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Henri Matisse
La Plage Rouge
in "Fauve Painting 1905-7: The Triumph of Pure Color" at the Courtauld Institute, London

André Derain
La Danse
ca. 1906

Maurice de Vlaminck
Bords de la Seine à Carrières-sur-Seine

Kees van Dongen
Torse (L'Idole) (Portrait de Guus)
Pure Color in London
by Pernilla Holmes

"Fauve Painting 1905-7: The Triumph of Pure Color," June 27-Aug. 27, 2001, at the Courtauld Institute of Art, Somerset House, Strand, London WC2R ORN, U.K.

Wild beasts in London's Courtauld Gallery! Museum-goers are flocking to this show of about 30 paintings by Braque, Derain, Dufy, Matisse, Vlaminck and others (Marquet, Manguin, Camoin and Van Dongen), a celebration of the unmitigated color and brash brushstrokes of the Fauves. Famously tagged as "wild beasts" at their first exhibition in 1905, the Fauves have since made the classic avant-garde transition from controversial to crowd-pleasing.

To get to "Fauve Painting 1905-7," visitors must pass through the galleries holding the Courtauld's permanent collection of Impressionist, Neo-Impressionist and Post-Impressionist works. This visual prolegomenon shows the puzzle that confronted artists searching for a distinctive voice at the turn of the century. Matisse recalled anxiously asking, "What do I want?"

He found his answer during a prolific summer spent in the small coastal town Collioure near the border to Spain, where he was joined by Derain. The artists worked side by side conducting experiments on canvas to boost the vocabulary of painting. One exemplary work from that period, Matisse's Red Beach (1905), has the appearance of a rapidly executed sketch: spontaneous and instinctive with a large range of brushstrokes spread about revealing patches of bare canvas. The undiluted red of the beach is emotionally charged, and its departure from realistic coloring further announces its rejection of convention. The subject is not the beach, but the artist's feelings about it and about the tradition of painting it.

After the summer, both artists sought to refine what they had learned. The schematic composition of Derain's La Danse (1906) owes much to Gauguin, but with radically undiluted colors. Intentionally "primitive," the crude drawing gracefully works into a spectacularly decorative overall effect. The frieze-like layout of the figures themselves perhaps denotes a reference to classical art, while the subject identifies the tradition of dancers and bathers in western art, here treated in a very non-western way.

During this period, many avant-garde artists were becoming increasingly interested in ethnographic art and objects newly on display in the British Museum and Trocadero in Paris. Painted less than a year after Red Beach, La Danse work highlights Derain's already changing concerns.

Raoul Dufy transformed his Impressionistic style to his own brand of Fauvism after seeing Matisse's Luxe, calme et volupte at the Salon in 1905, about which he commented, "I looked at this miracle of creative imagination at work in color and line." Les Barques aux Martigues of 1907 illustrates the developing interest of structural treatment of form and volume within the Fauve camp, likely inspired by the retrospective exhibitions mounted of Cézanne's work after his death in 1906. The boats, water, reflections and shadows are subjected to shifting angles, perspectives and brushstrokes. This work foreshadows Dufy's eventual exploration of Cubism.

Hot artistic debate erupted around each exhibition that included the Fauves. Expressing the sentiments of many critics at the time, one write-up exclaimed, "Aside from the materials used, that which we are presented with does not have any connection with painting." The critic went on to claim that the works were "barbaric and naïve games of a child with a 'coloring box'."

A smaller of group of progressive critics and artists proved to be more supportive. Though the Fauves never held their own exhibition, the works were seen through the Salon and the Salon des Independents and their effects felt throughout the art world.

Like so many passionate moments, this one came and went quickly. By 1908 the artists were moving on to new things, but their influence paved the way for new explorations in color and expression. Indeed, their sustained popularity today likely comes from the exuberant decorative quality that breathes spontaneity and the feeling of artistic freedom that so obviously possessed these artists.

This small but well-chosen exhibition of works, which come from private collections, is a testimony to the continued popularity of the Fauves. The only drawback to this delightful exhibition is the large numbers of people that are crowding in to see it.

PERNILLA HOLMES is a writer based in London.