For a few years in the early twentieth century, André Derain, Henri Matisse and others known as the Fauves (‘wild beasts’) dazzled those who viewed their avant garde art. Not only were their colours intense, often raw from the tube, but they were so inappropriate. Flesh became vivid green, buildings and horses blue, and skies blood red. For most it was a passing phase, and by 1908 the wild beasts had stampeded on to the next fad as modernism evolved volcanically.
Their influence was more lasting and general, though, affecting other artists until the Second World War. In this article I look at how other, more mainstream painters had their own Fauvist phase.
In some ways a continuation of the changes seen in Post-Impressionism, high chroma paintings had become common among those painting in the south of France, the Midi, with its brilliant and different light.
The leading Divisionist Paul Signac had moved to the south of France from 1897, living at first in Saint-Tropez, when it still slumbered undiscovered as a resort. His view of The Port of Saint-Tropez from 1901-02 shows the raw colour that dominated Fauvist art.
Another Divisionist, Théo van Rysselberghe, painted Bathers under the Pines at Cavalière in 1905, in what has become the popular resort at Le Lavandou, near Saint-Tropez. His colours aren’t just intense, but are starting to shift to the unfamiliar.
By the end of the war, Théo van Rysselberghe’s colours had become as strong as those of the Fauves. In Almond Trees in Blossom (Morning) the more delicate pinks of the flowers pale in comparison with his full reds and blues – even down to the blue horse pulling a plough.
For others, these colour shifts marked their reaction against realism.
Robert Bevan painted The Cab Horse in about 1910 using ‘anti-realist’ colours, and showed this at the first exhibition of the Camden Town Group. It bears careful examination for the bright orange flesh of the men and its uniform replacement of grey and black with blues.
Another member of the Camden Town Group, Spencer Gore, went through a brief phase of Fauvism around 1912, when he painted this landscape view of The Icknield Way. Although set at dusk, many of its colours are both intensified and shifted.
Several of James Dickson Innes’ paintings from this period show similar effects, as in his Deep Twilight, Pyrenees from 1912-13, which appears to have been made in front of the motif.
At this time, the Canadian artist Emily Carr was studying in Europe, where she came into contact with Fauvist paintings.
Carr studied with Harry Phelan Gibb (1870-1948), at Crécy-en-Brie just outside Paris and in Brittany, where she experimented with intense colour. I suspect that her already high chroma has been further exaggerated in this image of her famous painting of Autumn in France (1911), which represents her Fauvism at its height. She uses bold and confident brushstrokes rich with raw colour to show the countryside of Brittany in brilliant summer sunlight.
After her first major solo exhibition flopped in 1913, Carr returned to Victoria, and opened a boarding house on Simcoe Street, only painting infrequently. But she didn’t stop painting altogether, and by the late 1920s was travelling to indigenous villages to study and paint First Nations culture. She continued to paint in Fauvist style over this period, as shown in her Logging Camp.
By this time the original Fauvists had long since moved on, but they had left a legacy of experimenting with colour which didn’t go away.
In 1930, Marsden Hartley returned to the USA, and visited some of the classic locations in Massachusetts, including Dogtown, the abandoned settlement between Gloucester and Rockport. On an early visit there in 1931, he painted his Blueberry Highway, Dogtown, an unusual take on this desolate wooded and rocky area, which must have been in the fall/autumn.
For much of Pierre Bonnard’s career he had courted with the Fauves, with his high chroma and the piercing light of the Midi.
Over forty years after his original Nabism, some of Bonnard’s paintings, like Nude in Bathtub from about 1938-41, still hark back to some of its traits. His colours are here brilliant and visionary.
For a movement which lasted little more than three years and repudiated most of what had been learned about colour during the previous century, Fauvism had, to some degree, affected many painters. Even now it’s hard to understand the rationale of deliberately painting different colours, except as a device to challenge both artist and viewer to look again at colour.