Going through the new exhibition at the Pierpont Morgan Library the other day-it is called To Observe and Imagine: British Drawings and Watercolors, 1600-1900 -I thought of Roger Fry. Fry, whose Reflections on British Painting was published in 1934, the year he died at the age of 68, was the greatest art critic in the England of his time. His Reflections was based on a series of lectures he delivered in the early 1930’s at the Royal Academy in London on the occasion of a mammoth survey exhibition devoted to the history of British painting. One can only wonder what his audiences made of the rather dour judgments he handed down on the artistic accomplishments of his-and their-compatriots. For he had warned his listeners at the outset that “patriotic feeling, when it affects the art historian, shows itself always at once futile and ridiculous.” And in keeping with this sentiment, he promptly rejected the claim that “the British are by race and culture peculiarly gifted for creation in the visual arts.”
“For we know when we think of names like Giotto, Raphael, Titian, Rembrandt, Velasquez,” Fry went on to say, “that we are speaking of a class of artists to which no English painter can possibly be supposed to belong.” This had to be bitter medicine for the assembled Royal Academicians and their cohorts, but there was more to come. “No, let us recognize straight away,” Fry declared, “that ours is a minor school.”
Whether or not we now entirely agree with Fry’s judgment in this matter, the exhibition that Stephanie Wiles, the Morgan’s curator of drawings and prints, has organized in To Observe and Imagine doesn’t go very far in refuting the “minor school” argument. Fry, to be sure, was speaking of painting, and this is a show entirely devoted to drawings, prints and watercolors. His further stricture on British artists-that “Their art is primarily linear, descriptive and non-plastic”-might therefore not seem to be as devastating when applied, say, to certain modes of English draftsmanship. For the English have often excelled at the art of illustration, and there is a sufficient representation of William Hogarth, William Blake, Henry Fuseli, Edward Lear, Edward Burne-Jones and Walter Crane, among others in this show, to prove it.
On the other hand, of what Fry liked to call “plastic consciousness”-a concentration on formal relations, which he believed to be “of prime importance in the spiritual value of visual art”-there are only occasional glimpses in this exhibition, and they are largely to be found in the work of precisely those artists Fry singled out for distinction in that regard. Foremost among them are Sir Joshua Reynolds, whom Fry extolled as “the advocate of plastic as opposed to literary art,” and Thomas Gainsborough, whom he praised for “the melodious quality in his drawing.” In this connection, the gravest disappointment in the Morgan show is its feeble representation of the art of John Constable (1776-1837). Constable was the greatest English artist of his time-and maybe of all time. As Fry himself said: He was “the one English artist who has added something to the European idiom of painting”-a feat that was recognized by Delacroix and the Impressionists. The two Constable drawings in the Morgan show are perfectly lovely, of course, but not of sufficient esthetic magnitude to give us any real notion of his extraordinary accomplishment.
Constable’s great contemporary, J.M.W. Turner (1775-1851), fares a good deal better in the exhibition. (His little watercolor of Waves Breaking on the Beach , measuring barely more than five by seven inches, exerts a power far larger than its physical size seems to account for.) So does Turner’s most famous patron, John Ruskin, whose watercolor Self-Portrait, in Blue Neckcloth , is another immensely accomplished work.
As for the many landscape drawings and watercolors in the exhibition, I found that as I went through the show several times their overall spirit of gentility and good taste began to pall. What a relief it is, in that context, to encounter George Romney’s bold, highly simplified wash drawing of Orestes and the Furies ! The Blake illustrations for the Book of Job also have a similarly salutary effect of awakening the visitor from what seems at times a sentimental dream of pastoral bliss.
To Observe and Imagine concludes with a little survey of the Pre-Raphaelite illustrators. What a comedown this is after Reynolds, Gainsborough, Hogarth, Blake and Turner! Like Roger Fry, I regard the emergence of the Pre-Raphaelite school-and Victoran painting generally-as the single greatest disaster in the history of British art. With Constable and Turner, English painting achieved a level of achievement and influence never equaled before or since. With the Pre-Raphaelite blight, however, English painting returned with a vengeance to the bad practice of giving priority to what Fry accurately described as “literary art” as opposed to “plastic” art.
Nowadays, of course, art critics don’t speak much of “plastic values” in art. It is an idea that has been relegated to what are alleged to be the bad old days of high modernism. Yet, when we have occasion to re-read what Fry wrote on this subject, particularly in relation to the art in the Morgan’s show of British drawings and watercolor, I find he is still a better guide to true artistic accomplishment than anything to be found in the kind of “postmodern” criticism that eschews an interest in “formal relations” and “plastic consciousness.” For when you reject the interest in form, what you are left with, more often than not, are the imaginative inventions of a criticism designed to serve as a substitute for an art that isn’t there.
To Observe and Imagine: British Drawings and Watercolors, 1600-1900 remains on view at the Pierpont Morgan Library, 29 East 36th Street, through May 3.