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Taming the Beasts

The Fauve Landscape: Matisse, Derain, Braque, and Their Circle, 1904-1908 October 4–December 30, 1990; The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, February 19–May 5, 1991; and The Royal Academy of Arts, London, June 10–September 1, 1991

an exhibition at The Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Los Angeles,

The Fauve Landscape

catalog of the exhibition by Judi Freeman, with contributions by Roger Benjamin, by James D. Herbert, by John Klein, by Alvin Martin
Los Angeles County Museum of Art and Abbeville Press, 350 pp., $35.00 (paper)

1.

In the standard histories of modern art, Fauvism is considered the first major twentieth-century movement. Around 1905, the story goes, following hard upon the innovations of the Post-impressionists, a group of young artists led by Henri Matisse began to revolutionize European painting and make it really modern by using brash color, bold brushwork, and loose drawing. The journalist Louis Vauxcelles, a somewhat skittish supporter of avant-garde painting, is supposed to have given the movement its name in his review of the 1905 Salon d’Automne, where he referred to these artists as fauves, or “wild beasts.”1

In fact, Vauxcelles used the word fauves twice in his Salon review, in two different ways. The first time, the word was used to characterize the anticipated reaction of the philistines and academics who would presumably pounce on Matisse’s painting like wild beasts. Vauxcelles wrote that Matisse was courageous, “because his entry—and he knows it—will have the fate of a Christian virgin delivered to the wild beasts [fauves] in the arena.” Later in the same review, the word fauves was used in the opposite way, to characterize the effect created by the paintings of Matisse and his friends. Writing about two rather traditional sculptures by Albert Marque, Vauxcelles noted that they were surprising to find “in the midst of the orgy of pure color: Donatello among the wild beasts [fauves].” Vauxcelles had made a similar remark a few days earlier at a preview of the Salon, when upon seeing Marque’s sculptures alongside the brightly colored paintings, he had said: “Tiens, Donatello au milieu des fauves!” People had been amused and Vauxcelles was not about to throw away a good line.

But contrary to common belief, the name did not catch on right away. It was not until almost two years later, in Vauxcelles’s review of the 1907 Salon des Indépendants, that the epithet fauve was used in a direct way to describe Matisse and his colleagues:

M. Matisse, chief fauve; M. Derain, sub-chief fauve; Messers Othon Friesz and Dufy, following fauves; M. Girieud, indecisive fauve….2

The term came into common use toward the end of the year, but by then the painters associated with it were working in a somewhat different manner, so in a sense the movement was not named until after it was over.

It is no mere coincidence that the origin of the word “cubism” is also generally (though mistakenly) attributed to Vauxcelles, and that it, too, came into general use after there had been a radical transformation in the style that it was supposed to describe.3 Set side by side, Fauvism and Cubism make an appealing package as the first two major twentieth-century painting styles, evoking as they do the Nietzschean polarity between the Dionysian and the Apollonian that was so attractive at the beginning of the century. But in fact, they are both imprecise stylistic terms which I believe tend to falsify the situation of French painting during the first decade of the century.

The word fauve, for example, tells us much more about early twentieth-century attitudes toward art that appeared to violate social and ethical norms than it does about the painting style that it is supposed to describe. Its continued use is a matter of habit and convenience, as a kind of shorthand for referring to the bright and vigorously brushed paintings that Matisse, Derain, Vlaminck, and a number of other artists made around 1905–1906. In fact, it is difficult to characterize these paintings as a group other than to say that they frequently use primary hues organized around a polarity of red and green, and that they usually seem to have been done directly from nature, following the impressionist practice of direct observation and on-the-spot improvisation. What is usually characterized as Fauve painting actually includes a fairly wide variety of styles, sometimes within the work of a single artist. The pictures involved range from thinly painted canvases that use jerky brushstroke and broken color to canvases that are more densely painted and composed largely in broad planes.

The painters classified as Fauve and those later called Cubists tended to overlap. Georges Braque, who started out as a Fauve, became one of the inventors of Cubism. Derain and Dufy also later became associated with Cubism. And as early as 1905, many of the underlying concerns of Matisse’s painting were similar to those later associated with the Cubists.

For Matisse, the most important of these concerns was dealing with the radical notions of form and space that had been set forth by Cézanne, and that had both troubled and inspired him since the turn of the century. Matisse was particularly interested in the way that Cézanne had redefined the pictorial field and made his brush marks act as abstract forces within that field, able to traverse and conflate the boundaries between objects and the spaces around them. This was not only a move away from descriptive painting, but also away from representation, toward abstraction. Matisse’s 1905–1906 paintings reveal a central concern with opening up the pictorial field to make it virtually independent of the representation that it carries, and with inventing a pictorial language that could be used almost independently of what was supposed to be depicted. This phase of Matisse’s painting was characterized by a marked ambivalence between conceiving of the canvas as a kind of window that presented a view and treating it as an opaque pictorial field that was more like a wall.

2.

