Modernist art from the Continent was not seen very often in Britain, at least in the years before World War One broke out. Durand-Ruel DID bring beautiful Impressionist art to exhibit at the Grafton Galleries in 1905; although people greatly admired the works, the paintings weren’t sold. An Exhibition of the Works of Modern French Artists was presented by Robert Dell at the Public Art Gallery of Brighton (in 1909?) but I cannot find its catalogue or list of paintings.
Edouard Manet, Bar at the Folies-Bergère, 1882, now at Courtauld.
Roger Fry asked another Bloomsburyite Desmond MacCarthy to become the secretary of the huge project. I know the Bloomsburies tried to help each other socially and professionally, but did literary critic Desmond MacCarthy have any knowledge of the visual arts?
Desmond accepted Fry’s offer. He and Clive Bell were soon travelling to Europe, visiting Parisian dealers and private collectors, arranging an assortment of paintings to exhibit at the Grafton Galleries. Even if Desmond had been familiar with C19th art, his was a tricky assignment, acquiring the work of modernists little known in Britain. The Art World said that Desmond’s biggest success was in negotiating with Van Gogh's sister-in-law, Madam Gosschalk-Bonger, for the Van Goghs they eventually exhibited.
Vincent van Gogh, The Starry Night, 1889, now in MoMA NY
Roger Fry was actually defining Modern Art by his selection process. The modern (post-1890) French masters and their colleagues eg Cézanne, Gauguin, van Gogh and Seurat, were clearly not Impressionists. But what were they? While preparing for the exhibition, Desmond MacCarthy noted that they had no shorthand way of describing the art era they were analysing. “Post-Impressionism” was the label quickly created by Roger Fry, the label subsequently adopted by art historians and gallery staff. For Clive Bell the term meant moving past Impressionism and denoted a careful move away from natural representation. Instead Post-Impressionism described a move towards symbolic meaning, bold, unrealistic colours and expressive brushstrokes. Pictorial structure and the symbolic use of colour and line became the themes of the 1910 exhibition.
In Nov 1910, Fry announced that The Manet and the Post-Impressionists Exhibition would open at the Grafton Galleries in Mayfair. He also commissioned a very smart poster, to attract interest. Fry feared that most British art critics in 1910 STILL thought that Monet couldn’t draw and that Renoir didn’t tackle serious subjects. What would they do when they saw the artists Fry, Bell and MacCarthy had brought over the Channel!
So there was certainly some awareness of the risk Fry and his Bloomsbury mates were taking. If I had been in Fry’s position, I might have concentrated more on the Fauvists (1905-7) who created brilliant, luminous colours and bold, spontaneous handling of paint. He did exhibit plenty of Matisses, but Derain, Vlaminck, Rouault and van Dongen may have been a more gentle introduction to modernism than, say, Picasso.
Paul Gauguin, Woman Holding a Fruit 1893, now in The Hermitage.
This exhibition had been pulled together quickly, but if ever there was a flashy art exhibition, this was it - Manet and the Post Impressionists was arguably the most significant and the most controversial show of paintings ever to be held in pre-WW1 Britain. In this landmark exhibition, there were more than 20 paintings by each of the most important artists – Manet of course, but also Gauguin, Matisse, Van Gogh, Cezanne, Seurat and Picasso. I would love to know specifically which of their paintings were displayed – only Manet’s A Bar at the Folies-Bergiere has been identified for me with certainty.
How did the professional critics respond? The reviews were mainly ugly. The critic for The Pall Mall Gazette described the paintings in the Post Impressionist Exhibition as the output of a lunatic asylum. The Morning Post critic Robert Ross thought that only psychiatrists interested in psychoses would be interested in the thoughts of this particular group of artists; Sir William Blake Richmond wrote in the Morning Post, “Cézanne mistook his vocation; he should have been a butcher”. The art critic of The Daily Telegraph had a hissy fit, throwing down his catalogue at the door of the catalogue and stamping on it. One traditionalist artist went as far as warning young men not to enter the gallery for fear of being horribly corrupted by what lay within.
The popular press almost universally supported this view: the exhibition was dangerous! According to the tabloids, the modernist artists couldn’t draw or paint; the colours were obscene and the works were an offence against British culture.
But ordinary art lovers seemed to love the sense of modernity that was finally coming to British shores. Over 25,000 paying customers crowded into the West End Gallery. Fellow Bloomsbury artists Duncan Grant and Vanessa Bell were of course very enthusiastic about the exhibition. More interesting for readers of this blog was that the exhibition powerfully affected the work of some of the painters in Walter Sickert's circle, the Camden Town Group. The paintings showed these young British artists that the use of strong, flat colours could be expressive.
Burlington Magazine concluded: “While the exhibition did not make its leading artists household names overnight, it prepared the ground for their eventual canonisation over the following decade. Gauguin, whose work escaped the worst excesses of critical abuse, became a figure of romance and rebellion; Van Gogh was the deranged genius of popular imagination; and Cézanne, from being an incompetent bungler, rapidly assumed shaman-like status in the development of Modernism”.
Paul Cézanne: Still Life with Watermelon and Pomegranates, c1903, Philadelphia Museum of Art
Despite the hostility expressed by traditionalist art circles, or because of it, Fry was soon hailed as a champion of modern art and he became a focal point for the avant-garde. He decided to follow up the first Post-Impressionist exhibition with a second one. Patronised by Bloomsburyite Lady Ottoline Morrell, The Second Post-Impressionist Exhibition opened in 1912, also in the Grafton Galleries. This was broader, more consistent and more modernist than the first, and included several Cubist works (perhaps for the first time in Britain). And two extra nations were represented. A local section, chosen by Clive Bell, displayed paintings by Bloomsbury artists like Duncan Grant and Vanessa Bell. And there was a Russian section organised by Boris Anrep. The 1912 exhibition was fortunate; the sense of outrage in Britain had become muted in the intervening few years since the first Fry blockbuster.
Fry also founded the Grafton Group in 1913, providing local artists with the opportunity to exhibit any work they were creating in the post-impressionist style. Even during WW1, Fry organised major exhibitions that brought modern works of art to London, like The New Movement in Art.
Read: Manet and the Post-Impressionsists. A centenary issue in Burlington Magazine, #1293, Vol 152, Dec 2010.
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