Defining Fauvism

Characteristics of Fauvism

Although all of the future Fauves were in Paris by 1900, Fauvism, as style, emerged—or was created—at Collioure in the spring of 1905. In a series of paintings by Henri Matisse (1869-1954) and André Derain (1880-1954), completed in the small town outside of Paris, there is a new conception of light that separated colors, allowing the white canvas to glow through. Clearly borrowed from Paul Cézanne, the unexpected source of light was combined with a renewal of subjectivity after the “objectivity” of Impressionism and from what Matisse understood to be the “agitation” of Impressionist surfaces. From Impressionism, the Fauve artists borrowed the negation of shadows by substituting intense color for darkness. The resulting luminous shadows, that were non-shadows, eliminated the academic division of tones. Although Edouard Manet had long since done away with demi-teints, the Fauve artists presented a new and purified form of color painting, based on a light created through contrasts of hue, not of tone. Formally speaking, the result was a highly colored assertive surface, organized as a graphic design with strongly contrasting areas of color. The artists established areas and zones of sometime dissonant color which was, suddenly, newly important.

As Derain, who was at Collioure with Matisse stated in a letter to Vlaminck,

We are about to embark on a new phase. Without partaking of the abstraction apparent in van gogh’s canvases, abstraction which I don’t dispute, I believe that lines and colors are intimately related and enjoy a parallel existence from the very start, allowing us to embark on a great independent and unbounded existence…Thus we may find a field, not novel, but more real, and, above all, simpler in its synthesis…

Impressionist harmonies and the uniformity of facture, or the artist’s touch and the texture of the surface, were eliminated in favor of deliberate disharmonies of style and color. Local color was rejected in favor of arbitrary color: tree trunks were red, outlined in dark purple, the sky is yellow and green, and the background heaves upward with undulating shapes. Descriptive line was freed from mimesis and, like the colors, became expressionistic. The emphasis on color and graphic line was a simplification or a preoccupation with fundamentals. Line, which outlined forms were filled in with intense colors. The Fauves introduced a new kind of “free” purity, a reduction of painting to its most basic and most powerful elements, drawing and color. As Matisse said, “This is the starting point of Fauvism, the courage to return to the purity of means.” He also explained,

…that is only the surface: what characterized Fauvism was that we rejected imitative colors, and that with pure colors we obtained stronger reactions—more striking reactions; and there was also the luminosity of our colors.

The emphasis on color, long rejected as untrustworthy and capricious, was almost entirely new in Western art. Although the colors were arbitrary, Fauvism was not an isolated movement but was part of an artistic development that included both Impressionism and Post-impressionism. Especially in the early works of Matisse, such as Luxe, calme, voulpté (1904-05), the Neo-Impressionist broken brushwork, separated into colors, was apparent. Later on, by 1906, the color juxtapositions were replaced with areas of flat color, similar to Gauguin. Authoritarian regimes were perhaps correct to link color to political and social rebellion, for Fauvism could be said to be fully informed by the new spirit of individuality and artistic freedom, developing since the Romantic Movement.

The artist and writer, Maurice Denis, responded to Fauvism,

…It is painting outside every contingency, painting in itself, the act of pure painting…Here is, in fact, a search for the absolute. Yet, strange contradiction, this absolute is limited by one of the things that is most relative! individual emotion..

Aside from Henri Matisse’s Notes of a Painter in 1908, the Fauve artists did not issue individual statements, nor did Fauvism coalesce into a movement that issued manifestos. Although Matisse was the center of Fauvism, the members of the group were concerned with a directness of expression that was a belief in individual and pictorial autonomy. Fauvism was, above all, a balance between the purely visual sensation and a personal and internal emotion, conveyed through mixed technique and formal dislocations. The artists sought to express personal feelings and move away from traditional academic techniques and conventions in painting. That said, Matisse, in particular, rediscovered tradition of high decorative art in Italy and Morocco and fused the classical and the exotic and the avant-garde into a highly personal style. Unlike Vlaminck, who wanted to burn down museums and wore a wooden necktie, Matisse, an older artist, was fundamentally a conservative.

What I dream of, he famously said in Notes of a Painter, is an art of balance, of purity and serenity, devoid of troubling or depressing subject matter, an art which could be for every mental worker, for the businessman as well as the man of letters, for example, a soothing, calming influence on the mind, something like a good armchair which provides relaxation from Physical fatigue.

The new avant-garde in the Twentieth Century was based not in socially charged subject matter but in the radicalization of formal elements. But Fauvism is interesting despite the apparently traditional content of landscape painting. Certainly there is evidence of the lessons of Impressionism—landscapes appeal to collectors and art audiences alike—but there is a retreat in Fauvism, a nostalgic longing for something more pastoral and nostalgic. Industrialization and urbanization was fully developed and technology and mechanization was beginning to dominate modern life and dictate the future. For André Derain and Maurice de Vlaminck (1876-1958), escapist landscape had a distinctly vacation, suburban look, as though the environs outside of Paris had become a new Arcadia. But Matisse’s landscapes shifted from the modern pastoral of Luxe, calme, voulpté (1904-05) and its contemporary sailboat to the timelessness of Bonheur de vivre (1906). While the vacation is local and vernacular, the primal drawing of Bonheur de vivre and the later Dance and Music series suggested a return to a kind of “ur” mark making.

Matisse rendered his painting with the direct clarity of a child, re-learning how to draw. He drew his marks, finding the form as if by a physical feel, equating vision with touch, tentatively, hesitantly, re-discovering art for the first time. The “primitivism” of Fauvism is not just the artists’ interest in African tribal art, but with Matisse, the primal urge for an ideal, a golden age, long lost and re-found in the imagination. It is with these ideal landscapes that the impact of the Arcadian murals Puvis de Chavannes (1824-1898) entered into the unlikely world of radical avant-garde painting. Matisse took Puvis and propelled the classical fantasy, borrowed from the older artist, of a harmony between humans and nature, dreamed of since Titian’s Fête Campetre, back to mythic origins. The fantasy of Arcadia and a timeless world of beauty and peace would inform Matisse’s luxurious and decorative art long after its beginnings in Fauvism. In ten years, Europe would be plunged into a Great War, and Fauvism ceased to be thought of as a radical style and became one of the last moments in the nostalgic Belle Époque.

See also, Primitivism in Fauvism

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Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

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