Fauvism

1905 - 1907

The birth of fauvism

In 1905, a scandal erupted at the Salon d’Automne at the Grand Palais. The Salon offered visitors over 1620 paintings, and two grand retrospectives: one on Ingres and the other on Manet. However, it was Room VII, a room that became known as the “cage of wild beasts (fauves),” that was the centre of attention. The Salon’s curator, Léonce Bénédite, was responsible for putting the two revolutionary artists André Derain and Henri Matisse together. The young artists were considered to be the leaders of this movement.

On entering the room and seeing the brightly colored paintings hung amidst the delicate neo-Florentine sculptures, the revered art critic Louis Vauxcelles exclaimed “Donatello among the wild beasts!” The public came in great droves to see the work. The opinion was split between those who ridiculed the work and those who exalted it to the skies. The press was more critical of the work. Le Figaro’s critic Camille Mauclair wrote, “A pot of paint has been flung at the public’s head.”

Even politicians became involved in the scandal as the President of the Republic, Emile Loubet, refused to open the Salon. Fortunately, the new Salon’s jury was open to painters that were somewhat outside the Academy. While spectators continued to express their disapproval, Elie Faure, a famous art historian urged that “to put ourselves in contact with the young generation of artists we must be free and willing to understand an absolutely new language.”

But what exactly was there to reproach in fauvism? Was it so wrong to reduce drawing to its fundamental pictorial principles, to these brights colors thrown on straight from the tube, often in direct opposition, flatly pasted on in successive small touches, leaving the bare white canvas to peak through? The Fauvists demanded complete liberty to rethink form and perspective. The little touches would reveal forms that vibrated explosively in color.

The pioneers of fauvism

A – HENRI MATISSE and ANDRE DERAIN

A year before his exhibition in the “cage of wild beasts (fauves),” Henri Matisse (1869-1954) was already a respected painter. Thirty-five years of age, he was still involved with the Academy and working within a post-impressionistic vein. In the summer of 1904, while staying at Paul Signac’s house, Matisse’s work changed. Technically, he started using large daubs of color employed in compositions that was strongly architectural in style. Nevertheless, according to Matisse, the paintings were still insufficient. His sense of failure made him drift deeply towards melancholy.

That same summer, he invited the young Derain to holiday together at Collioure. Working together, the two artists created compositions that focused on the ephemeral impressions of passion, instinct, and emotion. Matisse oscillated between pure touches of color done in large strokes, and small clouds of points, an essential characteristic of fauvism. Derain produced roughly thirty vividly colored paintings. The conceptual difference between the two was that Matisse would leave bare patches on the canvas. The most emblematic painting of this new school was Matisse’s Luxe, calme et volupté.

B – GEORGES BRAQUE AND OTHON FRIESZ

Georges Braque and Othon Friesz (1879-1949) met each other at the art school in Le Havre where they were both students. Friesz, attracted initially to post-expressionism, was drawn to Matisse after seeing his paintings at the l’Atelier du Couvent des Oiseaux in 1905. His paintings were exhibited at the Salle VI of the Salon d’Automne, not far from those of the Fauves. Braque had come to the Salon to see his friend’s work; he left deeply impressed with the fauvism. Several months later, in the summer of 1906, the two friends spent some time in Anvers. They rented a room with an extraordinary view of the port from its balcony. The perspective of these paintings were similar, featuring a descending view, but closer examination reveals that while Braque was tackling ideas on composition, equilibrium and touch, Friesz was occupied with a more systematic approach.

Only a month after his return from Anvers to Paris, Braque painted one of his major fauvist works: Le Canal Saint-Martin. Freed from the influence of Friesz, he entered a creative period of his life, which was marked by increased liberty in expression. The canal, lined with factories and warehouses constantly buzzing with industrial activity, was surprisingly peaceful. The vibration of color and the borders of the building are fauvist, but Braque presents a calm and ordered landscape, much different from the vivid and bright colors of Anvers.