Discuss the themes and techniques of fauvism. Support your arguments with reference to specific examples.
Between 1904-7, Henri Matisse, Andre Derain and Maurice Vlaminck evolved a style of painting that earned them the name Les Fauves. The Fauve movement was given it’s name when the art critic Louis Vauxcelles was reviewing the Gils Blas at the Salon d’Automne exhibition in 1905. He saw a classical sculpture in the centre of an exhibition room filled with fauve paintings by artists such as Derain, Vlaminck and Matisse. The bright arbitrary colours and distorted lines of the Fauvists paintings looked at the time like art by savages. He referred to these paintings as ‘wild beast’ in comparison to the classical sculpture. As a result of the French meaning for wild beast being ‘fauves’ the style was called fauvism. Although there was no common program such as the Impressionist Société anonyme des peintres, sculpteur et graveur, the Fauves were all loosely joined by a shared rebellion against academicism. For the Fauves the simple act of painting and the joy of painting is at the heart of the paintings.
The Pointillists had a large influence on the Fauves. In the freeing of line and colour from the bonds of realistic description the Fauves looked back to the juxtapositions used by the Pointillists. They incorporated these juxtapositions into the emotionalism that they adopted from the styles of painters such as Vincent van Gogh . Comparing van Gogh’s Self-portrait with shaven head to Matisse’s Portrait of André Derain one can easily observe the similarities. Both have broken brush strokes, the paint having been applied thickly and in directional patterns. This pattern plays a key part in the creation of a structure in the figures. Van Gogh has highlighted his face by lightening the green background palette close to the face. By contrast Matisse has used two colours, green and blue, in the background. However this has been coarsely applied with vigorous brushstrokes and no attempt to even try to finish it. Amongst other artists that influenced the Fauves Gauguin stands out. He influenced them with his love of painting primitive nature and they copied this by using his decorative values in many of their paintings. Such decorative values can be seen in the key Fauve painting The Joy of Life – Matisse. It has been influenced by the way in which he drastically simplified forms, so much so that they become a pure linear pattern unifying the picture surface into a single spatial plane, not without some lingering reminiscences of Art Nouveau.
Colour and the use of colour for expression is at the heart of fauvism. By freeing colour from its traditional descriptive role in representation, the Fauves led the way to its use as an expressive end in itself, showing both an equivalent of reality and their emotional response to reality. Bright dissonant colours are used to express the artist’s emotional response to reality, often using non-representative autonomous colours. The colours are bright and dissonant increasing the harsh and incoherent nature of the paintings.
In the same way that colour is exaggerated for representation, nature is often distorted through the imagination of the artists. Indeed there is an emancipation of style and line, it is a liberation away from classicism, almost portraying the message that Academic Art is no longer needed as society has moved forward and can now express oneself. The artists try to portray this celebration of pleasure in the vivacity of the paintings.
Derrain’s ‘Boats in the Port of Collioure’ is a wonderful and typical example of fauvist painting. It has a primitive Mediterranean fishing scene as its subject. The sky is green and yellow, the hills pink and the foreground mostly pure red, yellow and blue. Derrain has applied paint in various sized blocks, often spaced apart to represent light and allow the colours to interact, and, by doing so gain strength from the contrast of each other. The sunlight influences the shades of colour and the gaps between the ‘dabs’ of paint. One only need look at the sea in the painting to see how the areas affected by the sunlight are green where as the rest of the sea is blue. The areas where the sun reflects on the water have large spaces between the ‘dabs’ of paint revealing the white base layer of the canvas. Although the colours are non-representational, their colour represents the objects intensity in relation to other objects. A result is that the grass/beach in the foreground is red and the background hills pink. The colours do not represent nature, instead provide a painterly equivalent to reality.
Matisse was one of the other great fauves. Similarly to Derrain, he painted at Collioure. His painting ‘Interior at Collioure’ depends on the conjunction of red, pink and green, as well as blue and orange. Matisse’s tendency to juxtapose of complimentary colours is supposed to enhance the colours and make the eye think that the colours are vibrating and thus affect the eye more. Despite this, space through the painting can be observed, (though not with traditional use of perspective) and it is easy to tell the interior and exterior light apart.
The main theme of fauvism seems to be the juxtaposition of colours so that they represent the view of the artist and create a vibrancy in the colours.It is the artists assault on classical reality.