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Wild Beasts: The History of Fauvism

By   /   December 26, 2017  /   No Comments

Turn of the century Paris was an incredible environment to be a burgeoning, experimental, contemporary artist. The traditional style of studied, realistic history painting had been rebelliously shattered by the Impressionists shifting, light-filled, plein-air compositions. Continuing this philosophy of pictorial representation, a group of artists began to employ dynamic, bold colors to describe light and space and, even further abstracted their compositions by deliberating choosing unnatural, unrealistic hues. No longer did color exist merely as communicative, representational element, but it now could be charged with emotional and creative meaning. Unlike the Impressionists, who chose softer tones—Claude Monet’s mellow and symphonic water lilies or Camille Pissarro’s gentle and inviting Parisian streets—these brazen artists selected vibrant, and often garish, pigments to imbibe their paintings with a ferocity of expressionism. As Paul Gauguin has aptly stated, “How do you see the trees? They are yellow. So, put in yellow; this shadow, rather blue, paint it with pure ultramarine; these red leaves? Put in vermillion.”

The leaders of the movement were Henri Matisse and André Derain, other members included Maurice de Vlaminck, Raoul Dufy, Kees van Dongen, Jean Metzinger, and Georges Braque (who would later pioneer the Cubist movement with Pablo Picasso). The Fauvist movement began under the group’s inspirational and controversial professor, Symbolist painter Gustave Moreau. His philosophy of the power of pure color was a revelation to these artists who were seeking new modalities of depiction.

Unlike later art movements, whose groups were organized by a manifesto, the Fauvist group received their name and grouping by an enraged critic. At the Salon d’Automne in 1905—a respected annual exhibition of artwork in Paris that primarily favored the classical style of art—these Fauvist artists decided to show their exuberant new paintings to the public. Art critic Louis Vauxcelles was so incensed and affronted by these garish and radical artworks, that he named the artists a bunch of ‘wild beasts,’ which in French translates to ‘les fauves.’ These artists painted liked crazed, uncivilized, mad men and completely shattered the tradition of glossy, refined compositions.

The painting that incited the greatest amount of attacks was Matisse’s Woman with a Hat, which was subsequently purchased by Gertrude and Leo Stein. The public could not believe that a woman had a green nose and purple cheeks! One critic wrote in condemnations, it is like ‘a pot of paint has been flung in the face of the public.” Despite all the shock and outrage, it was these Fauvists who triumphed. Their daring and bold compositions with unorthodox hues released color from the shackles of mere representation. Color could now be employed for expressive purposes and daringly elevate banal and quotidian subject matter into its highest form.

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