Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Modern Art

In his chapter entitled “The Visual Arts” in The Cambridge Companion to Modernism, Glen Macleod points out that “painters were the first to explore the revolutionary possibilities of Modernism, so that painting became the leading art form” (194). For some artists this movement from Impressionism to Post-Impressionism and thence to Cubism and Abstract art represented a necessary, “great spiritual revolution” (Macleod 205), an idea that resonated with writers such as Pound and Wallace Stevens and can also be seen in others like Yeats. And it is from these very “depths of mysticism” that others like Roger Fry pull back: “On the edge of that gulf I stop” (“Retrospect” 407). Fry felt comfortable considering the idea of an aesthetic emotion (a concept similar with that of Eliot); however, if probed too deeply it might lead to that mysticism he wished to avoid. Thus he sought to isolate it from other attendant emotions (“the compounds in which it occurs” (406)), and in a very Kantian moment, he also distinguishes it from “ethical values” (407). To so isolate art seems quite in conflict with the social and political orientation of writers like Woolf and Forster, to name just two. Both had significant statements to make about the world in which they lived, and thus it seems unlikely that they would buy into a theory of art that relegated the artistic merit merely to the formalism of the piece and an esoteric (even from the perspective of Clive Bell and Fry) emotion provoked by that formalism.

In contrast to S. P. Rosenbuam's editorial note in which he presents Fry's “Retrospect” as “one of the best summaries of Bloomsbury aesthetics” (398), Jane Goldman sets out (as indicated by the title of her book, The Feminine Aesthetics and Virginia Woolf) to distinguish the aesthetics of the women (specifically Virginia Woolf and Vanessa Bell) from those of the men of Bloomsbury, the difference lying mainly in the issue of color. Though Fry’s organization of the 1910 exhibition evidences his dependence on “the romantic colour theory of Meier-Graefe” (Goldman 131), the 1912 exhibition reveals (as Goldman argues) that he had shifted his emphasis away from color to Clive Bell’s significant form, which though comprised of “‘lines and colours combined in a particular way’” (134), yet removes the focus from the colors themselves to the shapes that those colors, aided by the lines, create. Woolf and Vanessa Bell, on the other hand, retain a marked interest in the colors themselves as illustrated by the many references Goldman provides.

Whether this distinction between the men and women and their respective predilection for form and color can be extrapolated to the remaining members of Bloomsbury and whether those differences influence the way they write (considering Woolf was the only novelist of the four specifically dealt with in Goldman’s article), I am uncertain. Goldman does indicate a close association between the sisters’ work, and at one point she mentions color as a parallel metaphor in Bell’s painting and one of Woolf’s texts. Perhaps the connections will become more apparent as I read more of the literature, and my personal ignorance of art history and the characteristics of modern art (mitigated somewhat by the readings) definitely plays a part, but at the moment I have difficulty following explicit connections between the art and the literature on the basis of color and form. And without more context, I’m inclined to question a strict gendering of the two.

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