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East of the Sun, West of the Moon

Sunday, January 01, 2006

A Fauve's Long Journey Into Night

There are a couple good essays on the Fauvist painters online at the moment. For those unfamiliar, Fauvism was the first brief struggle to break from centuries of European tradition in painting. The Fauvists took their inspiration for van Gogh, Gaugin and Cézanne, creating bold experiments in color and form. Shapes and form were completely arbitrary, and color was boldly exuberant, lending the school of painters the name 'fauve,' French for wild beast.

The most celebrated Fauvist was Henri Matisse, but many other important artists of the 20th century first exhibited as Fauvists, most notably the cubist Georges Bracque and Othon Friesz.

George Bracque, Landscape near Antwerp, 1906

Julian Barnes has a wonderful essay in the London Review of Books about Friesz and Bracque, based on a new biography of Bracque by Alex Danchev. Barnes is an enjoyable writer who really conveys the excitement and his love of art in his work, and this review of Bracque's life is no different. For while Friesz was a competent artist, Bracque was just beginning his masterful career:
They were friends, companions, painters-in-arms committed to what was, at the start of the 20th century, the newest and most provoking form of art. Braque was just the younger, but there was little assumption of seniority by the other. They were co-adventurers, co-discoverers; they painted side by side, often the same subject, and their work was at times almost indistinguishable. The world was young, and their painting lives lay ahead of them.

You have to feel sorry for Othon Friesz, Braque's fellow Le Havrean and loyal confederate in Fauvism, his proto-Picasso. While Braque moved on with his new Spanish friend to make the greatest breakthrough in Western art for several centuries, and Cubism relegated Fauvism to a jaunty memory, Friesz had to get on with the rest of his life and the rest of his career. Strangely, the two painters had their first joint show – a posthumous one – only last summer, at the Musée de Lodève. It proved a display of unintentional cruelty. The most compelling Fauve paintings were all by Braque; but while this was just a stage in his development (though a fondly remembered one – fifty years later he bought back his own The Little Bay at La Ciotat), it turned out to be what Friesz did best. Afterwards, he wandered his way through various styles inclining more and more to the empty magniloquent gesture – a painter shouting not to be forgotten.

Fauvism lasted only 4 or 5 years before most of the artists finally broke with the figurative tradition in painting and embraced cubism. But those brief heady years produced wonderful works of art. This painting by André Derain demonstrates the Fauvist ethos perfectly:
André Derain, Charing Cross Bridge, 1906

This is Charing Cross Bridge, painted in 1906 by André Derain. In fact the second article I want to mention is about Derain and his London paintings, the subject of an exhibition on display at the Courtauld Institute until January 22nd, "André Derain: The London Paintings." Derain painted London in vibrant colors at the behest of art dealer Ambroise Vollard, who was hoping for a sensation similar to Claude Monet's exhibition of London painting in 1904. While Vollard never staged a show of Derain's paintings, he certainly dismantled much of Monet's legacy.
Despite his awareness of the 19th-century avant-garde, Derain was heading for a new world without links to the century-old tradition of European art. In one of his last masterpieces, "Effects of Sunlight on Water," dark blue masses, intended as clouds, stand out against a sky veering from intense red to yellowish ochre. An ill-defined green haze rises from the edge of a narrow blue strip that purports to depict a brook and its vegetation. In a letter to the Fauve painter Maurice de Vlaminck, Derain wrote that "Turner authorized us to create forms beyond real, conventional objects." The influence of Turner is not in doubt, nor the abyss that separates the elaborate harmony of his most abstract works from the stridency of Derain's Fauve art.

Having gone thus far, Derain then retreated into mediocre figural painting often bordering on kitsch. It was as if he and other Fauves - de Vlaminck, Van Dongen - had become spent forces with nothing more to say. Within a generation, Western painting as a whole would in turn begin to go down the path of disintegration.
It seems that for many Fauves, their light burned brightly for only a few furious years. Both articles convey the impression that the former Fauvists were left on the outside looking in at the later developments in art. Barnes goes on to mention in his essay how Friesz, Derain, Van Dongen and de Vlaminck were suborned by the Nazis during the occupation and were later excoriated for being collaborationists; perhaps their complicity was due in part to a desire to return to their days of artistic glory almost a half century earlier. A chance to wear once again the laurels of youth...

Henri Matisse, Portrait of André Derain, 1905


  • Thomas,

    I like your interest in paintings. What do you think about Edward Hopper?

    By Anonymous, at 2:36 PM  

  • On my last trip to the Art Institute of Chicago one of the highlights of my visit was a wide ranging sampling of American art that the curators had placed in the temporary galleries outside the Toulouse-Latrec exhibit. The galleries were chock a block with some real hits in American painting; Winslow Homer, Whistler, John Singer Sargent, Mary Cassat, Georgia O'Keefe, Grant Wood's American Gothic (which refers to the building in the background, not Wood's dentist or his sister), Andy Warhol, and of course Hopper's famous Nighthawks. I was delighted by this great exhibit of American art and wondered how it came about.

    I spoke with my erudite brother-in-law CJ about this fantastic development and he gave me the full lowdown. Apparently the Terra Museum of American Art shut its doors a few years ago after a lingering death. Through a long term loan, many pieces from the Terra's collections are now on display with the Art Institute's own holding in this continuing exhibit curated by Judith Barter.

    Once upon a time my life was headed into a career in museums. That changed ages ago, but my love of art continues, along with my interest in museums.

    And in answer to your question, I think Hopper embodies a great deal of the gritty realist painting that had its last flowering during the Great Depression before Pollack and the abstract expressionists killed off figurative painting forever. Hopper's work is sad and elegiac, a reflection of the hardscrabble and lonely years before the second world war.

    By Thomas, at 12:54 AM  

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