The Literate Eye: Victorian Art Writing and Modernist Aesthetics

By Rachel Teukolsky | Go to book overview

FIVE
Primitives and Post-Impressionists

Roger Fry’s Anthropological Modernism

For along with the pictures that reality presents to the eye, there exists another
world of images, living or coming into life in our minds alone, which, though
indeed suggested by reality, are nevertheless essentially metamorphosed. Every
primitive artist, when endeavouring to imitate nature, seeks with the spontaneity
of a psychical function to reproduce merely these mental images.

—Emmanuel Loewy, The Rendering of Nature in Early Greek Art (1907)

The graphic arts are the expression of the imaginative life rather than a copy of
actual life… [Art] presents a life freed from the binding necessities of our actual
existence.

—Roger Fry, “An Essay in Aesthetics” (1909)

I believe in reality as Cézanne or Caliban believe in it.”

—Gertrude Stein, notebook (1909)


Theories of the Modern and the Tribal

Historians have often acknowledged the relation of the Bloomsbury Group to its Victorian predecessors. The Omega workshops, for example, which produced avant-garde household wares between 1910 and 1914, had obvious roots in the Arts and Crafts movement of the previous century.1 Roger Fry, Bloomsbury’s eminent art critic, wrote essays on “Art and Socialism” and dwelled on the ethics of art spectatorship in a manner familiar from Victorian meditations. Yet the dominant move in contemporary scholarship, especially in the study of British art movements, has been to underline a break between the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.2 In many ways, the narrative of that break was scripted by modernists themselves—as when Virginia Woolf memorably quipped that “on or about December 1910 human nature changed.”3 Woolf’s selection of this seemingly random date in fact refers to what is perhaps the most controversial art show ever held in Britain: the 1910 exhibition of post-impressionist paintings at the Grafton Gallery in London.4 Here the British public was introduced to—and scandalized by—the modern French paintings of Cézanne, Gauguin, and Matisse. The furor greeting this exhibition seems to

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