Modern artists are no strangers to controversy. So many boundaries have been pushed and pulled, so many dimensions explored and taboos broken that we’ve come to expect our art to be provoking. In fact, we expect nothing less; such works command thousands, millions. But it wasn’t always the way. In London, just over a century ago, the biggest storm in the history of English art was about to break, with our most famous and cherished artists of today relegated to the status of a freak show.
Virginia Woolf’s often quoted comment that “on or about December 1910 human character changed”, reminds us of the impact the first Post-Impressionist exhibition had upon public consciousness. England had barely been touched by the artistic revolution raging across the Channel, with middle class tastes set by the traditional teaching of the Royal Academy. At the time it would not have been possible to predict the “artquake” that was about to drag England unexpectedly and belatedly into the modernist era. Significantly, the newly powerful Edwardian Press were to play a key role in the fervent dialogue that sprung up in the show’s wake. Public responses would range from disbelief to the hysterical and those involved were to find themselves the targets of censure and hostility for challenging the very definition of art and national identity. For better or worse, Post-Impressionism was about to seize the public imagination.
Roger Fry, self portrait
The show was the brainchild of Bloomsbury artist and critic Roger Fry, although until shortly before, even he had remained unconvinced by the new art and firmly wedded to tradition. Since 1906, Fry had been Curator of Paintings in New York’s Museum of Modern Art and envisaged an Anglo-American future for the arts, rather than with his European contemporaries. He was first impressed by Cezanne’s work at an International Society exhibition in 1906, although damned it with faint praise, admitting they were at least “complete” and had “power.” By 1908, he was writing in the Burlington Magazine that Cezanne’s position was assured and that the art of Gauguin, Denis and Signac also offered an “expressive alternative to the Impressionists’.” However, he could still not accept the European use of bright colours, reacting in bafflement to the colours in a work by Moreau, whilst admitting that it “must be possessed of a quite astonishing artistic intelligence…yet for the present, I do not quite see it. I can suppose myself capable of seeing it; I can argue that I ought to; but I still fail.” His own 1909 one man show at the Carfax Gallery presented a typically English palette of browns, blues and greys, gently criticised in the Times for its colours:” “a land of everlasting twilight would be a dreary place” and the Morning Post for inaccessibility: “people will have to be under its influence for a time to appreciate its beauty.”
Something changed though. The following year saw Fry’s focus shift from past to present and a desire to breathe new life into the modern art movement; writing to William Rothenstein in January 1910, he announced “I feel a new hope altogether about art…all those who care and are not fossilized must get together and produce something.” A chance meeting on a railway station platform that month provided the opportunity.
Vanessa Bell by Roger Fry
At Cambridge Station, awaiting the London train, Bloomsbury artist Vanessa Bell introduced herself and her husband to Fry, in a move that was to have immense repercussions for the impact of European avant-garde art upon London. Clive Bell had developed an interest in art independent of his wealthy “hunting, shooting, fishing” family who had made their fortune in coal; Cambridge friends had been impressed by a reproduction Degas hanging in his room: in 1904 he had visited Paris ostensibly to research a paper, yet spent all his time at the Louvre. Vanessa, the elder sister of Virginia Woolf, had received some formal training at South Kensington Art School, the Slade and the Royal Academy School but social ties gave her wider connections, including radicals like Walter Sickert and society portraitist John Singer Sargent.
Towards the end of that year, when Fry was asked to organise an exhibition for the Grafton galleries, he “seized the opportunity to bring before the English public a selection of works conforming to the new direction.” Part of the problem was the wide range covered by these artists; no coherent style united them, it was simply their simultaneity that prompted Fry to choose their name. “Manet and the Post-Impressionists” included two hundred and twenty eight catalogued items, of which twenty-one were Cezannes, twenty-two Van Goghs, forty-six Gauguins, a few Vlamincks, Derains and Frieszs and twenty-two Matisses, covering painting, drawing and sculpture.
Helping Fry organise the event, art critic Desmond MacCarthy had some inkling of the potential public explosion that was to follow and welcomed it, expecting “howls of derision,” as “the cat has been let out of the bag” and “the more it jumps the better.” Critic Frank Rutter had already used the term “Post-Impressionist” about the work of Othon Friesz in that October’s Art News and pressure from the media forced a quick decision regarding the exhibition’s name; in fact the whole show was put together in haste, with preparations lasting until four in the morning of Press day, to which MacCarthy walked as if to “the gallows.”
