“The 1910 ‘Manet and the Post-Impressionists’ Exhibition: Importance and Critical Issues” summarizes both the key historical aspects of the 1910 “Manet and the Post-Impressionists” exhibition, and the historiographic disputes that have arisen in relation to it. This article addresses the degree to which the term and art historical category “Post-Impressionism,” coined for this exhibition, represents a critical construction, rather than a genuine stylistic demarcation. In addition, this article counters the scholarly misperception that the vitriolic response to the 1910 exhibition was a product of British cultural ignorance of late-nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century continental Modern art.
In 1910, British art critic Roger Fry; his friend, British literary critic Desmond MacCarthy; and Fry’s recent acquaintance and later Bloomsbury artistic and literary group compatriot, Clive Bell, mounted a notorious and ground-breaking art exhibition at London’s Grafton Galleries. Known colloquially as the “First Post-Impressionist Exhibition,” but officially entitled “Manet and the Post-Impressionists,” the exhibition ran from 8 November 1910 to 15 January 1911, making use of a last-minute opening in the Grafton Galleries’ exhibition schedule (Robins 15). “Manet and the Post-Impressionists,” visited by about 25,000 individuals over the course of two months (15), enabled Fry to indulge his newly embraced interest in late-nineteenth-century French art, and the show inspired countless artists, students, and writers. For many of the general British population, “Manet and the Post-Impressionists” represented a first contact with late-nineteenth- and early twentieth-century French Modern art, and the show was also a commercial success, netting about £4600 in the sale of exhibited works (16). This article both explains the significance of the 1910 “Manet and the Post-Impressionists” exhibition, as well as unravels the historical circumstances that established the exhibition’s canonical status.
With an assemblage of diverse works by Edouard Manet, Paul Cézanne, Paul Gauguin, Vincent Van Gogh, and Maurice Denis, among others, “Manet and the Post-Impressionists” vividly illustrated the stylistic progression of Modern art from the “Realism” of Manet to the “Post-Impressionism” of Cézanne and others, which persists in classrooms and museum installations today. Crucially, the exhibition also introduced the term “Post-Impressionism” to categorize the works of Cézanne, Gauguin, and Van Gogh. In Fry’s definition, the designation “Post-Impressionism” signaled a distinction between the aesthetic motivations of artists like Paul Cézanne and Paul Gauguin, and the more superficial artistic strategies of Impressionist artists like Claude Monet. J.B. Bullen, in Post-Impressionists in England, claims that Fry’s “Post-Impressionism” soon became a “portmanteau term,” used to designate the “modern” in Britain and applied to everything from design to “Post-Impressionist gastronomy” (Preface xvi). Indeed, a 1912 pictorial spread on a performance of Shakespeare’s A Winter’s Tale, with costumes designed by Albert Rothenstein, was described under the headline of “Described as Post-Impressionist Shakespeare,” suggesting the wide-ranging applications of the label “Post-Impressionist” even so soon after its 1910 introduction. “Post-Impressionism” eventually replaced the umbrella term “Neo-Impressionism,” which had previously been used to categorize artwork by Cézanne, Georges Seurat, and Van Gogh in contemporary texts like Julius Meier-Graefe’s 1904 Modern Art, translated into English in 1908. Ultimately, Fry’s coinage of the term “Post-Impressionism” for the 1910 exhibition codified the belief that this artwork constituted a progression away from the “Impressionist” technique and movement—a distinction already evident in the practice of Parisian artists like Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque, who turned specifically to the artistic models of Paul Cézanne to develop Cubism rather than to the artistic models of Impressionists like Claude Monet.
