Art History · Spotlight on Artists

The Life and Work of Roger Fry

Roger Fry - Self-Portrait
Roger Fry, Self-Portrait

Meet Roger Fry. A little while back, Mr. Fry and I spent a delightful year in each other’s company, because he was the subject of my honors thesis in my senior year of college. Seeing as dear old Roger holds such an important place in my scholarly career, I figure it is high time I post something about him here.

Roger Fry (1866-1934) was a Cambridge-educated Englishman and a member of the Bloomsbury group — a circle of influential literary and artistic friends including writer Virginia Woolf and her artist sister Vanessa Bell. Fry was involved in the early twentieth-century London art world on almost every possible level, but he is well known for two things and little appreciated for all his other accomplishments.

Roger Fry, "Iris Tree in a Sombrero"
Roger Fry, “Iris Tree in a Sombrero”

His first claim to fame was his role as a proponent of Formalism, a twentieth-century art theory that eventually led to the widespread acceptance of abstract art. The second was his role as curator of two phenomenally important exhibitions (in 1910 and 1912) that brought French Post-Impressionist art to England for the first time. However, he was also a painter, collector, critic, curator, owner of a short-lived decorative arts studio, and a prolific writer. In my thesis, I researched and discussed almost every aspect of his career.

I have no intention of talking too much here about the conclusions I came to in my thesis. For one matter, I wrote over one hundred pages about Roger Fry, and I would have a really difficult time recapping it in a format short enough to be a blog post while still doing justice to both his and my work. For another, I feel no need to rehash what I consider a job very well done while there are so many other topics I want to write about. However, I will summarize briefly as follows: The goal of my thesis was to interpret Fry’s particular brand of Formalism in the context of his career as a whole, using his own paintings, writings, private art collection, acquisitions for the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and curatorial projects in order to better understand his views on representation in art, which I found to be more complex then they seem on the surface and somewhat different from what they have traditionally been assumed to be.

Roger Fry, "Turkish Landscape"
Roger Fry, “Turkish Landscape”

Over the course of the thesis process, I came to feel quite attached to Fry and his work. Therefore, it bothers me that he is so under appreciated. In particular, there seems to be a general consensus that he was not a good painter, which I do not think is true at all. He only seems to come up in discussion where his work (like the Post-Impressionist exhibitions) furthered the development of art history on a larger scale and is almost never mentioned for himself. To make matters worse, the work he is recognized for is often misunderstood or interpreted in a manner I would consider questionable. I sometimes feel a strange responsibility to bring him up whenever he fits into the dialog. For example, I saw a post the other day that included a painting Fry purchased for the Met, and I almost commented mentioning his connection until I realized that it would have been completely irrelevant to the writer’s point. I have no current plans to do any more research on Fry, but I would definitely be open to it if the right idea presented itself. Tired as I was by the time I submitted my thesis, I can honestly say that I never got sick of Fry or his work. So for the moment, let us consider this post a partial fulfillment of my self-appointed duty to educate the world about Roger Fry. I would be happy to post more if anyone wants to know more about him.

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