4 December 2010

Post: as in Post-Impressionism

In his the friday column in yesterday’s Times 2 (3 December 2010) Richard Morrison set about debunking Virginia Woolf’s idea that December 1910 marked a significant moment in the history of human nature. There is no point in giving a link to an article behind The (London) Times’ paywall, but this extract gives the gist of Morrison’s opening argument:

“On or about December 1910,” Woolf wrote, “human character changed.” Relations shifted, she went on, between “masters and servants, husbands and wives, parents and children. And when human relations change there is at the same time a change in religion, conduct politics and literature.”
It says something about Woolf’s intellectual confidence – or perhaps her ignorance of what had been going on in Europe for the previous 30 years – that she was blithely able to identify a single month as the moment when civilisation went crazy. As we now know the Impressionists – who so dazzled Woolf and her Bloomsbury circle when Roger Fry organised his London show of their work in 1910 – had been around since the 1880s in Paris.
It says something about Morrison’s blithe self-confidence, and The Times’ standard of fact-checking, that he can get this wrong. It is certainly true that French Impressionism was not much liked by the Edwardians. In 1905 the first major show in England of French Impressionist paintings (300 works by Degas, Monet, Manet, Renoir etc) had been organised by the dealer Durand-Ruel. It had a poor press and few pictures were sold. Roger Fry (b1866), a leading British art critic, was known at the time for having little taste for Impressionism and to favour a return to the traditional techniques and structural design of the Renaissance. However, the show Fry organised in 1910, which was of course Manet and the Post-Impressionists, introduced London to Cezanne, van Gogh and Gauguin. Fry saw in their work a return to constructive design, but others were deeply shocked and even thought the show would destroy the fabric of European painting. The exhibition coincided with a Welsh miner’s strike, growing Suffragette violence and an accelerating naval arms race with Germany, all resonating with the public unease which it provoked.

Morrison goes on to suggest that Woolf's pinpointing one month is risible, but acknowledges that a lot changed between 1890 and 1920 (!).  He then asks whether digital technology and the internet are effecting a change in human affairs now “comparable to that seismic shift a century ago” – the one that he has just cast doubt on presumably. He doesn’t know at present, but we might do in 2024 – Woolf wrote her essay in 1924, you see.

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