In addition, the 1910 exhibition is known for the intense vitriol generated by critics and certain members of the public in response to the radical art on view. Such responses exposed and enacted the social and political anxieties of early-twentieth-century British society, and the 1910 “Manet and the Post-Impressionists” exhibition became known as a succès de scandale. For many critics of the exhibition, the non-naturalistic figuration, “crude” compositional techniques, and references to non-Western source materials found in works by Cézanne and Gauguin were causes for outrage. Critics’ responses ranged from disdainful dismissals of Post-Impressionist art as “bizarre, morbid, and horrible” (“Paint Run Mad”); to accusations that the works’ abstracted forms betrayed the artists’ psychological degeneracy (Cook 117-120); to, in some cases, nationalistic or even xenophobic resistance to the exhibition’s emphasis on French over British art. Illustrated publications, as well as critics, took pleasure in deriding the exhibition. In an illustration from The Sketch from 16 November 1910, the headline above a sampling of images from the show was titled “Giving Amusement to All London: Paintings by Post-Impressionists,” and The Illustrated London News from 26 November 1910 displayed the paintings beneath the sarcastic headline: “By Men who Think the impressionists too Naturalistic.” Fry, reflecting back on the furor surrounding “Manet and the Post-Impressionists” in a 1920-1929 Cambridge lecture on Modern art, described the situation as: “the artists were roundly accused of sexual perversion and moral depravity: This of course was only the Englishman’s way of saying that he disliked the pictures” (“Modern Art”).
In art historiography, the contempt aimed at the 1910 “Manet and the Post-Impressionists” exhibition and the works it displayed has been interpreted as a projection of British resistance to sweeping societal changes on the eve of the First World War. In her text Modern Art in Britain, Anna Greutzner Robins suggests that part of the public objection to the exhibition derived from a conservative, moral objection to art works that brazenly displayed the human body, threatening to undermine the lingering “Victorian values” of the age (16). Bullen points out that the contemporary disdain surrounding Post-Impressionism was a function of the “virtues or evils of Post-Impressionism” being “deeply embedded in the social, political and philosophical climate of the period,” which was a time of “tumultuous, rapidly changing and complex years of English cultural life” (Preface xvi). Bullen claims that to a subsection of British society who believed strongly in “English realism and English idealism” in art, the “primitivism of Gaugin, the expressionism of Van Gogh, the subjectivism of Cézanne and the violent simplification of Matisse and the other Fauve painters posed a threat not just to artistic technique…but they seemed to undermine the very ontology which had formed the basis of English art for so many years” (Introduction 1). Frances Spalding ascribes the intensity of reactions to the show to the fact that, in challenging established aesthetic taste, Fry similarly challenged social mores. As Spalding states: “At a time when formality in dress and behavior sustained a man’s or woman’s position in life, the informality of these paintings looked shockingly subversive, their lack of finish impolite. In their expressive vigor, they hit an English audience like a rude unwelcome shock” (91). Beyond simply a presentation of Modern French art in England at the turn of the twentieth century, “Manet and the Post-Impressionists” then embodied the fear and threat of a cultural breaking point, the severing of the last gasps of Victorian restraint and propriety.
Such a link between the visual vocabulary of the French Post-Impressionists and personal, not merely artistic, freedom is similarly evident in the positive reactions to the exhibition by the young British avant-garde. As described by Bloomsbury artist Vanessa Bell, the exhibition provided a “freedom” and “release” for young British artists (Bell qtd. Shone, “The Artists” 12-13), with the graphic, vibrant, and sensual French compositions an antidote both to the oppressiveness of technical finesse, and to the dark palettes of Victorian era aesthetics. To Bell in 1910, French Post-Impressionism provided “…’a possible path,’…’a sudden liberation and encouragement to feel for oneself…’”(Bell qtd. Shone, The Art 12), and author Virginia Woolf provided the oft-quoted line taken from her essay “Mr Bennet and Mrs Brown” that a change took place in human character “on or about December 1910,” referring obliquely to the 1910 “Manet and the Post-Impressionist” exhibition (1). As such, it was not merely art that changed with Fry’s 1910 exhibition, according to Bullen, but Post-Impressionism “offered a new way of understanding the world,” “defined a new relationship between man and nature, and developed a new connection between the spectator and the work of art” in which art’s freeing “from traditions which had become stifling and constraining” synecdochally freed the populace from those social norms and traditions which had become stifling and constraining (Introduction 1).
