The Taste Changer


Roger Fry self portrait 1928

As Wikipedia will tell you, Roger Fry (1866 – 1934) was an English artist, art critic and member of the Bloomsbury group. He became an advocate of modern painting, and invented the term ‘Post-Impressionism’. He was the first figure to raise public awareness of modern art in Britain. Art historian Kenneth Clark describes him as:


“incomparably the greatest influence on taste since Ruskin … in so far as taste can be changed by one man, it was changed by Roger Fry.”

 images[3]        Barns and Pond, Charleston – Roger Fry


Why am I turning my attention to him?


Firstly, because he tries to come to grips with what abstract painting is about, even before it was properly formulated, and in doing so, considers what makes art truly art. He championed the work of Manet, Gauguin, Matisse and Van Gogh at a time when the perceived aim of fine art was to make highly accomplished representational work. These artists, on the other hand, excited only horror and mockery amongst art going public and contemporary critics alike. Their work didn’t ‘look right’. Yet Fry found something profoundly valuable in their maligned paintings, and I would like to investigate what he felt this something consisted of.


Secondly, he emphasised form over content. He thought that how the work looks is more important than what it is about. “He thought that artists should use colour and arrangement of forms rather than the subject to express their ideas and feelings.” (Tate website ‘Archive Journeys: Bloomsbury) I, on the other hand, find that content is really important to me. Is it more important than form? I don’t think so. But I think that content has a huge part to play, especially if you take the totality of a work to include both form and content. Yet I agree that in the final analysis, how a work looks is the more important of the two. A contradiction? By considering Roger Fry’s writings, I hope to have the opportunity to think about this dilemma a bit further.


Thirdly, I am interested in his description of Post-Impressionism as “the discovery of the visual language of the imagination”, and his perspective of valuing the imaginative life over the everyday. The Tate website quotes him:

“I think that the artist might if he chose take a mystical activity and declare that the fulness and completeness of the imaginative life he leads may correspond to an existence more real and more important than any that we know of in mortal life.”


How does Fry think of the ‘imaginative life’? What exactly is it? What does it consist of? And how might this help me with my task of forming a definition for the ‘archaeological imagination’?


So I shall begin to work my way through Roger Fry’s ‘Vision and Design’, and hope to find myself in dialogue with him about these three areas of exploration:


1)    What did Fry find so valuable in the work of the Post-Impressionists?


2)    Form over content? Content over form? Is a balance possible?

 Still Life – Roger Fry

3)    The Imaginative life- what does it consist of? Will it help define what I mean by an archaeological imagination?


As I read, will I be challenged in my own thinking about art? Will I find his views old fashioned and no longer of any weight? If I do, what has changed in society since he wrote about art, that has affected my own perspective? If I don’t, what has he written which has a timeless quality about it, and what should I learn from that?


Could The Taste Changer possibly change my tastes too?

images[4]Black Sea Coast – Roger Fry


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