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    "Wild beasts" and wild colors

In 1900 art was still traditional. By 1910 it was unrecognizable; form was distorted and color no longer true. Matisse and others started this change in 1904, portraying familiar objects with startlingly ”wrong” colors. These artists were named “wild beasts’ (fauves in French). What did they achieve? How did they do it? Why did they do it?


"Mountains at Collioure," André Derain, 1905. The trees and grass are drawns with long strokes of pure color. However, for both Derain and Matisse, color was a less emotional, less personal imperative than it had been for Van Gogh.

 


"Boats in the Port of Collioure," André Derain, 1905. With its vivid colours and broken brushwork, this painting is highly typical of the style known as Fauvism.

It is difficult to imagine how primitive and even savage a painting like this must have looked to most people almost a century ago. The colours seemed so bright and unnatural then as to assault the eye, and the fragmented way that they were applied — in larger and smaller blocks — made the picture seem sketchy and unfinished to many contemporary viwers.

Fauve paintings show natural scenes (portraits, landscapes, etc.) painted with unnatural color. We identify the form to be “right” and the color “wrong”. This is not nonsensical. Matisse said: “Fauve art isn’t everything, but it is the foundation of everything.” To study abstract art, we have to begin with the Fauves.

  


"Open Window, Collioure," Henri Matisse, 1905. This is among the very first fauve works. It was painted during the summer of 1905, when Matisse, together with André Derain, worked in the small Mediterranean fishing port of Collioure, near the Spanish border.


Traditional art (before 1900) shows natural scenes in natural color where the artist aims to portray the world as it appears. Both form and color are ”right”. The artist starts with form and the form determines the color. Color complements form: one cannot start with color. The traditional artist cannot use color alone as a means of expression.

The Fauves “liberated” color. Color was no longer determined by form. Color could be and was “unnatural”. What was the purpose? The Fauve artist portrayed the natural world and the artist’s response to it. The artist’s sensations were expressed using color. Form seems “right” but color “wrong” because color is used for another purpose. (The Fauves were actually not the first: Turner had done the same a century before.)

When I put a green, it is not grass. When I put a blue, it is not the sky.
—Matisse

How was color used to express sensation? We know that it was used very effectively. We feel, today, the intensity of the Mediterranean sun in a Fauve Mediterranean beach scene—simply through the use of unnatural color. The effect is achieved empirically through the complex choice of color, the combination of color and luminance.

Fauve paintings used natural form and unnatural color. The Cubists did the reverse, using unnatural form--partly but not completely. (The subject of the painting could still be identified.) And where the form was natural, the color was natural. Fauvism and Cubism led to abstract art, where neither form nor color was related to the subject. There, artists portrayed not the subject but their sensations alone, the sensations produced by the subject.

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