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).
“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.
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.”
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.
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.