Fauvism in Paris

FAUVISM

One could argue about which movement was the “first” movement of the Twentieth Century—Art Nouveau (1895–1905), which led ultimately to the Bauhaus design revolution and even, arguably, to Constructivism of the Russian Avant-Garde or Fauvism (1905–07), a French form of expressionism, which led to Abstract Expressionism? For beginnings, there is no safe answer, only another question: when did the Twentieth Century begin? Virginia Woolf once wrote that the century began in 1910, about the time of Roger Fry’s famous 1911 exhibition on Post-Impressionism in London. If one accepts 1910 instead of 1900, the century began with Cubism; but in the years before the Great War, the art world was exploding with innovation. In addition to the avant-garde art movements of the fine arts, there were important developments in the realm of the decorative arts and, in addition, there were continuing exhibitions by the mainstream and avant-garde Salons in Paris. The result of fin-de-siècle artistic experimentation was a veritable logjam of aesthetic expression, ranging from conservative to radical. That said, art history traditionally has concentrated only upon the extreme edge of the avant-garde.

By the early Twentieth Century, there were four Salons: two that were conservative, Salon des Artistes Français and Salon de la Nationale, and two that were avant-garde, the Salon des Indépendants, which was without a jury and the new Salon d’automne. The art world was fractured, but so too was the art audience. Most of the art public was still suspicious of Impressionism which was accepted only by a select group of collectors, mostly American. With hindsight, it can be seen that Fauvism and Cubism, the “isms” that racked the pre-War art scene, were extensions of Post-Impressionism. But, at the time, for an audience who could still not “see” Impressionism, these movements were incomprehensible. Like Impressionism, Post-Impressionism was being sold to collectors who took the major works out of France, were they were less appreciated, and into remote places, such as Moscow and New York. The artists and critics, however, did not wait for audiences or for collectors to catch up. By the Twentieth Century, the split between the avant-garde artist and the mainstream art audience was complete.

With Fauvism, a new generation, accustomed to shocking the bourgeoisie came of age. Led by HenriMatisse (1869-1954), the Fauves were termed “wild beasts” for their intense and pure use of color and their untamed sinuous line. They had taken the controlled expressionism of Art nouveau and the passion of van Gogh and combined the powers of color and line with the color science of Seurat and the visionary symbolism of Gauguin. Like the Symbolists, they believed that art would speak for itself in its own language and that this visual and poetic language could invoke a response from the viewer. Subject matter and content, in contrast, was very conservative for Fauvism, which favored suburban and bucolic landscapes. Subject matter played a supporting role to formal elements—line, color, and forms.

The social and political content of Courbet and Manet, which had once aroused such passions, was tamed into familiar scenery, without social commentary, and the classical nude, stripped of any associations with prostitution. Public passions were now aroused by the supposedly wild colors used by the “wild beasts”—artists whose later careers were very conventional. Fauvism was a short-lived movement and would soon be displaced by its un-emotional monochromatic structured counter-point, Cubism, which would substitute tone for color and rationality for unbridled feeling.

 

 

The artistic foundation for Fauvism was the aesthetic activity in Paris at the fin-de-siècle. Impressionism, the dominant mode, was considered by some to be an on-going productive style. The importance of the lingering of Impressionism for Fauvism was that the art public was being prepared to accept a heightening of color and a lightening of the palette. Artists who had adapted Impressionism for conservative patrons, such as John Singer Sargent (1856-1925), were instrumental in widening the acceptance of loose brushwork and strong hues. The Nabis, Edouard Vuillard and Pierre Bonnard, toned down and softened Impressionist colors and dealt with brushwork as pattern, and these Neo-Impressionist versions of Impressionism dominated the art world.

The domestic and intimate art of Pierre Bonnard (1867-1947) and Edouard Vuillard (1868-1940) and post-Symbolist art of Maurice Denis (1870-1943) hovered somewhere in between Impressionism, which had no structure, and strongly linear graphic design. This balance and stasis with Post-Impressionism, however, was disturbed by a series of exhibitions. In 1899 an exhibition of pastels in high color by Odilon Redon at Durand-Ruel gallery reawakened interest in the expressive power of formal elements. The Cézanne exhibitions at the gallery of Ambroise Vollard (1866-1939) in 1895 and 1899 and at Salon des Indépendants in 1901 reintroduced an old master to the young generation. Vollard’s gallery also showed Post-Impressionist painters, Vuillard, Bonnard, Signac, Cross, the Nabis, and other Neo-Impressionists. An exhibition of Vincent van Gogh’s work at Bernheim-Jeune gallery in 1901, along with the other exhibitions signaled both acceptance of Impressionism and introduction of “Post-Impressionism,” a term coined by Roger Fry in 1911. Perhaps the final capitulation of the detractors of Impressionism came with 1907 the exhibition of the (Gustave) Caillebotte Bequest at Luxembourg Museum. Although the artist’s collection had been somewhat diminished by the directors of the Museum, the successful and dignified deal had been negotiated by Pierre Renoir, now a respected elder in the arts community.