Although there has been a certain amount of disagreement among scholars about precisely which painters belong to the Fauve group, the one issue on which virtually everyone is agreed—and on which virtually everyone has been in agreement since 1905—is that Matisse was the leader of the group and the most important artist in it. It is thus all the more surprising that Matisse is so poorly represented in the exhibition of Fauve painting currently at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which is one of the largest exhibitions of its kind ever mounted.

I first saw “The Fauve Landscape” in Los Angeles, where it was bigger and somewhat more diffusely arranged than the exhibition now on view in New York, and where there were proportionately even fewer Matisses. But despite the differences, the overall conception of the show has remained the same. The paintings are arranged primarily according to where they were painted—Paris, the suburbs of Paris, Saint-Tropez and environs, Collioure, Normandy, and so forth. (In fact, a certain amount of juggling has been done. For instance, a Vlaminck painted at Chatou is in the Paris gallery, a Derain view of Martigues is shown among Braque’s and Dufy’s Antwerp pictures, and the grouping in the final gallery is basically chronological.) The catalog essays are similarly arranged, and the show’s organizers evidently believe that geography had a crucial role in the development of Fauve painting. Moreover, if there are surprisingly few Matisses, there is a relative abundance of works by minor artists, such as Dufy, Friesz, and Manguin.

The presence of so many minor—indeed mediocre—paintings has a curious effect on the viewer. On the one hand it seems to evoke more fully than ever before a cross section of French painting at a particularly interesting moment. To this end, the curator, Judi Freeman, has done a superb job of seeking out obscure pictures and persuading their owners to lend them. (William Lieberman has added some stunning Matisses in New York.) But at the same time, the variable and sometimes low quality of the work in the show poses some serious questions about the way the history of this moment in French painting is conceived of and written. Is it better to try to give an idea of the full range of what was produced in a given style, or is it preferable to be more selective and to show only the strongest or most representative work? This exhibition makes it clear that there are no easy answers to this question, which in fact raises more questions. For example, is the strongest work necessarily the most representative?

The quantity and variety of pictures in this exhibition are fascinating (at least to specialists), but also fatiguing (even to specialists). They also have the curious effect of confusing rather than clarifying an important aspect of the history of French painting at the beginning of the century—if one understands the writing of history to involve a selective synthesis of the past rather than a somewhat indiscriminate, though comprehensive, presentation of it. (And if one is really going to try to be comprehensive, then why not include artists like Girieud and Puy in the exhibition as well as the catalog?)

Geography has been substituted for chronology, and in the catalog it has even been translated into an aspect of ideology. Fauve painting is seen here as part of certain social concerns, which seem to include patriotism, regionalism, tourism, and even colonialism, although the exact nature of those concerns, or how they are actually expressed in the paintings, is never made quite clear. The main point seems to be that Fauve painting can best be understood by studying it in relation to sites, maps, postcards, photographs of landscapes, and anecdotes about the painters’ work habits.

Among the most instructive comparisons in the exhibition are those between pictures of the same or similar motifs painted by different artists of unequal gifts, as in the pictures that Braque and Friesz painted virtually side by side at La Ciotat in 1907. The structural weaknesses and uncertain execution of the Friesz paintings make us appreciate Braque’s masterly treatment of these motifs all the more. Seeing such works together also makes us realize how subjective the vision behind such paintings was, even though they were painted directly from nature. And it is precisely this subjectivity that makes us question the geographical arrangement of the show. If locale is supposed to have been as important as the exhibition and the catalog would lead us to believe, then why do the painting styles seem to have so little direct relationship to specific sites? Style seems to be something that the artists brought along with them to the different places they painted, rather than something that they discovered on the spot, or necessarily felt had to be different in different places. The various manners in which Derain worked during this period, for example, seem to depend more on the artistic models he adopted—Seurat, van Gogh, or Gauguin—than on where he was painting.

The emphasis on place also leads to some basic misunderstandings about the nature of Fauve painting. In James Herbert’s essay in The Fauve Landscape, he characterizes Matisse’s and Derain’s paintings in the south as “picturesque” landscapes, which he defines as “quite literally a view of a section of the countryside that conforms to the compositional standards set by previous landscape paintings.”

  1. 1

    Louis Vauxcelles, “Le Salon d’Automne,” special supplement to Gil Blas, October 17, 1905.

  2. 2

    Louis Vauxcelles, “Le Salon des Indépendants,” Gil Blas, March 20, 1907.

  3. 3

    In November 1908, Vauxcelles wrote that Braque reduced everything to “cubes,” and the following March he described Braque’s paintings as “cubic.” But the first published use of the word “cubisme” seems to have been by Charles Morice in Mercure de France, April 16, 1909. The term, which was a response to the sculptural and geometrical style of Braque’s 1908–1909 paintings, did not come into common use until the fall of 1910; by then both Braque and Picasso were working in a much less sculptural, more planar manner. In any event, none of the many styles grouped under the umbrella of Cubism was actually based on “cubes.”

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