Matisse's portrait of his wife
Then they simply had to wait and see what the reactions would be. The first rumblings came from the show’s eminent patrons: Sir Charles Holroyd, director of the National Gallery asked that his name be removed from publicity on seeing the paintings and the Duchess of Rutland wrote to MacCarthy that she was “horrified” at being associated with the exhibition. A slightly less extreme reaction came from Charles Holmes, Slade Professor at Oxford, whose lukewarm guide went on sale at the exhibition, vaguely praising Cezanne and granting “in the arts, I am inclined to think that a stimulus of any kind is healthy.” Chasing a sensational headline, critic Robert Ross misidentified “a wide-spread plot to destroy the whole fabric of European painting,” another commented that “the exhibition is either an extremely bad joke or a swindle” and at the Slade, Professor Frederick Brown broke off his long standing friendship with Fry and students were warned to stay away for fear of contamination. The anonymous critic of the Connoisseur regretted that “men of talent…should waste their lives in spoiling good acres of canvas when they would have been better employed in stone breaking for the roads.”
But there was no going back now. Londoners were let loose with howls of derision upon works that a century later would be recognised and loved world-wide. The spectacle of art was treated much like any of the sensational shows to be visited at Olympia or Alexandra Palace as the critics recognised: “the British public will flock to the new sensation and laugh, marvel or rage…” for their amusement. Their behaviour was not unlike that of the stalls at a music hall. One critic used the analogy of dogs and music, “it makes them howl but they can’t keep away.” He had overheard the paintings described as “nightmares” and the “ceaseless hee-haw” of laughter, while the Observer described “the majority of the pictures…are not things to live with.” The Illustrated London News tried to capture the range of public responses: “some who point the finger of scorn, some who are in blank amazement or stifle the loud guffaw; some who are angry; some who sleep.”
Gauguin's controversial yellow Christ
Whilst some still persisted in seeing these new works as “post-savages…apaches of art” whose work belongs “on the pavement,” according to one letter sent into the New Age magazine, reactions did mellow after the initial weeks. By January 1911, the Daily Graphic was able to report “the general attitude was one of admiration and of regret that an exhibition which has furnished so much food for discussion must close.” V.H.Mottram attended the exhibition “as unbiased as anyone could…owing to the newspapers” and expecting to “be made to laugh,” which he did, “at the stupidity of the comments made in my presence by the other visitors.” Douglas Fox Pitt reminded readers that “all art movements have grown out of difference” and the inability to see the beauty in Cezanne indicated “a defective aesthetic sense.”
The public’s reactions had not been a surprise. Stirred by the comments and cartoons in the National Press, Londoners of all classes had gone along to the Grafton Galleries expecting to be amused and were not disappointed. With artistic tastes dictated by the Royal Academy and favouring the representational and heroic, it is not surprising that the subject matter and brush work of artists like Van Gogh and the colours of Gauguin and Cezanne were not instantly accepted. Works that appeared to be simplistic, immediate and rule-breaking threatened the powerful Edwardian hierarchy that was already crumbling and tapped into middle and upper class fears about the blurring of social boundaries. Teaching in London’s art schools had favoured the “draw for seven years – learn anatomy and chemistry and the use of the stump,” approach derided by Vanessa Bell. Once the masses had seen the Post-Impressionists, the message was spreading that an expensive education and social connections were not necessary in order to paint. What was needed instead was passion and creativity.
The furore died down as quickly as it had arisen. Some new scandal came along in the papers and some other taboo of Edwardian society was being threatened. By the time Fry bravely mounted his follow up exhibition in October 1912, the participants and public had a far better idea of what to expect. Still, Londoners of all classes had not changed their views significantly. Cutting his honeymoon with Virginia short, Leonard Woolf hurried home to help as nine out of ten visitors were still roaring with laughter at the Matisses, Picassos and Cezannes. Fifty years later, Woolf particularly recalled that “every now and then some red-faced gentleman, oozing the undercut of the best beef and the most succulent of chops, carrying his top hat and grey suede gloves, would come up to my table and abuse the pictures and me with the greatest rudeness.”
Initial reactions might have been extreme but for Londoners, Fry’s exhibition was the start of an immense change. Today the influence of artists like Picasso and Gauguin, Matisse and Cezanne is impossible to underestimate: their challenge to the artistic conventions has infiltrated all aspects of design and injected colour and freedom into the stagnating Edwardian art world. Our world is one of bright colours, broached boundaries, immediacy and multi-dimensional media. Without them, the achievements of modern leaders in the field such as Richard Wright and Rachel Whiteread, Mark Leckey and Tracey Emin would not have been possible. In 1910, Virginia Woolf was right to describe the experience as provoking a change in “human character”; a century on, with the popularity and accessibility of the capital’s galleries and the incredible range of works on display, Fry’s legacy can be felt daily by Londoners in the Twenty-First Century. If only Fry were able to come and take a walk around the Royal Academy today