Sense and Sensibility: Roger Fry on Caravaggio and Futurism

caravaggionoti (1)In October 1922, Roger Fry published in The Burlington Magazine an article-review on seventeenth century art and architecture entitled, in error, ‘Settecentismo’.[1]

The article was a vigorous attack against the art of this period, it focused mainly on Caravaggio and those who, according to Fry, ‘went a- whoring, following the new idol.’[2] Fry’s text, although may possibly be the most severe criticism of Caravaggio’s style since the end of the seventeenth century, has been frequently cited due to Fry’s perceptive comparison between the style of Caravaggio and the cinema.

The context of the comparison, however, has never been discussed, and neither the sentiment behind it.[3]

Fry’s comment: ‘what an impresario for the cinema Caravaggio would make,’ although a pioneering comparison for the period, was far from positive. In fact, Fry’s whole attack on Caravaggio was centred around this parallel. Fry’s main accusation against Caravaggio was that his style originated a tradition within which other negative future representatives would be academic Salon painting, Victorian narrative painting, Futurism, and even the newly founded art of cinematography. In other words, everything that for Fry represented the ‘modern popular picture.’[4]

In order to understand fully the meaning implicit in ‘Settecentismo’ one has to realise that Fry’s main problem was not Caravaggio. What really infuriated Fry was the modern popular image.

Fry’s criticism of Caravaggio, in fact, went hand in hand with his criticism against Futurism, a movement which Fry defined as:

‘Expression of turbulence and impatience of tradition […] love of violent sensations and uncontrolled passions […] love for what was brutal and excessive, mocking at tradition, fundamentally conventional and journalistic. Product of the same aspect of the Italian spirit which also created Fascism, the expression of a ruffian and swash – buckling attitude.’[5]

Even more importantly Futurism was: ‘the attribution of aesthetic value to violent sensations […] vulgarity or vulgar originality’ and finally: ‘complete destruction of art.’[6][7]

That violence, vulgarity and destruction defined a whole stream of modern art in the eyes of Roger Fry.

Fragmented pieces of trivial reality, violent sensations imposed to the viewer to vindicate his emotions without having been previously transformed into sequences of plastic forms.  No order, no rhythm, no sense but also no sensibility. That for Fry was not art, but it was the attempt to aestheticize a series of vulgar and violent sensations. It was the work of vagabonds who were trying to impress their audience with cheap tricks, illusionism and theatricality or the insistence in petty details and elaborate decorations. It was efficiency easily won, what Roger Fry always resented.[8]

It was, in other words, art without disegno (design).[9]

What did these three terms ‘disegno’ (design), ‘sensibility’ and ‘sense’ signify within Fry’s theory? For Fry art was the transformation of the artists’ initial sensation towards their subject into a sequence of plastic forms, which aimed to convey a particular sensation to the viewer. In order to feel a sensation, artists ought to be sensitive to the world around them – a concept that Fry describes as ‘sensibility.’[10] In order to materialise their sensations into an organised pattern of form and colour, artists ought to use design, the expression of their sense.

In short: art was initiated by sensibility and materialized through sense, and design was the expression of sense. Through design, artists, instead of forcing their immediate sensation to the viewer, could guide them gently to be part of their original feelings.[11] Artists, when evoked their sensations directly without the medium of sense, deprived spectators of the intellectual pleasure of such a discovery.[12]

If one replaced ‘sense’ with ‘invention’, Fry’s theory would be the Renaissance art theory of ‘Idea’ or Bellori’s notion of ‘Ideal Beauty.’[13] In fact, both ‘sense’ and ‘invention’ refer to the artist’s intellectual contribution in the making of the work of art. Without design art was not considered art, but a mere imitation of nature, according to the Renaissance theory or mere fragments of journalistic reality, according to Fry. It is no wonder his reception of Futurism and Caravaggio has a striking similarity with Caravaggio’s reception by his early biographers.

Bellori’s portrait of Caravaggio, based on a more elaborate version of Baglione’s text, is that of a talented vagabond whose art was destined only for common people who did not have the intellectual capacity to grasp the real meaning of art but they were easily impressed by the similarity of his paintings to real life, as well as engaging with the interest the artist exhibited in the addition of unnecessary and petty details.[14] It was a seductive, unmediated art, based on fragments of raw reality copied straight into the canvas. It did arise emotion and admiration but lacked the real essence of art.