Yet, while the 1910 exhibition did expose a wider range of the British population to Modern French art, and while it did set the course for the stylistic narrative of aesthetic Modernism still taught and embraced today, historiographic understanding of “Manet and the Post-Impressionists” is riddled with both the show’s inherent inaccuracies as well as misunderstandings regarding the cultural impact of the exhibition. One of the most lasting influences of the exhibition was its introduction of Fry’s term “Post-Impressionism” into the art historical lexicon. However, it is important to note that, unlike the designation “Impressionism,” the word “Post-Impressionism” is a fiction, one which, if acknowledged, weakens the authority of art historical Modernism’s dogmatic narrative of stylistic progression. The Impressionist movement, while not a title sanctioned by the artists themselves, did denote a specific, historical moment and group of exhibiting artists. Coined as a derogatory label by the French critic Louis Leroy in response to works in an 1874 Parisian art exhibition—later colloquially known as the “First Impressionist Exhibition”—the title “Impressionism” signaled the seemingly unfinished, rushed quality of the brushstrokes in paintings by artists like Claude Monet. However, while the artists we have come to think of as Impressionist—Monet, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, or Berthe Morisot—did not fully embrace the designation “Impressionist,” the inception of the term did delimit the historical event of this exhibiting collective. In contrast, “Post-Impressionism,” as a phrase denoting a style of art-making that followed on the heels of the Impressionist movement, implied an artistic succession and artistic cohesiveness that didn’t chronologically correspond with the activities of the artists categorized as such. Several of the artists coded as “Post-Impressionist” were actually Impressionists themselves—most notably Cézanne, who exhibited with the Impressionists in 1874, and whose correspondences indicate a broad swath of interests and collaborations across the boundaries so cleanly demarcated by Fry between “Impressionism” and “Post-Impressionism.” In addition, as Robins notes in Modern Art in Britain 1910-1914, Cézanne, Van Gogh, and Gauguin, the artists “best represented” in the 1910 exhibition and whose works “received most critical attention,” were deceased at the time of Fry’s show, and none of them had “shown together in group exhibitions within their lifetimes, as the Impressionists had done.” Through the label “Post-Impressionism,” “Manet and the Post-Impressionists” therefore created a posthumous group identity for these artists (18). Fry’s notion of “Post-Impressionism,” established for the 1910 exhibition and recognized as a definitive stylistic category in art history ever since, should then be considered less a marker of an actual artistic movement, and more a critical fantasy, a product not of the nineteenth-century art world but rather of Fry’s own, twentieth-century aesthetic perspective.
Fry fashioned the marker “Post-Impressionism” out of necessity, finding no better term on short notice to distinguish between what he believed to be the more radical compositions of artists whose works couldn’t fully “be defined by any single term,” and the more superficial artistic strategies of the Impressionists (“The Post-Impressionists” 81). Yet, despite its erroneousness, the designation “Post” before “Impressionism,” implying art historical continuity as well as succession, reinforced both Fry’s instructive approach to art, and his aesthetic theories. “Manet and the Post-Impressionists” was a progressive and innovative art installation. Consistent with his background as an educator, Fry perfected a now-common didactic exhibition model, in which Fry situated Post-Impressionism as a logical outgrowth of its compositional predecessors. Fry, for example, deliberately began his exhibition with works by Edouard Manet to ease viewers into accepting more radical works indebted to Manet, but a few decades forward in time. In 1910, Manet was considered in Britain to be the “quintessential French modern artist,” whose inclusion in the exhibition’s title provided a familiar signifier of the “modern” to the English public, and whose more clearly identifiable representational style provided a “whipping post” against which to underscore the differences between the non-naturalistic work of Fry’s Post-Impressionists and preceding avant-garde practitioners (Robins 18, 20). Key to note, however, is that this innovative installation was in part a function of circumstance. Fry’s focus on Manet was as much a product of an edificatory strategy as it was a product of practical considerations: due to the need to assemble a comprehensive exhibition within a short, two-month time frame, Fry was “persuaded” to take Manet paintings by the gallerist Bernheim-Jeune, who, earlier in the year, had shown the Pellerin Manet collection (18). The Franco-centrism of the exhibit, which included twenty-one works by Paul Cézanne, thirty-seven by Paul Gauguin, twenty by Vincent Van Gogh, and other works by Parisian artists like Henri Matisse, Pablo Picasso, André Derain, Georges Rouault, and Maurice Denis, was equally a testament to Fry and MacCarthy’s Francophilia, as it was a consequence of the exhibition’s abridged time-frame: Fry and MacCarthy travelled to France to choose pictures from select dealers, and the show’s ultimate selections were a consequence of their focus and findings on this trip. While the impetus behind the 1910 exhibition’s narrative of Manet to Cézanne, and the exhibition’s subsequent validation of a Post-Impressionist lineage, remained instructive, such practical considerations suggest that circumstance and expediency had as much if not more of a role to play in the exhibition’s visual narrative as did either Fry’s educational mission or his personal, aesthetic preferences.
