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1911 Formalism and Naturalism

The winter of 1910 saw the opening of the first post-impressionist exhibition at the Grafton Galleries. The show famously presented an unparalleled number of French avant-garde artworks to the London public, including major canvases by Cézanne, Van Gogh, and Gauguin. It provoked much interest; the radically innovative pictures were widely ridiculed in the press. The Exhibition has come to be seen as a defining moment, if not the very birth, of British Modernism. Roger Fry, the art critic and historian who organised the event, used it to promote his own formalist aesthetic theory, one that privileged the satisfying arrangement of shapes and colours.

The art exhibited at the Royal Academy in that period is often seen as the very antithesis of everything Fry stood for. Burlington House is usually thought to have favoured naturalistic depiction and storytelling to the exclusion of other aesthetic concerns. The Academy of the early twentieth century is primarily associated with portraiture and the so-called “problem pictures”: paintings of ambiguous and emotionally charged narratives that were harshly criticised by Fry and his allies. However, an examination of the academic artists’ writings and the press reviews reveals that these practitioners were highly interested in formal problems and that their engagement was widely recognised by critics. At the 1911 Summer Exhibition, the first one after the seminal event at the Grafton Galleries, C.M.Q. Orchardson showed his Problem in White (Fig. 1). While the title refers to the genre of problem pictures, Pamela Fletcher has pointed out that it also evokes J.A.M. Whistler’s “symphonies” in white, pictures that were conceived as pleasing arrangements of harmonious colours.1 The familiar scene of a woman watching over a sleeping child is reframed as a compositional exercise that encourages viewers to concentrate on its visual appeal in addition to its narrative import. John Lavery, who also exhibited in 1911, wrote in his 1940 autobiography that in the early twentieth century he had regarded Whistler’s formalist manifesto The Ten O’Clock Lecture as “the Gospel of Art”.2 The reviewers of that year were very much aware of the artists’ interest in line and colour: The Art-Journal praised the “delicate and harmonious colour scheme” of Charles Sims’ canvas Legend (Fig. 2), while The Athenaeum presented John Lavery’s Amazon as “an example of bold monumental design”.3 John Singer Sargent’s Armageddon, on the other hand, was said to have failed to achieve “any abstract glory of colour or grandeur of design”.4 Clearly, formalism had a prominent role in the aesthetic discourses that surrounded academic art at the time.

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Yet despite the valuation of this relatively novel aesthetic approach, the works seen at Burlington House also remained committed to the norms of naturalistic depiction. None of the 1911 exhibitors resorted to the radical stylistic innovation and dream-like colour schemes employed by the Post-Impressionists. The paintings favoured by the Academy were far more likely to remind one of Reynolds and Constable than of Cézanne and Gauguin. The appropriation of formalism was achieved within the bounds of realism.

One might assume that there was significant tension between these formalist and realist tendencies. However, observers’ writings suggest that the two approaches were not seen as incompatible. As early as 1905, E.R. Dibdin remarked that Frank Dicksee’s naturalistic paintings also held considerable formal interest:

His delight in rich colour combinations is not more manifest than his propensity to toy with ornament, to introduce decorative detail for its own sake. To him, as much as to a monkish medieval illuminator, or a Maori carver, a plain surface is a provocation almost as irresistible as a well-tailored stranger to a Black Country rough with half of a brick in his hand.5

Dibdin insisted that the painter’s passion for fine colour and design never undermined his narrative skills or sound judgement. In one of the dialogues that the “Lay Figure” penned for The Studio (1910), the character of the Art Critic, who is presented as authoritative, argues that practitioners should master both naturalism and formalism:

The strict copying of nature is, by itself, not art at all, it is only a means to an end, and one of the essentials—a very important one, I admit—in a complicated scheme of expression. Art cannot do without nature, but it has an essence of its own which must be plainly manifested in all translations of nature into the terms of art.6

Realism is described as an inferior but necessary aspect of art which should be studied alongside its “essential” core, which in a later article the author associates with formal composition.7 The two approaches are presented as mutually reinforcing rather than as clashing elements. Indeed, some viewers seemed to have believed that formalism could only be convincing within that kind of rapprochement with realism. In his review of the 1910 post-impressionist exhibition, P.G. Konody wrote:

Colour and form became symbols for them [the Post-Impressionists] for the expression of their personal emotions. An art that is based on such fundamentally sound principles is not to be dismissed with derision and cheap jokes, even if the application of these principles is in turn extravagant, incompetent, and insane.8

Burlington House’s balancing act could be seen to provide just what critics like Konody demanded: an art that was concerned with the values of line and colour but avoided the outlandish extremes of recent French painting. Poised between a quasi-modernist aesthetic and a traditional representational idiom, academic art occupied a peculiar cultural space to which the avant-garde rarely had access.

  1. Pamela Fletcher, Narrating Modernity: The British Problem Picture 1895–1914 (London: Ashgate, 2003), 109.↩︎

  2. John Lavery, The Life of a Painter (London: Cassell and Co., 1940), 108.↩︎

  3. Anon., “The Royal Academy: The Pictures”, The Art-Journal (June 1911): 169; Anon., “The Royal Academy”, The Athenaeum, 6 May 1911, 516.↩︎

  4. Anon., “The Royal Academy”, The Times, 29 April 1911, 11.↩︎

  5. E.R. Dibdin, The Art Annual (1905): 24.↩︎

  6. The Lay Figure, “On the Essence of Art”, The Studio 51 (December 1910): 258.↩︎

  7. The Lay Figure, “On the Foundation of Art”, The Studio 55 (April 1912): 252.↩︎

  8. P.G. Konody, “Art Notes”, The Observer, 13 November 1910, 9.↩︎

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Explore the 1911 catalogue