Les Fauves is the title of an important loan exhibition which members will be invited to enjoy at a special preview on Wednesday evening, January 21. Organized by the Museum of Modern Art in collaboration with the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, the San Francisco Museum of Art, and the Art Gallery of Toronto, this exhibition will bring to Minneapolis the most extensive group of Fauvist art yet seen here. Les Fauves,
literally meaning the wild beasts, were a group of French artists who, fifty years ago, launched the first avant-garde movement of the twentieth century. Their paintings are distinguished by the use of very high colors, mostly yellows, reds, greens, and blues, which were applied with slashing freedom, and sometimes with a view to distortion, to achieve the maximum emotional impact upon the spectator. A number of well-known painters, all of whom are still living, participated in the movement, contributing in varying degrees to the development of modern painting. The exhibition includes outstanding examples of all of these men—Matisse, Vlaminck, Derain, Braque, Rouault, and Dufy.Like the term Impressionists, the name of the Fauves was coined by a journalist, Louis Vauxcelles, who first saw paintings by members of the group at the Salon d'Automne of 1905. Captivated by an academic piece of sculpture in the Renaissance style, which he found sharing a gallery with works by Matisse and his friends, Vauxcelles exclaimed: “Donatello au milieu des fauves!”
The name stuck, for it described, more or less appropriately, the daring creations submitted to the exhibition by this group of artists. The remark made by Vauxcelles proved mild by comparison with the hostile opinions of other critics. All failed to perceive that the style created by the Fauves was but the logical sequel to the innovations of Van Gogh and Gauguin. Although the work of the Impressionists was by this time accepted, that of the Post-Impressionists, to whom the Fauves were especially indebted, was not yet popular. Recognition of the great contribution made by Van Gogh and Gauguin was not to come until the Fauves had made their own flamboyant entrance into the limelight. And it is tempting to think that recognition may have had its inception at the first large exhibition of paintings by Van Gogh, held in Paris four years earlier, when Derain first introduced Vlaminck to Matisse. All three, and especially Vlaminck, who did not share the other enthusiasms of Matisse and Derain, were struck by what they saw. It was under a series of such circumstances that various members of the group met each other and discovered their mutual interests. They did not establish a formal organization or issue a manifesto of any kind. They merely met occasionally to paint together and to exchange ideas.Today it is very difficult to understand the furore which their paintings provoked prior to 1910, when most of the group exhibited together. Although members of the Art Institute may know little about some of the painters in the group outside of Matisse, Vlaminck, and Derain, they will be charmed and stimulated by what they see in the exhibition. They will, moreover, become aware of a sense of familiarity with these works even if specific examples are not known to them. Unwittingly, and for a number of reasons, they have become accustomed to such painting. First of all, Van Gogh and Gauguin have become household words. Their paintings, familiar through exhibitions and extensive reproduction, contain the essence of the innovations of the Fauves. In addition, the ideas developed by Matisse and his friends have already been encountered by a wide public in the writings of Van Gogh and Gauguin, where they are freely and fully discussed. Furthermore, everyone is now used to color in everyday life; it is used, in many cases, for violent color, such as that to be seen in advertisements and printing, neon signs and technicolor films. The heightened color in Fauvist paintings is therefore no longer wholly shocking.The men comprising the group called the Fauves came from many parts of France and from other European countries. They also came from widely different backgrounds in regard to education and training. They found a bond, however, in their point of departure, the work of Van Gogh and Gauguin which is so admirably illustrated in the Institute's permanent collection. They also found a bond in their approach to painting, in their interest in the emotional or psychological possibilities of color, and in the freedom with which they applied pigment. Their experiment was not a self-conscious or an intellectual thing, but a combination of intuition and personal observation based on the most recent tradition of creative painting. They did not distort for the sake of distortion, but to achieve a more dramatic means of expression. Their purpose was the creation of unusual harmonies within their distortion, for they considered a balance between subject and an appropriate intensity of color the final goal. Dramatizing life and nature, as they saw them, with blazing color and bold strokes, the Fauves launched a new movement which, despite the hostility of critics spread like wildfire. Before long, an audacious woman named Berthe Weill was selling their works in quantity at her gallery on Montmartre.On first impression, almost any exhibition of work by the Fauves seems violent. However, the violence is due, more or less, to the combined force of the group; the work of no single master, if individually analyzed, will prove too shocking. Although it may seem like a paradox, each of the Fauves sought to achieve harmony in terms of distortion, heightening their colors to a degree of intensity that was in itself a ripe and exotic harmony. In this instance they were guided by their progenitor, Gauguin, who pointed out that “In nature, all tones, even the most garish, fuse in invariable harmony.” This is as true of Gauguin's Tahitian Landscape
in the Institute's collection as it is of the unbelievably beautiful series of views of London by Derain. The paintings by both the older and the younger master continue to offer us the freshest impression of places newly discovered. Just as the stroke and impasto selected by Van Gogh in his Olive Trees,
from the Institute's collection, seem appropriate, so they do in Vlaminck's Gardens in Chatou.
