As part of my ongoing deep dive into Virginia Woolf’s brain, I picked up this collection of Roger Fry’s essays on art—or rather, read on the 4th floor of the library, since they wouldn’t let me check out the 1924 copy they had on hand. The first two essays were my main focus, Art and Life, and Essay in Aesthetics.
From Art and Life I gathered random thoughts and ideas, like that there was a Catholic reaction to the Renaissance when the focus began to be on the individual and deflect power away from the church.
Near quoting (I had to hand-write notes):
Impressionism marked the climax of a movement which had been going on more or less steadily from the 13th century—the tendency to approximate the forms of art more and more exactly to the representation of the totality of appearance. Once representation pushed to the point where further development was impossible, it was inevitable for artists to question the validity of the assumption that art aimed at representation.
Enter Cezanne, then Gauguin, then Van Gogh.
From Essay in Aesthetics, human life is made up of “instinctive reactions to sensible objects” and their accompanying emotions. The beauty and difference between art and real life can be seen in the difference in reaction of seeing a horse out of control on the street vs. on the cinema screen. In the theater, we see the action but don’t have to react, we can study it from angles not possible in real life. We only see as much in real life as will help us in our actions, we shut out all the rest of the information. This can be further seen if we watch a street in a mirror, which helps us abstract ourselves from it, versus directly. Art is intimately connected to our secondary imaginative life. It’s separated from actual life by the absence of responsive action. We have no moral responsibility when looking at art, we are free from the normal restrictions on us.
Art is the “chief organ of imaginative life.” Fry finds that we only look at things closely when their “sole purpose is to be seen.” Also, our emotions are weaker when involved with art, so we can see things more clearly (e.g. a painting of someone being flogged violently won’t conjure up the same response as actually seeing this in real life). With art, we can both feel the emotion (weakly) and watch it without being overwhelmed by it.
Fry denotes the qualities of art to be order (otherwise we’re troubled and perplexed) which translates into unity (a cohesive whole that we can understand), along withe variety (otherwise we’re not stimulated). The most important piece of aesthetic judgement is the consciousness and recognition of purpose. A flower in nature is beautiful, but we don’t have sympathy with the person who created it because it has no creator.
The emotional elements of design: rhythm of line, mass, space, light and shade, and color.
Fry wraps up saying we must dispense with the idea that we test whether something is art by saying how much it looks like nature. Only consider whether the emotional elements are discovered. An artist may provide a very realistic figure or only the merest suggestion of natural forms and rely on the force and intensity of emotional elements.
Can you create art with an absence of emotions?