29 января 2013

A name born from scandal

18th October, 1905: French President Emile Loubet refused to open the third autumn exhibition opening at the Grand Palais. The reason: room VII, containing paintings by Camoin, Derain, Manguin, Marquet, Matisse and Vlaminck was judged unacceptable by all critics. They were described as "random gaudy colours", "frenzied brushes", "a mixture of bottle wax and parrot feathers". Attacked most fiercely, Matisse’s {Woman with a Hat}, when it was not being laughed at, attracted the most virulent comments and scorn. A bust placed in the centre of the room led Louis Vauxcelles to write: "C’est Donatello parmi les fauves" (“It is Donatello among the wild beasts!”). The phrase was so popular that the room was soon renamed the “cage aux fauves” (“cage of wild beasts”). By extension, the artists exhibited there were associated with the expression and their painting was called “Fauvist”.

A movement without a manifesto

The first real artistic scandal of the 20th century, Fauvism set the tone for the avant-garde movements. However, it also stands out from them to the extent that it did not form deliberately around a manifesto (unlike Dadaism, Futurism and Surrealism for example). Although some artists from room VII painted together (Matisse and Derain in Collioure, during the summer of 1905), none claimed any affiliation with an actual movement governed by principles they developed together. On the other hand, many did know each other (many attended the lessons given by Gustave Moreau at the Academy of Fine Arts) and some, who were friends, frequently discussed the progress of their work. For instance, in 1905 Derain wrote to Vlaminck: “I let myself go with colour for colour’s sake.”

The explosion of colour and freedom of expression

And indeed if there is one characteristic shared by all these painters (with whom Dufy and the Dutchman Van Dongen should be included), it is the use of liberated, explosive and violent colour. All were directly influenced by the preceding generation. They drew lessons from Van Gogh, whose chromatic acidity and vigorous brushstrokes they retained. They were also inspired by Gauguin, from whom they borrowed coloured shadow, and by Seurat, to whom they owed the divided touch and the constructive value of untouched canvas. Whether in relation to landscapes (Collioure, Chatou) or city scenes (Trouville, London), portraits of artists (Derain, Vlaminck) or figures (Matisse’s allegories, Van Dongen’s singers), Fauvist painting above all stands for a profound freedom of representation and a distancing from the principles of resemblance. At a time when Cubism (also named and formed by critics) was exploring the structuring of the canvas’s space into lines and facets, Fauvism began a modern experimentation with colour which would be widely pursued throughout the 20th century.