It is significant that although the Fauves were willful in their use of distortion, they were also purposeful in molding it to their ends. While they sought to awaken the public to the drama of life around them, they achieved their goal by perfectly legitimate means. As the movement spread, it swept with it both major and minor painters. In the first group were men who have changed the course of twentieth-century art; in the second were men who produced a few masterpieces at the time but were unable to sustain their early originality in later works. None have continued to paint in the style which they created, although the best have built upon their initial and successful experiments. The movement was like an epidemic, with the germ coming from Van Gogh, Gauguin, and the great Norwegian, Munch. The contagion spread among the Fauves themselves, and, like an epidemic, died out in the course of time. Its death was due not to a change in public taste, but to the painters themselves, who realized that they had said all they could say though their chosen medium of color. Most of them were young enough to be interested in other directions, and they deliberately withdrew from the movement to explore the new roads which they had opened for themselves as well as for the public.One of the most astounding facts about them was that their approach never became a manner or a method. It was not an academic or intellectual movement. Each went his individual way, developing according to his personal taste and talents.The most important of the Fauves, Matisse, went on to triumphs of more mature and personal style, building on color for originality and decorative effect. Promise of his ability can be detected in his earliest works, such as Open Window, Collioure.
The climax of his activity with the other Fauves can be seen in the magnificent Boy with a Butterfly Net,
the major painting by the master in the exhibition. Vlaminck and Derain discarded their imaginative use of primary colors to join Picasso in his experiments in Cubism. In turn they discarded Cubism for tradition, and they have never again attained the dazzling results seen in their earliest works in this exhibition. Braque also joined Picasso in the development of Cubism, contributing the bold but harmonious use of color he had personally developed.Dufy, seen at his best in the Fourteenth of July,
built a frankly decorative art on the foundation laid by the Fauves. His lesser contemporaries, Van Dongen among them, eventually succumbed to modish illustration and portrait painting.The significance of Fauvism as one of the three or four major movements of the twentieth century cannot be overestimated. First of all, the group produced three giants of modern painting: Matisse, Braque, and Rouault, and at least three other painters who have established lasting reputations: Vlaminck, Derain, and Dufy. Second, the movement represents the century's first revolution in paintings, and, at the same time, the most important link with the past, stemming as it did from the Post-Impressionists. Third, the short-lived movement produced some very far-reaching effects, contributing to the development of color in both abstract and Expressionist painting. Even some of the most advanced painting of today owes a debt to this movement, which forms a bridge between the final innovations of the nineteenth century and the multitudinous trends of the twentieth.The exhibition of Les Fauves
represents one of the most important assemblages of work by this group ever shown, for it presents every important cross-current in the painting of the time and contains not only an impressive group of first-rate paintings by such artists as Vlaminck and Derain as yet little exhibited in this country, but a stunning group of works by unfamiliar members of the Fauves.Referenced Works of Art
- Sergeant of the Colonial Regiment. Albert Marquet. Lent by Robert Lehman, New York.
- The Olive Trees. Van Gogh. Minneapolis Institute of Arts.
- Tahitian Landscape. Gauguin. Minneapolis Institute of Arts.
- Gardens in Chatou. Vlaminck. Art Institute of Chicago.
- Charing Cross Bridge. Derain. Lent by Mr. and Mrs. John Hay Whitney.
- Fourteenth of July in Le Havre. Raoul Dufy. Lent by Mme. Marcelle Bourdon, Paris.