Roger Eliot Fry – why knowledge isn’t always a good thing

There is no feeling of inner life and all traces of sensibility in the handling have been polished away. 

Surely that must be Brian Sewell commenting on a contemporary conceptual work? Did not Roger Fry die in 1934? This quote is part of Fry’s consideration of this 4500 year old Dynasty IV portrait of King Chefren, which he acknowledged has great realism and is one of the finest works of the period. Later versions of the same subject deteriorate further as the vital plastic rhythms disappear:

It is pure and quite unintelligent craftsmanship. Description, decoration and mechanical finish have become the only preoccupations of the sculptor. (Fry, Last Lectures 1939, 56-57)

In sculpture, our pleasure comes from contemplating the main relations of the planes and we strive to find other systems of plastic relations within these, before considering texture and perhaps even the grain of the material. Richness comes from a prolonged succession of moments of pleasure coming from the answering of the causes of the image/object (appealing to our sense of harmony and fitness), whereas the intellect cannot benefit in such a way from facts and mathematical problems – a symmetrical design (or ‘getting’ the conceptual idea) is answered in a millisecond.

Roger Fry’s Last Lectures (as Slade Professor of Fine Art) were assembled from his lectures notes and images after his death and is introduced by Kenneth Clark. Reading it is a breath of fresh air, particularly considering his two themes of vitality and sensibility which we shall return to.

We want every scrap of knowledge we can glean from archaeology, from political and social history and from the study of documents. We want to know all we can about the origins and circumstances of a work of art. But besides this knowledge you have to practice an art, the art of looking at works of art with the most sensitive and vivid response possible. And perhaps the most important part of that art consists in the power to maintain your spirit in a condition of tense passivity, a state of passive receptiveness in which you are alert to its appeal, ready to vibrate in harmony with it. The aim I have in view has been to suggest to you possible methods of such a training of aesthetic apprehension. (Fry, Last Lectures 1939, 95-96)

So next time you are in a gallery, look at the work before you read the interpretation plaque – and see what happens.

Some Roger Fry (1866-1934) texts are available online:

Roger Fry on Art and the Market (selected writings) by Craufurd D. Goodwin

A Roger Fry Reader (Selected writings) by Christopher Reed