The Centennial of Independence, oil on canvas by Henri Rousseau, 1892.
In an essay of 1924, Virginia Woolf declared that ‘on or about December 1910, human character changed.’ Writing from the vantage point of the ‘twenties, Woolf rewinds past the so-called ‘Great War,’ marking instead the date that the first Post- Impressionist Art exhibition was displayed in London. Is this Bloomsbury aesthete just being facetious? Or is there more to this comment?
In the last ten years or so, we’ve happily got over our fixation with Woolf’s snobbishness and psychological instability and have instead realised her as a pioneering feminist; author; and critic of her time. Given these revisions of Woolf’s authority, it’s worth investigating why she chose this ostensibly random date as the pivotal point for humanity, and not one more obviously related to the first world war.
The first Post-Impressionist exhibition – engineered by Roger Fry – showed to Londoners for the first time the revolution in visual representation that had been happening in Paris. The introduction, written by the British artist Desmond MacCarthy, reads more like a disclaimer than a fanfare: ‘there is no denying that the work of the Post-Impressionists is sufficiently disconcerting. It may even appear ridiculous to those who do not recall the fact that a good rocking-horse has often more of the true horse about it than an instantaneous photograph of a Derby winner.’ The apologetic air of MacCarthy’s introduction doesn’t come close to anticipating the reality of the reaction. Woolf describes how ‘the public in 1910 was thrown into paroxysms of rage and laughter. They went from Cézanne to Gauguin and from Gauguin to Van Gogh, they went from Picasso to Signac, and from Derain to Friesz, and they were infuriated.’ According to MacCarthy, one gentleman laughed so hysterically at Cézanne’s portrait of his wife that he had to be helped from the gallery, and walked up and down in the fresh air to compose him. Critics were, likewise, dubious. One feared that the simplification and abstraction of form and colour ‘throws away all that the long-developed skill of past artists had acquired and perpetuated. It begins all over again – and stops where a child would stop.’ Parents echoed this sentiment, sending in childish scribbles to MacCarthy with the claim that they were superior to the works of.
But this abstract art for Woolf, for Fry, for the artists, was not regressive, it was definitively progressive. Around 1910, the age of the individual was only just dawning, and the Post-Impressionists’ roguish departure from the norms of representation – the traditions of art that chose to copy reality – was a way of expressing and celebrating that new individuality. Woolf’s selection of December 1910 was not to say that Post- Impressionism prompted the change in character but, rather, it spoke of the rise of individualism and the break from the collective. It is perhaps this simultaneous empowerment and disenfranchisement that established a fundamental conflict, laying the foundation for the first world war.