The first “event” in twentieth century  art took place in Paris, regarded as the cultural capital of Western civilization, in 1905.  This exhibition showed the influence of nineteenth century developments of colour and distorted line from artists such as Van Gogh and Gauguin. At the Salon d’Automne that year a group of young painters headed by Henri Matisse (1869-1954) exhibited a roomful of works of strident colours, rough handling and distorted anti-naturalistic drawing that they were dubbed Les Fauves (Wild Beasts).

Matisse. Bonheur de Vivre 1905-06 ---Fauvism, according to Henri Matisse (1869-1954), who became the leader of the group, began as a reaction against the methodical formulas of Seurat and Signac. ‘Fauvism shook off the tyranny of divisionism,’ Matisse once declared, and went on to explain: “Neo-Impressionism, or rather that part of it which is called Divisionism, was the first organization of the method of Impressionism, but this organization was purely physical and often mechanical. The splitting up of colour brought the splitting up of form and contour. The result: a jerky surface. Everything is treated in the same way. In the end there is nothing but tactile animation, comparable to the vibrato of a violin or voice.” (Read)---

“In the early 1900s, however, the avant-garde was real enough; so indeed were the financial hardships inflicted on its members. The first unmistakable avant-garde event of the new century was the exhibition of an extraordinary roomful of pictures at the Salon d’Automne of 1905. According to a still not absolutely verified story, the critic Louis Vauxcelles gazed about the room in horror and, seeing in the center a work of sculpture in Renaissance tradition, exclaimed, “Donatello au milieu des fauves!” (“Donatello among the wild beasts!”). The name Fauves immediately stuck to the new movement. “ (Hartt)

The primacy of color was not invented by either Henri Matisse or André Derain. It had been stated by Paul Gauguin, both by his own example and in conversations in Brittany with the young painters who admired him. It was being explored by others in France, and it was also being mooted by Ernst Ludwig Kirschner and his friends in Dresden, and by Wassily Kandinsky, first in Russia and later in Munich. It was in the air, irresistibly. But it had to be brought down to earth, and that is what happened in Matisse’s and Derain’s paintings at Collioure.

Matisse. Woman With a hat. 1905. ---Form in these works is now constructed through bold strokes. It is more a suggestion than a definition. Sometimes the primed canvas peaks through or surrounds a color. If in these paintings Matisse was not entirely sure of what he wanted he was definite about what he did not want. “What Matisse was rejecting, where form was concerned, was the depiction of volume by relief, the gradual transition from light to dark.” (Muller)---

There is always room in history for what people call “accident,” and thus it was that Matisse and Derain were taken while at Collioure, to see the painter Daniel de Monfried. Monfried had been a close friend of Gauguin’s during gauguin’s years in France, and he had several of Gauguin’s South Seas paintings on his walls. Matisse needed no persuading where Gauguin was concerned, and in fact he had once bought a “Head of a Boy” by Gauguin at a time when he had little money to spare.

But it was with Gauguin as it was with most of Matisse’s admirations: he did not rush to emulate, but kept Gauguin in mind until the moment was right. In the summer of 1905 the moment was right, and Matisse followed Gauguin’s instructions, which were in effect that “color is not as it is. It is what you want it to be.” As paul Signac had said, ” The triumphant colorist has only to appear. We have prepared his palette for him.”

Matisse. Portrait with Green Stripe. ---“On the right the face is pink. On the left, a yellow ocher. The background is divided into three large areas of green, vermilion, and rose violet. These areas ...are purely areas of color. All three are echoed in the dress. The hair is dark blue, as are the contour lines of the dress. On the pink side of the face the contour line is red, on the left side, green. The pink and ocher have some relationship to natural color, but when we reach the light, brilliant stripe of yellow-green dividing them down the middle of the face, the purely arbitrary use of color for structure is dramatized.” (Canaday)---

The palette wasn’t everything, of course. No matter how lucid or how dexterous its arrangement, it still had to be keyed to a specific subject. The colors had to make sense in term of the picture’s subject matter, not just in terms of theory. Signac’s own paintings in the 1880’s had ended up looking both bland and cautious; in later life they became loud and lacked subtlety. Signac knew how to write about color, but he never learned how to use it. The unit of statement to which he and his friends held fast was the dot, and the dot by its very nature resulted in a speckly, in-between-colors effect.

Matisse and Derain were never dot men. They were brush men, delighting in the movement of the laden brush across the canvas. For nothing in the world would they have given up that fundamental sensation. Matisse tussled with the dot for as long as he could bear it, and he even went on tussling with it in Collioure. But it finally seemed to him that one colour neutralized another when the dots were placed next to each other. It was a happy day for him when he abandoned the dot altogether and began to apply his colors one by one, with thick , well-nourished strokes.

Derain. Charing Cross Bridge,1906. ---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 19thcentury avantgarde, 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 ha

y of his most abstract works from the stridency of Derain’s Fauve art.( Julian Barnes)

It was obvious, after the Salon d’Automne , that no one was ever less of a wild beast than Matisse, and the paintings themselves to do appear to have an animal quality at all. They stand, rather, for an aesthetic of pure exhilaration. Elsewhere and at other times the emancipation of color had all manner of overtones : social, economic, mystical. In germany, in the work of Kirschner and Nolde, it was by implication an attack on a militaristic society and in Norway it stood for the sensations of horror and dread that overcame one man, Edvard Munch; none of these considerations entered into the experiments of Matisse and Derain. They just painted that way because they wanted to and because they felt that ot was the right direction for painting to go.

Derain felt that Fauve painting was historically determined; Matisse felt that it was right for Matisse, and that what was right for Matisse would turn out to be right for painting in general. From the one belief, as from the other, there flowed an exceptional assurance that still communicates itself to us whenever we see the paintings in question.

As with other names of 20th-century movements, the label was thus pejorative in origin, in this case reflecting not only violently hostile critical reaction but also the incomprehension of the general public.  The art historian Elie Faure referred to the painters as young “primitives” in his introduction to the catalogue, commenting on their spiritual affinity with naïve art.  Traditional art histories link the Fauves with the ideas of primitivism  childlike drawing, the “barbarian”, untamed direct expression, etc.
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