In his 1999 essay The Artists of Bloomsbury: Roger Fry, Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant, Richard Shone used this painting to illustrate the point that 'Roger Fry, seen as the arch-exponent of formal values and aesthetic decorum, was frequently drawn in his painting to the most romantic and picturesque aspects of the landscape - to the jagged profiles of unpopulated hillsides, to ravines and mountain pools.' (op.cit., p.13).
Roger Fry’s appreciation of, and efforts to promote Post-Impressionist art were key to introducing Britain to recent developments in European art. Fry curated two Post-Impressionist exhibitions in London, the first in 1910 and the second in 1912, with the intention of showing the ways in which Impressionism had expanded and developed from its French origins and taken root in other countries, specifically in England. The work of French artists such as Cézanne, Bonnard and Matisse were juxtaposed with that of a new generation of British artists made in response to art made on the Continent. Fry’s intention was to show the artistic and cultural exchange between Great Britain and mainland Europe.
One of Fry’s ambitions was to encourage a better appreciation of Cézanne’s achievements and he was the first British critic to champion his work. Fry’s 1927 study, Cézanne, remains the supreme introduction to a painter he regarded as the ‘greatest master of modern times’. On a trip to France in October 1919, Fry spent time in Cézanne’s hometown of Aix-en-Provence, the surrounding areas painted by the artist, and his house, the Jas de Bouffan. The magnificent countryside inspired Fry to paint, and led him to declare Cézanne a ‘pure naturalist’.
Fry believed form, not subject matter, should be the primary expressive element in art. Cézanne’s aims closely aligned with Fry’s ideal, as it gave formal expression to nature. In his 1927 study, Fry asserts that Cézanne’s art is the antithesis of the abstraction of Cubism, constantly questing instead to explore the inner face of nature. He also notes the artist’s powers as a colourist as among the supreme aspects of his genius. Typical of Cézanne’s style, according to Fry, are the pulsating rhythms and constructed strokes that create geometric forms. According equal emphasis to all areas of the canvas, the entire picture surface is imbued with ‘the vibration and movement of life’. In one passage, Fry writes ‘Cézanne reduces actual objects to pure elements of space and volume. In their abstraction, the objects are then brought back into the concrete world of real things by expressing them in an incessantly varying and shifting texture. They retain their abstract intelligibility and regain that reality of actual things which is absent from all abstractions.’
For all his academic influence, however, Fry primarily saw himself as an artist. His championship of Post-Impressionism was accompanied by a dramatic change in his own painting, becoming more experimental in style. His landscapes are arguably Fry’s most notable contribution to English Post-Impressionism, in which trees are ground down to the simplest geometrical shapes and clouds stalk the skies. He was interested in the capturing of light and mood of places, and his desire for clear-cut shapes and colours is expressed in sturdy geometric shapes.
Fry was a regular visitor to southern France for much of his life. He had great admiration for its various landscapes, for the light and colours of the Midi, for the lifestyle and customs of its inhabitants, its broadly democratic attitude to culture, its architecture and artistic heritage. His extensive trips deepened his love of Provence, where he was eventually to buy a farmhouse. In 1931 he acquired Mas d’Angirany, on the Route d’Antiques leading out of St Remy-de-Provence, which he shared with Charles and Marie Mauron. It was surrounded by olive groves and the upper floor looked across to Les Alpilles, extraordinary geological formations that have been weathered into grotesque shapes and pitted by ravines that have cut their way through the rocks. Vincent Van Gough’s Ravine, painted shortly after his arrival at the Saint-Paul asylum in 1889, depicts a nearby ravine in Saint-Remy; a possible inspiration for Fry’s later production of a similar scene.
Frances Spalding has written ‘some of Fry’s most lyrical late landscapes, with their observation of flickering light an intense responsiveness to the spirit of the place, were painted in the area in and around St Remy’. Until the end of his life, Provence would remain Fry’s favourite part of France. It was a painter’s love, ultimately visual.
NICK CURNOW | HEAD OF FINE ART
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