Art Writing in Britain 1910–30 : Abstracts and participants

Abstracts

Ben Harvey

Critical Work as Creative Work: Roger Fry’s ‘Cézanne’

Roger Fry wrote about art in one of two ways: in his preferred scenario he imagined the reader to be standing with the writer in front of the work of art, like friends visiting a gallery. Yet he also wrote as though the text and the reproductions were located between the reader and the (absent) work. These two critical mise-en-scènes can be understood respectively as triangular and mediatory.

This paper examines these ideas in relation to Fry’s celebrated monograph, Cézanne: A Study of His Development (1927), which began as a gallery guide to the works in the Pellerin Collection. Following the souring of the critic’s relationship with the collector, however, Fry was forced to re-imagine the book and, crucially, could no longer assume that the reader would read the text in the presence of the paintings. In short, Fry had to alter the text from a triangular form of criticism to a mediatory one: ‘[W]e see’, Fry cautions, ‘not so much [Cézanne’s] expression as the distorted image of it which has gradually taken its place in our own minds.’ To recognise the text’s mediatory qualities, and to compensate for them, Fry endeavored to give his book certain unexpected ‘Cézannian’ features. (Virginia Woolf suggested as much when she claimed that the ‘Cézanne stands out among Roger Fry’s books like Mont Sainte-Victoire.’) These qualities can be detected in the book’s cover, Fry’s lithographic copy of a Cézanne still life, and extend to considerations of plot, to the way Fry presents a particular sequence of Cézanne’s art. Drawing on Fry’s unpublished lecture notes, I argue that Mont Sainte-Victoire (Courtauld Gallery) helped Fry to think about his monograph as a ‘harmony parallel’ to Cézanne’s art.

Maggie Humm

Virginia Woolf’s Writings on Art

Virginia Woolf wrote many essays about art including texts on the Royal Academy summer exhibitions, on art critics such as Vernon Lee, Roger Fry and John Ruskin, on the relationship between art and politics, and on artists including Benjamin Haydon and Walter Sickert (most famously her 1934 book Walter Sickert: A Conversation).

Her writings on art often create a kind of prosopopoeia – a coming to know herself by constructing figures of artists and artistic events. But Woolf’s contradictory ideas about art are most prominent in her accounts of her sister Vanessa Bell’s art. This short paper will argue that, while an essay like ‘The Royal Academy’ (1919) shows Woolf abjecting her fears, her published and unpublished writings on Vanessa Bell show Woolf constructing a more complex account of art. From the momentary rupture in Woolf’s description of Bell in ‘Reminiscences’ (1908), to the very brief ‘It is strange as one enters the Mansard Gallery’ (1924), to the foreword to Recent Paintings of Vanessa Bell (1930), Woolf’s empathetic understanding of Bell’s art reveal Woolf’s developing and contradictory sense of art and identity.

Sam Rose

Aestheticism, High Art, and Close Looking after Bloomsbury

In thinking about the legacy of Bloomsbury art writing in the cultural field, two points stand out. First, that many of those who most famously came to attack so-called ‘Bloomsbury’ art theory in the 1920s and 1930s did so in the name of the same ideals of creativity and imagination that sympathetic commentators on Roger Fry and Virginia Woolf have taken to be at the heart of their thought. Secondly, that accounts of the ethics of close attention to works associated with the rise of ‘English’ as a discipline have often since tended to depict the thought of I.A. Richards and F.R. Leavis as directly opposed to that of Roger Fry and Clive Bell.

This paper explores these issues through a focus on the specific values attached to the appreciation of ‘fine’ art – including the critique of mass culture and ‘the philistine’ – by popularising art writers of the 1920s and 1930s. Highlighting the emphasis placed on active and imaginative forms of appreciation, it examines the way in which a true engagement with art was increasingly thought inimical to the passive and empty ‘aestheticism’ that critics used to characterise the ‘Bloomsbury’ approach to art.

William Rough

‘The influence between brush and mask has at the best periods been reciprocal’: Walter Sickert’s Art Criticism and its Links to the Theatre

While more familiarly known as a painter, Walter Sickert was also an astute art critic whose considered and entertaining views were printed extensively in such publications as the New York Herald, The Scotsman, The Fortnightly ReviewEnglish Review, the New Age and the Burlington Magazine. In addition, his letters to friends and contemporaries, including Ethel Sands and Nana Hudson (many of which are held in Tate’s Archive), reveal Sickert to be a knowledgeable, witty and generous writer on art and cultural life.

A feature of Sickert’s writings on art that is not so well known and deserves more attention is the way they reveal his deep-rooted fascination with the theatre. Sickert had a natural affinity with the theatre having previously been employed as an actor and his writings are sprinkled with allusions to contemporary productions, which also inspired his paintings. This presentation will highlight Sickert’s relationship to the theatre from the late 1870s to the late 1930s, providing an insight into the changing fashions, trends and appearance of the theatre during this period and its impact on Sickert’s art and writings.

Participants

Jonathan Black, Senior Research Fellow in the History of Art, Kingston University
Grace Brockington, Senior Lecturer in Art History, University of Bristol
Meaghan Clarke, Senior Lecturer in Art History, University of Sussex
Alice Correia, Henry Moore Foundation Research Fellow, Tate
Adrian Glew, Head of Tate Archive
Anna Greutzner Robins, Professor and Director of Research, Department of Art, University of Reading
Christopher Griffin, Collection Research Manager, Tate
Ben Harvey, Faculty Member, College of Art and Architecture and Design, Mississippi State University
Maggie Humm, Emeritus Professor, School of Arts and Digital Industries, University of East London
Sophie Martin, PhD candidate, University of Bristol
Lara Perry, Researcher, Faculty of Arts, University of Brighton
Sam Rose, Research Fellow, Peterhouse, University of Cambridge
Andrew Stephenson, Research Leader and Principal Lecturer, School of Arts and Digital Industries, University of East London
Bernard Vere, Lecturer in Fine and Decorative Art, Sotheby’s Institute of Art