad..”  The terms “savage” “barbaric” “primitive” are understood today to be more or less interchangeable, but at that time these were seen as racist terms, as something “other” in the sense of being uncivilised.

In this sense the words ‘savage’ and ‘barbaric’ contain within them the fear of progressive evolution being destroyed by barbarians and hence ultimate degeneration. This quality of degeneration was seen with  Gauguin for example, who rejected the European culture by going to the South Seas, Van Gogh’s madness which is frequently referred to. One might also include Redon’s “noirs” as being redolent of a childhood trauma. A degeneracy regressing into childishness. Theodore Hyslop, Physician at Bedlam hospital, saw this as the art of the insane, displaying excessive emotion, and danger within the society, and those who revered such works were, in his view, imposters or degenerates too.

Roger Fry counters the arguments by saying why would any artist want to discard the science learned since the Rennaissance  by returning to barbaric art?  The answer he postulates is “neither wanton nor wilfull, but simply necessary, if art is to be rescued from the hopelessness of its own accumulations of science, if art is to regain its power to express emotional ideas”.  Fry thought it was justified in order to recuperate for the civilized that expressive capacity.
Hence Duncan Grant’s Dionysian dancers and The Blue Sheep, were for the drawing-rooms of the suitably civilized. Art still had not reached the masses.

For me then, it is important to look ahead to the development of “primitive” art, which reflects on non-European art, simple art from earlier civilisations, from the tombs in Egypt, childlike art in order to get back to a purer non-formalized painting, which demonstrates the hubris of spontaneity, the joy of expressive form, the essence of being.  This was indeed something that Picasso himself wanted to achieve, he said, and I am para-phrasing: I spent a lifetime learning to paint like a child. This then is where the creative spontaneity lies. 

 Child with Dove, Picasso
© Bridgeman Education Library

Roger Fry explored children’s paintings and supported Marion Richardson, a teacher at Dudley School of Art and Design, Birmingham, who understood the importance of encouragement rather than teaching a methodology to children.  He sees “significant form” in their work which has a direct emotional response which is produced by a fusion of the “realist” and “decorative” impulses. Nevertheless he does not recommend emulating their style but he sees the need to return to a starting point where modern art can begin to evolve again, and he seems to think that all the knowledge and learning from the past will again accumulate but with passionate “zest and enthusiasm”. The actual condition of the ‘primitive’ was not, as such, to be desired.  His place in historical terms, does not allow him to eradicate the conjunction between ‘primitive’ and ‘uncivilised’, and he shared the general ignorance of African art, seeing it as produced for magical purposes not artistic ones.  He found it easier to recognise Chinese art as “sensitive” so in his eyes “civilised” and therefore culturally acceptable. He saw the coming together of East and West into a single world-wide system as a hope for the future.

Roger Fry’s comments on Art and Artists

Talking of Duncan Grant’s Rug design now at the Courtauld Gallery, Roger Fry makes a significant remark concerning the “surface sensibility” over formulaic regularity:

“ He has taken a theme of almost daring geometrical simplicity, but, not relying only on the broken quality of the knotted surface of the rug, he has deliberately broken his rectilinears by small steps up and down; he has also made his shading sometimes perpendicular and sometimes diagonal.  The effect of this is to allow us to contemplate a design which, if it had been perfectly regular, we should probably sum up in the statement seven rectangles arranged in parallel.  But these perpetual slight changes prevent us from ever passing on, as it were, to the mere mathematical generalisation.  Here I suspect is one of the secrets of the importance in art of surface sensibility.”  He talks of Grant’s ability to make “any scribble expressive”, thereby highlighting the importance of what we today would call “mark-making”.

 Duncan Grant, Tapestrie Design 
 ©Bridgeman Education Library

Fry saw Impressionism as lacking in “design”, portraying everything but that they  “did not express profound feelings and to transmit these feelings to the spectator”  He saw the scientific principles being applied as the ultimate stage of the development of the science of representation, a stage at which the fundamental principles of painting had been lost. Thus understanding colour, for example blue or violet in shadows; transforming ugly objects into sources of pleasure through the use of modified local colour; atmospheric effects which changed perception of every single object, for him changed what is known into “appearances”. 

I have to say at this point I am not quite sure what Fry’s objection is.  I can see that he has difficulty with a scientific approach to art, but “changing what is known into appearances” in my view is what art is, art is an “artifice” it cannot represent a known object without presenting it as such, it can only reflect the appearance of a thing.  Endowing it with feeling is one expression of the “object”, expressing it as an object influenced by atmosphere is another, they are not mutually exclusive presentations of the same “thing”. 

He did not however have the same difficulty with Cezanne, Degas and Renoir, presumably because “form” was clearer in their work, than atmospheric affects, what he regarded as “classic” artists. Similarly Jean Marchand.  Roger Fry writing on his “Still Life with Earthenware Jug, Loaf and Strawberries” talks of how he builds up a unity of design of impressive quality from ordinary objects, and mentions that he heard someone refer to the jug as like a Buddha.

 Jean Marchand, Still Life with Earthenware Jug, Strawberries and Loaf.  ©Bridgeman Education Library

His view of Matisse was that he was almost too pure an artist lacking a very strong reaction to life, preferring to dwell on “rhythm” in “The Dance” and pure colour in other paintings. He sees him as a realist, in that his designs are the result of things seen, not from imagination.

 Still Life with “Dance”
© Bridgeman Education Library

Whereas, as far as Cezanne’s work was concerned he saw an ability to make the spectator recognise a three dimensional world in a diversely coloured surface, Fry saw him as a naturalist with the ability to express “plastic” form.  He accepted that Cezanne probably was a misanthrope who was out of touch with his own art, giving rise to Fry’s term – inadvertent artists. Of Cezanne’s art he says Cezanne “disentangles the simplest elements of design” seeing the geometric order, i.e. cylinders, cones and spheres, but this was too simple an explanation.  Of “Bay at l’Estaque” (Philadelphia Museum of Art) Fry writes it looks as if: “cut in some incredibly precious crystalline substance, each of its facets different, yet each dependent on the rest”.  Thus Fry’s “promotion” of Cezanne declared him the “father of modern art”.

 Bay at l’Estaque, Paul Cezanne
© Bridgeman EducationLibrary

Roger Fry’s take on Islamic art talks about what is now regarded as a modern phenomenon in painting. 

Art made Modern, Roger Fry’s Vision of Art, p.181
Cat 157 Persian Square bottle, 17th or 18th Century Earthenware with turquoise and blue glaze, Courtauld Gallery (0.1935. RF 136)

The Persian craftsman …”wants to impress his idea upon the matter but his idea is not quite complete; it is not like a pattern ready drawn and handed over to someone else to execute…The idea grows to completeness as he works the matter…it is this drawing that is like a beautiful dancing that is so exhilarating and stimulating to the eye…and all the roughnesses and irregularities of their pots are really pressed into the service of the idea, they are parts of its delightful vitality and freedom of movement…happy accidents” (the running together of glazes for example). “His design is so firm so solid and self-supporting that all these accidents only add the charm of atmosphere of a suggestiveness which stirs the spectator’s imagination.”

 Persian Decorative tile © Bridgeman Education Library
(This demonstrates the points made above but is not the item referred to)

In conclusion, I feel my search has to extend more fully into “primitive” art in order to sustain progress in understanding what makes a painting more direct, more free and I feel Roger Fry, has touched upon one or two things which are as relevant today as ever, it is a question of finding these nuggets amongst much philosophising and speculation about “pure” form and “significant art”, etc.

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