Likewise, one of the most important aspects of the newly emerged art of cinematography was the directness and strength with which it delivered its message to the viewers. Film stills could be even be  interpreted as fragments of reality directed straight to the viewer, an experience which resulted in the creation of a forced yet simultaneously strong emotion.[15]

One can feel what a thrilling event was the art of Caravaggio to his contemporaries. It was obviously a similar to one experienced by the early twentieth century spectators in front of a movie.

‘Disegno’ (design) was given also another, equally important role in Renaissance art theory: the one of a boundary between art and common people. Common people, according to art historiographers of the period, could not comprehend the intellectual part of the art work but only its apparent similarity to nature. The most important accusation against Caravaggio was that he created art for common people.  In 1922, wide spread was still the conviction that cinema was mainly an art for the masses, had not real intellectual value and could not be considered a worthy form of art.[16]

From 1908 onwards Fry championed Post-Impressionism and a stream of modern art that originated from it, claiming that it was not necessary to be an erudite to appreciate this form of art: anyone with artistic sensibility could. He did, however, not approve of what he felt to be the most facile, populist and intellectually unmediated currents of modern art, and traced their lineage back to Baroque and Caravaggio.

Noti Klagka, February 2013

Illustration: The Conversion of Saint Paul by Caravaggio, Canvas, Church of Santa Maria del Popolo, Rome. This work was used as illustration by Roger Fry in his October 1922 ‘Settecentismo’ article.

[1] R. Fry, ‘Settecentismo’, The Burlington Magazine, Vol. 41, No. 235, October 1922, pp. 158-169. Hereafter cited as FRY.

[2] FRY, p.163.

[3] Only K. Christiansen realised the irony behind the comparison. See K. Christiansen, ‘Going for Baroque: Bringing 17th century Masters in the Met,’ The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin, Vol. 62, No 3, p.8.

[4] FRY, p. 158

[5] Ibid.  It is 1922. Marinetti, since 1919, had joined the Fascists and Mussolini was about to be appointed Prime Minister. The March of Rome in the 30th of October, almost coincided with the publication of the article.

[6] FRY, p. 158

[7] This is another pioneering comment of R. Fry. Walter Benjamin discussed the effort of the Futurists to attribute aesthetic value to war and also the effort of the Fascists to aestheticize politics, in his essay ‘The work of Art in the Age of Its Reproducibility,’ first composed in Paris in the Autumn of 1935. See W. Benjamin, Selected Writings, ed. M. W. Jennings, Vol. 3, Cambridge, 2002, p. 121

[8] See K. Clark, ‘Introduction’, Roger Fry: Last Lectures, Cambridge, 1939, p. xxii. Also Q. Bell, Roger Fry Vision and design, The life, work and influence of Roger Fry, Arts council and University of Nottingham, 1966, p. 8.

[9] ‘Design was the first and most important directive which operated upon Fry’s thought.’ The comment belongs to Q. Bell [Bell, Op. Cit., p. 7], but it is in agreement with all the scholars who published on the subject of his aesthetics. The lack of design was repeatedly appearing comment on Fry’s criticism. See the description of Caravaggio’s and Crespi’s paintings in the article [FRY, p. 163], his review of the Futurist’s exhibition in the Nation 9th March 1912 [C. Reed, A Roger Fry reader, 1996, p. 144] etc.

[10] R. Fry has delivered a lecture entitled ‘Sensibility’ as Slade Professor in Cambridge. According to Clark [Clark, Op. Cit., p. xxiii] sensibility carrying so wide a meaning, ‘the lecture might have conformed more closely to an experiment […] if the quality investigated was called sensitivity rather than sensibility’.

[11] This is thoroughly explained by Fry himself in his lecture on ‘Vitality’ in front of the example of Grünewald’s Crucifixion. See Clark, Op. Cit., p. 47.

[12] Intellectual pleasure is a critical point in most art theories since the Renaissance and it is strongly related to the role of design as a safeguard of art’s social or intellectual prestige.

[13] G.P. Bellori, Vite de Pittori, Scultori e Architetti Moderni…, Rome, 1672.

[14] G. Baglione, Le Vite de pittori, scultori et architetti dal pontificato di GregorioXIII del 1572, Rome, 1642, ed. E. Borea, Turin, 1976, p.p. 136-139 and 201-236.

[15] The strength of emotions caused to the spectators by movies was pointed out and analysed for the role it could play to the social transformation of society by the first theorist of the cinema, like Walter Benjamin and Siegfried Kracauer.

[16] Fry joined in 1925 the Film Society of London, the main aim of the society was to establish the intellectual importance of the cinema.


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