Fauvism



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During the first quarter of the twentieth century Paris captured the imagination and ingenuity of artists to such an extent that it gave birth to pioneering and, what was considered at the time radical, art movements. Individuals from all over the world flocked to France’s capital city in the hope of carving out a living as an artist. Writers, painters, filmmakers, nationals and non nationals, all plugged away at constructing new aesthetics that would challenge the official art of the day. Bound together by common aspirations, and in some cases poverty, they fiercely debated and exchanged ideas as they crafted their work. As a result Paris would embrace some of the twentieth century’s most influential and fundamental art movements.

Fauvism (translated as wild beasts), which surfaced before the First World War, was short lived and initially ridiculed and castigated by critics.   As with many other artistic movements before them (most notably impressionism) the label fauvism was not coined by the artists themselves. It was in 1905 at the Salon d’Automne that the art critic Louis Vauxcelles christened Fauvism. Matisse and his collaborators work were exhibited in one room. Situated in the same room was a bust of a child by the sculptor Marque. On witnessing this contrast Vauxcelles uttered his infamous phrase “well, Donatello among the wild beasts”.

Fauvism was not a group that was purposefully formed.  There was no fanfare trumpeting its arrival, nor did it have any manifestos outlining its principles. Instead it emerged from the experiments of enthusiastic and determined artists, eager to pioneer a new pictorial language. Although the boundaries of fauvist group were fluid, three central groups and a lone Dutchman contributed to its make up. There was the circle that centred on Matisse whilst he studied at Gustav Moreau’s studio and then subsequently at the Academie Carriere. This included Albert Marquet, Charles Camoin, Henri Charles Manguin and Jean Puy. There was also the partnership between Andre Derain and Maurice Vlaminck – they met fortuitously after the train they were both travelling on derailed – and lastly the Le Harve group which included Othon Frieze, Raoul Dufy and Georges Braque. Derain eventually met up with Matisse and would later on introduce him to Vlaminck, initially based himself in Chatou (a place just outside Paris) and was in many ways the “outsider of the group”. . Vlaminck rejected formal training and was self taught. He spent a lot of time in isolation from his contemporaries and was brash, hot headed and eccentric

Why did Louis Vauxcelles use the term fauves? He certainly was not referring to their personalities or way of living. In fact in this context “wild beasts“ would have been totally inappropriate – the exception being Maurice Vlaminck. He used it in response to the fact it broke away from the official and widely accepted tradition of art. The artists abandoned conventional spatial and colour perspective. Their imagery did not take on the mirror image of their subject matter and they discarded any scrap of naturalism. Their compositions were simplistic in form and made up of fragmented masses of bright and vivid colour that heightened and energised their work.

During their experiments the artists drew their inspiration from art forms of the recent past in particular impressionism, post impressionism, and neo impressionism. Other sources included non-western cultures, particularly Islamic and African art – there was an exhibition of Islamic art in Paris in 1903. The artists that would impact on them the most would be Paul Cezanne, Vincent Van Gogh and Paul Gaugin, all of which had retrospectives staged between 1901 and 1907. In many of their works we can see the influence of the divisionists, in particular Signac with whom Matisse had spent a summer with in 1904 at Saint-Tropez. The daubs of paint symbolic of the divisionists infused many of their paintings. However, the artists became weary of a labour intensive and highly theorising technique – a technique that was in total opposition to spontaneity or free will or more appropriately, the illusion of spontaneity and free will.

The changes in the art market, particularly the arrival of art dealers willing to champion avant garde artists and wealthy individuals such as the Stein family (Gertrude, Leo, Michael and Sarah) aided the artist and it made the fauves one of the first groups to benefit from scandal.   The Steins between them in 1905 would buy Matisse’s Woman with a Hat and Portrait with a Green Stripe . The Steins, especially Gertrude were not only interested in the art but in the artists themselves. Her afternoon salons at the Rue de Fleurus was an artistic centre whose guests included Matisse, Derain, Picasso, Georges Braque, Marie Laurencin and writers such as Earnest Hemmingway and James Joyce. The walls of Gertrude’s apartment were lined with the works of such artists, in some way providing a documentary in the genesis of modern art.

German expressionism , together with the futurist group in Italy, and the fauves, formed in the years before the First World War. The employment of bright vivid colours was a common characteristic of all the fore mentioned artistic groups. Other similarities included the simplistic forms of their motifs, lack of detail and lack of a traditional – three dimensional – perspective. The emphasis of colour as opposed to line – which was the academic approach – and the break up of colour associated with particular objects gave their imagery a different perspective. As a result they rendered paintings charged with emotion. Matisse is often quoted saying to his students “to copy the objects in a still life is nothing; one must render the emotions they awaken in him.

The lack of traditional perspective and the employment of bright vivid colours with little redress to naturalism was a device used by the film director Douglas Sirk to heighten the “drama” in his films. His most famous films include Imitation to Life (1958), All that Heaven Allows (1956), Written on the Wind (1956) and Magnificent Obsession (1953). Douglas Sirk crafted his work during the 1940s and 1950s and would later inspire his fellow German film director, Rainer Werner Fassbinder. He also influenced the American film director, Todd Haynes, whose recent film Far From Heaven(2002) is in part a homage to Sirk ( compare with All that heaven Allows). Douglas Sirk was a master of the mise en scene and everything was strategically placed to heighten and infuse the scene with drama and emotion. Sirk, like his compatriot Fritz Lang, left Germany for America in the 1930s. He was highly educated and worked for the theatre. On arriving in America he took on menial jobs and it wasn’t until 1954 with the success of Magnificient Obsessions that he was crowned as the king of Melodrama”. Like the fauves he was he was not taken seriously being associated with so called “women films” which did not have the kudos of other genres such as westerns and film noirs. It would take the generations of Goddard and Fassbinder to give him critical caché.

London is a great place to view fauvists and their influences, the expressionist and futurist paintings. The Courtauld Institute of Art gallery features an outstanding group of fauve paintings, together with post –impressionist works, and artists such as Cezanne, Van Gogh and Gaugin. The works on view also include a number of important paintings by the Blaue Reiter artists. The Estorick Gallery houses a remarkable collection of images by the main protagonists of the futurist movement. Douglas Sirk films appear at times in London’s repertory cinemas.

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