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)

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.”

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….

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. 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 …

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