In addition, the designation “Post-Impressionism” implied a type of juxtaposition between the works of Cézanne and Gauguin, and the artists of the Impressionist movement consistent with Fry’s conception of art history as a whole. In his writings, Fry adopted a narrative of art historical progression akin to a sine curve. Phases of “good” art appeared and disappeared throughout history, with Impressionism versus its Post-Impressionist successor occupying set roles in an eternal aesthetic dichotomy between decadent, superficial, literal art in the curve’s trough (Impressionism) and “good,” simple, profound art at the curve’s crest (Post-Impressionism). In his 1908 “The Last Phase of Impressionism,” for example, Fry claimed that Impressionism “has existed before” in “the Roman art of the Empire.” Like Roman art, Impressionist art accepted “the totality of appearances,” as the tangible aspects of both Impressionist and Roman compositions—“line, mass, colour”—were “lost in the flux of appearance” and could “cease to deliver any intelligible message.” But, as Fry claimed, paralleling the emergence of his praised Byzantine art to the decadence of Roman examples, Byzantine art served as a positive, and “necessary outcome” of the Impressionism of the Roman Empire, just as Post-Impressionism was then an inevitable, necessary outcome of Impressionism (“The Last Phase” 73). The term “Post-Impressionism,” therefore, while historically inaccurate, implied a chronological continuity and relationship between and among nineteenth- and twentieth-century European artists useful to support Fry’s theoretical model of art historical evolution.
The art historical legacy of the “Manet and the Post-Impressionists” exhibition is additionally its role as testament to England’s relative lack of knowledge of progressive art in comparison to the cultural sophistication of the continent. The negative critical and public responses to “Manet and the Post-Impressionists” are today typically associated with a British lack of familiarity with French late-nineteenth-century artworks, and authors consequently classify “Manet and the Post-Impressionists” as a seminal event that introduced French Post-Impressionist art to the British public. Many scholarly texts express the sentiment, for example, here voiced by Bullen in Post-Impressionists in England, that the 1910 exhibition corrected the “state of English ignorance of French art” (Preface xv). Richard Shone in The Post-Impressionists claims that the 1910 exhibition “introduced a wide range of modern French painting to a bewildered British public” who “came to laugh” at artists like Cézanne, Gaugin and Van Gogh, “all of whom were dead but still comparatively unknown” (The Post-Impressionists 9). The distance between the execution of many of these works in the late-nineteenth century and the British response in 1910, when the works were touted as “new” and “shocking,” has often been taken as a sign that the British art world lagged behind its continental peers in artistic innovation and progressive work, the “violence of the British response” to the work born of “unfamiliarity” (Bullen, Introduction 2), and as proof that Fry and his compatriots, in coming to these works so “late” (1910), equally lagged behind scholars on the continent. For example, Bullen, in his text Continental Crosscurrents, proves Fry’s “behind the times” approach to “Modern” art with the anecdote of Byzantinist Matthew Prichard asking Fry in 1906 for the names of the prominent Modern artists in Paris. Prichard received a response from Fry with the names “Anquetin, Veber, Denys, and Baudouin” instead of the artists Fry would later champion like Gauguin and Cézanne, two artists who had already had prominent retrospectives in France by 1906 (Fry, Continental Crosscurrents 233).
