So what was it about this exhibition that caused such a seismic change in the direction of our culture? Oddly enough it was not the quality of the paintings on show, which included works by Cezanne, Van Gogh, Sickert, Gauguin and early Picasso. Although the exhibition attracted a lot of visitors, many were hostile, one observer commenting, 'The exhibition is either an extremely bad joke or a swindle. I am inclined to think the latter…the drawing is on the level of that of an untaught child of seven or eight years old'. However, comments such as this were no worse than those provoked by the Impressionists some decades earlier, and most people today with a serious interest in fine art, would consider that these works display clear artistic merit.
Instead, the determining factor that made this exhibition so influential was the interpretation Fry placed on the paintings, and his success in persuading others to share his viewpoint. Fry became the most forceful exponent of the view that sophistication in the illustrative functions of art leads to a loss of expressiveness. Fry articulated the aim of the Post-Impressionists as 'the discovery of the visual language of the imagination' and that such language would need to be free from the actual appearance of things.
During the years 1910-12 the terms of reference for modern art were rewritten for a new generation of artists and this was reflected in the second Post-Impressionist exhibition organised by Fry in 1912. This displayed a decisive shift towards modernism and the avant-garde compared with the earlier exhibition, with works by the Fauves, the Cubists, and artists such as Matisse, Bonnard and Derain. Fry, in describing Picasso’s work as 'A purely abstract language of form', gave rise to the term abstract art. It was through the acceptance of such thinking that abstract art was embraced with such fervour by 'progressive' art critics of the time and since. Unfortunately, experience has shown overwhelmingly that abstract art provides fraudsters and charlatans with a golden opportunity to exploit the credulity of its proponents with ultimately disastrous consequences for artistic excellence.
The next artistic citadel to fall was that of classical music. It would be fair to say that Britain never had a strong standing in this field when compared with many continental countries. Nevertheless, Elgar has an international reputation and in the Edwardian period was at the height of his powers. However, his musical tradition was soon to end and the defining moment of change was Stravinsky’s ballet The Rite of Spring performed by the Ballets Russes in Paris in May 1913. This work largely ignored existing conventions of harmony, rhythm and form and was greeted by riots on its first performance. It introduced to a mass audience the 20th century trend of musical dissonance that was to be developed still further by Schoenberg and Stockhausen. Again this composing 'style' captured the avant-garde, and before very long it became the new orthodoxy. The incomprehension of audiences was treated with typical modernist disdain. Since the 'music' itself was beyond criticism the fault must lie with the public for failing to understand it. The arrogance of modernists started to grow, as they produced work for their own narrow self-selecting elite circle, rather than a wider public.