At the turn of the twentieth century, shortly after the Impressionists freed European fine art from the Ecole des Beaux Arts, there arose for a very short time a pack of artists who took these new ideas about art to the very brink of pure abstraction. They haunted one another’s studios and traded ideas in the oral tradition, but left no manifesto, or even a definition of what they were doing. They did not name their movement; critics of the time called them les Fauvists, French for the Wild Beasts.
Following the lead of Henri Matisse and André Derain, they liberated the very elements of painting itself, like color and form, from the manacles of narrative and representation, so that these things might serve the greater purpose of the artwork, and thereby Art itself. They covered broad areas of canvas with unmixed color that served to invoke emotion or thought rather than reproduce, or even suggest, the real-world colors of the original subjects. They represented objects and people by primitive approximation, using manic brushstrokes that become as much a part of the paintings’ expression as the nominal subject itself, foreshadowing the gestural art of the expressionists who would follow.
Their first show in 1905 brought incredulity and derision from the critics of the day, but within a year Fauvist works were the most sought-after art by collectors and dealers from London to Moscow. The movement shone with an intensity never seen before, but it burned out quickly. By the end of the decade, it was gone from the studios and salons, though the work of the original Fauves has never lost its luster among collectors. In 2009, a Matisse from the estate of Yves Saint Laurent sold at action for €32.1 million ($41.1 million).
Fauvist ideas live on in the many schools of art that have borrowed from it. Cubism, German Expressionism, American Abstract Expressionism all resonate with thought that began in this small pack of wild beasts that hunted for a greater reality in Paris more than a century ago.
On September 22, Studio Montclair (NJ) will open a show entitled Honoring the Fauvists, which will run through December 18 in their Virginia S. Block Gallery. I am pleased and proud that two of my faux fauvist pieces juried into this show. I commend Studio Montclair, and in particular jurors Virginia Block and Pam Cooper, for including digital art in their exhibition, seeing through the medium to recognize the art. Their foresight puts them in vanguard of modern art as it advances. Guided by art instead of territoriality, they will do well going forward. I like to think that the Fauvists themselves are looking upon us from their multicolored heaven and smiling, as yet another of the ramparts of conventional wisdom begins to crumble, and a greater reality emerges from the ruins.