Yet despite such claims that “Manet and the Post-Impressionists” introduced late-nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century Modern European art to the bewildered and uninformed British, these contemporary critical responses to the 1910 exhibition have often mistakenly considered the shocking “newness” of Post-Impressionist French art expressed by the wider British public as a sentiment equally attributable to the members of the turn-of-the-century British avant-garde. In fact, far from being introduced to England in 1910, the continental artists represented in “Manet and the Post-Impressionists” had actually been shown in British exhibitions since 1905, and members of the British avant-garde, including Fry and Bell, had already had preliminary contact with the works of Cézanne and Gauguin far in advance of 1910. Cézanne was known to British art circles since the late-nineteenth century, though categorized at the time as an “Impressionist.” Cézanne was mentioned in novelist and art critic George Moore’s works in the 1880s and appeared in Moore’s satirical 1905 text Reminiscences of the Impressionist Painters (Robins 22), and the author Camille Mauclair’s French Impressionists, translated into English in 1904, referenced Cézanne (Bullen, Introduction 4). Henri Matisse was also a known entity in Britain due to the collection of Michael and Sarah Stein and the British intellectuals who were welcomed to see Matisse’s works in the Steins’ Paris apartment (Robins 40). Exhibitions of Post-Impressionist French art prior to the 1910 “Manet and the Post-Impressionists” show included a June 1910 Robert Dell exhibit “Modern French Artists” held at the Brighton Art Gallery (including works by Pierre Bonnard, Cézanne, Derain, Denis, Gauguin, and Matisse, among others), and Wassily Kandinsky had been shown in England in the summer of 1910 (Robins 8, 181). Though to the lay British population, “Manet and the Post-Impressionists” did introduce viewers to late-nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century French Modern art, for the British avant-garde, their introduction to these works arrived far earlier than the critical emphasis on Fry’s 1910 “Manet and the Post-Impressionists” as a revelatory moment would suggest.
Despite inaccuracies surrounding both the chronological designation “Post-Impressionism,” and the impact and influence of the show on modern British culture, the 1910 “First Post-Impressionist Exhibition” changed the game for both Modern art in Britain, and the historiography of Western art history. “Manet and the Post-Impressionists,” with its legions of press responses, both positive and negative, catapulted Modern art into the mainstream of British cultural discourse, and brought Fry and his friends in the Bloomsbury group a level of avant-garde cachet that Fry later used to his advantage in myriad writings and lectures to publicize and promote not only Modern works, but also marginalized non-Western and “outsider” art. In addition, “Manet and the Post-Impressionists” represented an early attempt to categorize and organize Modern art into a clear, teleological narrative of stylistic progression, however historically inexact. With the exhibition’s notoriety and extensive press coverage, this narrative, in which French “Realism” led to “Impressionism” and then to a distinct, separate category of practice known as “Post-Impressionism,” became a mainstay of art historical instruction, and prominently illustrated the compositional evolution of Modern art maintained in textbooks today.
published January 2017
HOW TO CITE THIS BRANCH ENTRY (MLA format)
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Christopher Reed, in “Refining and Defining: the Post-Impressionist Era,” points out that much of the uproar surrounding “Manet and the Post-Impressionists,” as well as Fry’s 1912 “Second Post-Impressionist Exhibition,” involved nationalistic motivations, with xenophobic critics attacking the French and German Post-Impressionist artists as invaders trampling on fine British taste (Reed 118).
In his Introduction to The Post-Impressionists in England, Bullen explains part of the British “ignorance” of French art through the “self-satisfaction with English painting and a legacy of Victorian economic and cultural superiority” resulting in a “head in the sand” confidence in British general superiority in all things (Bullen, Introduction 2).
 However, in an acknowledgement of the lack of “newness” of the works, though still maintaining the primacy of the 1910 exhibition as a true watershed introduction of the Post-Impressionist artists to the public, an editorial in The Burlington Magazine, published to honor the 2010 centennary of the 1910 exhibition, notes that while “several of the artists shown at the Grafton Galleries had had work in exhibitions in London and elsewhere,” “progressive art from abroad was comparatively rarely seen in Britain,” and even then the works displayed were rarely “of the best” (“The Shock” 779).