Two years after the Vincent van Gogh exhibition, there was the retrospective for Paul Gauguin on the occasion of the founding of the Salon d’automne in 1903 and Henri Matisse entered two paintings. The year 1904 was a particularly important one for the establishment of Fauvism with a show for Henri Matisse at Vollard’s, accompanied by a catalog essay by a prominent art critic, Roger Marx. Matisse brought together the intense color of van Gogh and the curvilinear shapes of Gauguin and came out of his “dark period,” his apprenticeship to Post-Impressionism, with an explosion of color. In 1905, Matisse visited his friends, André Derain and Maurice de Vlaminck at Chatou in the fall and that summer, Derain joined him in Collioure. It was here that Fauvism was born, notably with The Open Window. That fall, the group that had formed around Matisse debuted the new style in the Salon d’automne of 1905. Maurice de Vlaminck made his debt to the Post-impressionists and his rebellion against the establishment clear,

I wanted to burn down the Ecole des Beaux-Arts with my cobalts and vermilions. I wanted to express my feelings without troubling what painting was like before me…Life and me, me and life—that’s all that matters.” (on seeing the Van Gogh exhibition): “I was so moved I wanted to cry with joy and despair. That day I loved van Gogh more than I loved my father.

Louis Vauxcelles (Louis Mayer, 1870-1943), a conservative art critic, who was appalled by the brilliant colors, named Matisse and his followers the “Fauves,” or “wild beasts.” Seeing the bright paintings of Henri Matisse, André Derain (1880-1954) and Maurice de Vlaminck (1876-1958), grouped in one room at the Salon d’automne, the critic exclaimed, “Donatello au milieu des Fauves.” (“Among the orgy of pure colors; Donatello among the wild beasts.”) Vauxcelles was relieved to see a conservative sculpture, “a Donatello,” among the paintings of the wild beasts, and it is possible he would have been even more relieved to know that the Fauve movement lasted only two years, from 1905 – 1907. The Salon des Indépendants was host to the first Fauve exhibition in the spring of 1905 and last Fauve exhibition in 1907.

The Fauve group began to come together before 1900, and, in the beginning, consisted of Henri Matisse and his fellow students from the atelier of Gustave Moreau and the Academie Carrière or the atelier of Eugene Carrière. These students, Albert Marquet, Henri Manguin, Charles Camoin, Jean Puy, and Georges Rouault, the most famous of these artists. The “School of Chatou,” named after a summer painting site, consisted of André Derain and Maurice de Vlaminck, who painted with Matisse. Rounding out the rather large group of artists devoted to color were those from Le Havre, Emile Otheon-Freize, Raoul Dufy, who would also become famous, and Georges Braque, the future Cubist artist, and, joining later, Kees van Dongen. But this short-lived movement came to an end due to the increasing impact of the paintings of the recently deceased Paul Cézanne (1839-1906) and his darker colors and limited palette and the influence of tribal art from the French African colonies.

By 1907 the Salon d’automne signaled the end with the reappearance of figure in Fauvism. In addition to Matisse’s Blue Nude, Fauve paintings and composition were turning away from suburban landscapes in Paris by Vlaminck and scenes of the city of London by Derain and Matisse’s joyful celebrations of light and color in Bonheur de vivre (1906) to something more calculated and conceptual and classically restrained. Matisse explained,

One does not depict matter, but human emotion, a certain evaluation of spirit which might come from no matter what spectacle.

The return to the calculated and classical owed a great deal to Cézanne and led the younger artists, Derain and Vlaminck, down a conservative path. But Matisse used his period as a Fauve to establish himself as a major avant-garde artist. He acquired important American collectors, Leo and Gertrude Stein and Etta Cone, and the Russian collector, Sergei Shchukin began to buy his works. In 1908 there was a Matisse Retrospective at the Salon d’automne, which was also year in which he wrote his Notes of a Painter. This was the year of Matisse’s final farewell to Fauvism, Harmony in Red, was considered the first major painting in which direct color saturated the canvas and submerged all objects to its substance, rendering any other elements submissive to the will of red.

According to Matisse,

…The artist must feel that he is copying nature—even when he consciously departs from nature…

…I cannot copy nature in a servile way. I must interpret nature and submit it to the spirit of the picture. From the relationship I have found in all the tones, there must result a living harmony of colors, a harmony analogous to that of a musical composition…

After this radical statement on the power of color, Matisse then revived the classical, the timeless monumental art that had always hovered just below the surface of paintings such as Luxe, calme et volupté (1904). After his brief flirtation with tribal art, Matisse returned to his roots, by visiting Italy in the summer of 1907. Here he perused classical and Renaissance art and the new influences were clearly visible in Le Luxe (I) and (II) of 1907-08. Matisse now faced a young and upcoming rival for artistic shock, Pablo Picasso (1881-1973), who was experimenting with post-Cézanne, proto-Cubism, which by 1910 was now emerging. The two friends dueled through art: Matisse painted his Blue Nude, purchased by Leo Stein and Picasso answered with Les Demoiselles d’Avignon. It could be said that together these two paintings ended Fauvism. Originally blue or blue green, Harmony in Red was purchased by Shchukin and carted off to Moscow. That same year, 1908, Georges Braque showed his first Cézanne-esque paintings, first offered to and rejected by the Salon d’automne. Braque’s dark landscapes were characterized by “little cubes,” but despite the critical derision, by 1909, Derain and Braque had already become Picassoistes,” or followers of Picasso. The age of Fauvism was over.

See also, Characteristics of Fauvism

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

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