Virginia Woolf's Life of Roger Fry

Porträt Virginia Woolf, Roger Fry, 1917

Even before his death in 1934, Roger Fry had become, as we say, a half legendary figure, at least for many of us here in American. The days of his curatorship at the Metropolitan Museum seemed enveloped in a mist of distance, and the long, ardent championship of French Post-Impressionists, even that had grown aureoled with a sense of gently venerable remoteness. All this the passing of the renowned English critic served to intensify.

The time is perhaps not yet ripe for exhaustively probing and dissecting the critical side of a legend that has stood for so much in the realm or art. There is something here that tends at every turn to baffle, even as one responds to the galvanizing challenge of a brilliant, multi-faceted mind. Roger Fry is not immediately and simply to be gauged, nor has an attempt to do so been made by Virginia Woolf, whose biography is, nevertheless, a finely sympathetic, searching and objective voyage into the unknown.

Fry himself had observed: "We know too little of the rhythms of man's spiritual life." And these, says Mrs. Woolf, are words that " remind us of the perils of trying to guess" the secret that underlay "his influence as a human being." For he did not believe, with all his knowledge, that he could guess the secret of a work of are. And human beings are not works of are. They are not consciously creating a book that can be read, or a picture that can be hung upon the wall. The critic of Roger Fry as a man has a far harder task than any that was set before him by the pictures of Cezanne. Yet his character was strongly marked; each transformation left something positive behind it. He stood for something rare in the general life of his time. This book will doubtless remain the definitive comment on the life and character of the English critic, even though in its carefully written pages a man's spirit does not rise sharply clear above the sea of strangeness and enigma that encompasses it - that if the truth were recognized, some measure surrounds the spiritual existence of al men. Although this excellent biography contains passages of acute insight in that direction, there is still to be brought out the systematically argued analysis of Roger Fry's critical system.

What, as a definite critical force, had this system of his to contribute? How many of his ideas concerning art and the approach to art possiss an abiding value? To what extent did his specializing as well as his more general research constructively push back the horizon of scholarship and knowledge? All this awaits investigation. But for such exegesis, if it materialize, Virginia Woolf has manifestly paved the way.

As a biography Mrs. Woolf's book pursues a logical pattern, tracing a character's growth, its successive "transformations," though without a dry or over-methodical insistence upon the year-by-year sequence of events. Especially after the sensitively surveyed periods of childhood and youth have been traversed, the account moves in larger, more embracive rhythms. Yet the thread of specific relationships and trends of thought does not become, in the process, tangled or broken.

Fry entered Cambridge intending to prepare himself for a scientific career. The impulse that turned him instead eventually into the orbit of are was strengthened by, drew sustenance from, relationships formed there. Even after science had been supplanted as an objective by are, Roger Fry long supposed that expression would take the form of painting rather that of criticism. Indeed, the continued to paint, industriously - oftentimes, it would appear, doggedly - all the rest of his life. But, if to his personal regret, painting seems not to have been the vehicle for which he was best qualified.

As critic, however, he gained steadily widening recognition deep knowledge of Old Masters led to his being frequently consulted as an expert. It was in this capacity that his curious band by no means frictionless association with J. Piorpont Morgan began, out of which developed the appointment to the Metropolitan Museum in New York. The relatively brief American experience appears now - as in a degree it must have seemed then - strange interlude, the record of which in these pages can hardly be read on this side of the Atlantic, I should say, without pain.

Fry's sponsorship of the first Post-Impressionist exhibition in London(that was in the Fall of 1910) proved a violent turning point. In art circles there this vent produced just the sort of vituperative uproar that might have been expected. And while the critic through whose enthusiastic instrumentality this was brought about lived long enough to witness "official" acceptance of many of his once so bitterly attacked evaluations, the championing of modern art established his leadership to the realm of the new, the progressive, in the expression of his own time.

Mrs. Woolf considers the last ten years of his life to have been "richer and fuller than any that had gone before. They were years in which the critical structure he had been building mellowed, broadened, deepened. Roger Fry remained to the last a man with a limitless appetite for intellectual curiosity." The author lays stress upon his profound disinterestedness. He "had influence, more influence, it was agreed, than any critic since Ruskin at the height of his career." Why was this? Well, drawing all the threads together, "Those who know him best," she remarks, "can only say that Roger Fry had a peculiar quality of reality that made him a person of infinite importance in their lives and add his own words. Any attempt I might make to explain this would probably land me in the depths of mysticism. On the edge of that gulf I stop."

December 15, 1940


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