As a critic and historian who interpreted contemporary trends in art for an entire generation of Englishmen, as an organizer of important and sometimes notorious avant-garde exhibitions, and as a member of the Bloomsbury Group of artists and writers, Roger Fry was a powerful freshet, or series of freshets, amid the swirling cultural tides of early twentieth century Britain, and a full-dress biography of this many-sided man is long overdue. To spice the life, there is considerable sexual interest as well in Fry’s extended and often painful courtship of Virginia Woolf’s sister, Vanessa, in his affair with an Amazonian Polish Communist, and in his relationship with Helen Anrep, who, when Fry met her, was one of two women living with her Russian husband. There is, in fact, a Frenchwoman who, in love with Fry but assuming, incorrectly, that he failed to return her passion, shot herself on the cliff at Le Havre, her face toward England and Fry.
Frances Spalding has explored and provided new funds of data in a number of areas of Fry’s life, and yet, oddly enough, her detailed effort to reconstruct a hitherto neglected aspect of Fry’s career—his work as a painter—creates a curious imbalance in her biography, for she almost necessarily is led to make larger claims for the paintings than they can possibly support. Although he took his painting seriously and wanted the world to take it seriously, Fry never could bring himself to commit himself to a career as an artist; nor does he seem to have understood what such commitment necessitated. Thus, he remained a glorified Sunday painter, working away on vacations and during visits to friends. Necessarily, there is good deal of discontinuity in the work, and changes in style and theme often seem to be dictated, not by inner necessity, but by stray and accidental associations. Working alongside Jean Marchand, Fry “developed his use of close-toned subdued hues and an interest in a consistent texture.” When the Royal Academy opened an exhibition of Dutch art, Fry entered a Dutch period of his own. Later, visiting the Pissaro Centenary Exhibition and a show of Sisley’s work, Fry changed his approach to light and shade and employed a looser brushstroke. If few took him seriously as an artist in his own day, and if almost no one does today, his work as a painter clearly sharpened his perceptions as a critic. Indeed, as Spalding makes clear, what was weakness in one area was strength in another; for, as he regularly translated the techniques of others into his own paintings, so he made room for them, as much as possible, in his critical structures, structures that continued to grow and provide for new responses and fresh insights.
Spalding is particularly useful in tracing the development of Fry’s critical attitudes and areas of interest, and she indicates clearly what changed in Fry’s perceptions and what remained steady. Married at age thirty but still supported by an allowance from his father, Fry turned increasingly from canvas to criticism. His first efforts were, intriguingly, made at a considerable remove from the region of the avant-garde of which he ultimately made himself a leading citizen; he drew instead upon his knowledge of the Italian Renaissance for a series of books, articles, and lectures, and, in fact, tended to compare the moderns—or the French Impressionists who were the moderns for Fry at the time—quite unfavorably with the Italians. As one might expect, Fry was still the child of the nineteenth century in these early critical ventures and frequently enough revealed an embarrassingly subjective or associative approach to the work (thus a portrait of St. Francis by Giovanni Bellini is “the most human conception of the man in Venetian Art, and the most convincing in the rendering of spiritual passion”). Nevertheless, impelled by his reading, by his association with Bernard Berenson, and by his own insights, Fry increasingly concerned himself with matters of form and design that he ultimately saw at the center of Italian Renaissance art, concerns which became the locus of his evaluation of contemporary art, and which were finally embodied in the famous phrase “significant form.”
From Spalding’s account, however, it is apparent that Fry might well have become and remained a fixture in the world of old-master scholarship, for it was in this phase of his career that he achieved a series of triumphs—being made art editor...
(The entire section is 1812 words.)