Tuesday, May 4, 2010

The Subject of Art #4: Henri Matisse and the Wild Beasts

Henri Matisse, Le Bonheur de Vivre, 1905-6

Every once in a while it's good to give credit where credit is due and with that in mind it's worth taking a look back at one of art history's most underrated movements. Around the beginning of the 20th century, a group of painters in Paris came together to form "Les Fauves" (The Wild Beasts in English) and the work that they did would open the doors to artwork that was completely unfettered in its manner of expression.

The deconstruction of previously precious traditions in the art world at that time would lead directly to the development of abstract painting and the elevation of the role of the artist to one of intuitive, spontaneous creation free from any constricting rules. Much of what we take for granted as artists in the 21st century was forged against public outcry and critical disdain over a hundred years ago, by people who were brave enough to believe that what they felt in their hearts was more important than what they learned in school.

The most significant development that came out of the Fauvist movement was the complete liberation of color from any requirements of representation. For these painters, color represented emotion and although the subject of the painting may have come from real life, the color of that subject was determined more by how the painter felt about it than anything that actually appeared on the real objects. This was a major innovation for the time.

Up until that point, color remained a quality of the subject that was not to be tampered with and, in fact, many artists were judged great masters because of their ability to portray the actual colors of their subjects in a totally faithful way. Even as Impressionism became the predominant force in Western art, the prevailing wisdom was that one should try to paint what one is actually seeing and flights of imagination and emotion were discouraged. The work of the Post-Impressionists, particularly Vincent Van Gogh and Paul Gauguin laid the foundation which Les Fauves built upon, but even their colors tended to remain chained to perceptions of the real world outside, and it was up to the Wild Beasts to truly begin to liberate color and let the harmonies of the composition tell their own story.

By far the most well known of Les Fauves was Henri Matisse, who was generally acknowledged to be the leader and philosophical guide of the group. In spite of the difficulties that Matisse faced with gaining acceptance for his work in the beginning, he eventually gained great respect from art lovers and enjoyed a continuous popularity throughout his life.

The fantastic intensity of color in Matisse's paintings were always put into the service of a great sense of joy, wonder and a love of life. His use of color touched many people deeply and often stood at odds with the cynical and often harsh styles of his contemporaries—particularly his great friend Pablo Picasso—but this in itself was a testament to the fact that the art of any given period could cover a wide range of emotion.

Less well known, but nonetheless influential, were the other members of the group: Andre Derain, Maurice de Vlaminck, Raoul Dufy, Georges Roualt, and Georges Braques (who would later go on to work with Picasso and become a founder of Cubism). Many of them, including Matisse, had been students of the Symbolist painter Gustave Moreau, a maverick professor at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts whose influence was inspirational. Moreau's paintings were filled with an unearthly spirituality, and although he never displayed the wildness of his students, his love of pure color and his willingness to embrace new ideas was a catalyst to the future triumphs of Matisse and his contemporaries.

The group gained notoriety at the Salon D'Automne of 1905, after which the popular art critic, Louis Vauxcelles, made the comment that their paintings might have been done by wild beasts. In the true spirit of the time, Matisse and company took that unkind remark and turned it on its head, in effect exclaiming that it was better to paint as a wild beast than as a man with no feeling at all!

Andre Derain, Charing Cross Bridge, 1906

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