In the quaint Mediterranean enclave of Collioure
during the fateful year of 1905, a seismic shift in the art world was initiated by the collaborative endeavors of Henri Matisse and André Derain. Together, they pioneered an audacious yet ephemeral artistic movement – Fauvism.
Fauvism, an experimental tour de force, was characterized by its audaciously uninhibited brushwork and an explosive palette of vibrant hues straight from the paint tube. As curator Sabine Rewald eloquently encapsulated in a 2004 essay for the Metropolitan Museum of Art, this movement was a visceral encounter with color and form. Nevertheless, it proved polarizing; its nomenclature emerged from the acerbic tongue of art critic Louis Vauxcelles. It was he who, in 1905, disparagingly referred to its practitioners as “fauves,” a French epithet meaning “wild beasts,” when they dared to exhibit their creations at the Salon d’Automne.
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Arthur Fink, an assistant curator at Switzerland’s Kunstmuseum Basel
illuminates the origins of this label, explaining that Vauxcelles essentially branded them as youthful, uncultured upstarts, bestowing a derogatory undertone to their endeavors.
Recently, the Kunstmuseum Basel opened its doors to a revelatory exhibition titled “Matisse, Derain and Friends.” Curated by Claudine Grammont, the Centre Pompidou’s head of graphic art, and Josef Helfenstein, the Kunstmuseum Basel’s director, this exhibition delves into the vibrant kaleidoscope of color experimentation spearheaded by the pioneers of Fauvism.
The exhibition unfolds with a captivating display of approximately 160 works, casting a spotlight on the audacious pioneers of Fauvism. Among the luminaries is Henri Matisse, showcasing masterpieces such as “Luxe, Calme et Volupté” (1904), “La Gitane” (1905), “Le Tapis Rouge” (1906), and “La Sieste” (1906). Notable contributions from other luminaries of the era, including Georges Braque, Sonia and Robert Delaunay, Kees van Dongen, and Raoul Dufy, grace the exhibition. Many of these works, obscured from public view for decades, now emerge into the light of day.
Fauvist canvases beckon with a tactile quality, where brushstrokes pulsate with life, as if one can almost perceive the artist’s hand in motion. Themes are as versatile as the artists themselves, ranging from bustling harbor vistas and city streets to intimate family portraits, from the nocturnal revelry to the explorations of consumer culture.
Notably, the exhibition seeks to redress a historical oversight by acknowledging the vital but often uncelebrated contributions of women within the Fauvist movement. Émilie Charmy, an orphaned teenager who defied societal norms, emerges as a prominent figure. She chose the path of self-sufficiency through art, her oeuvre characterized by avant-garde innovation, particularly in her enigmatic self-portraits and alluring depictions of the female form.
However, the exhibition goes beyond the artists and delves into the remarkable women who, though not artists themselves, played pivotal roles in the Fauvist narrative. Berthe Weill, an art dealer, offered crucial early support to the movement. Moreover, the exhibition sensitively explores the experiences of sex workers, frequently depicted in Fauvist works, shedding light on their marginalized existence.
Regrettably, the Fauvist movement
with all its audacious brilliance, faced a premature demise around 1908. As Arthur Fink observes, internal dissent arose as the group questioned Matisse’s claim to the title of ‘King of the Fauves.’ Simultaneously, the rise of nationalism across Europe cast a shadow over the public’s perception of the movement. However, the most decisive blow came in 1907 when Pablo Picasso unveiled “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon,” birthing the era of Cubism, forever altering the artistic landscape.
In revisiting Fauvism, “Matisse, Derain and Friends” at Kunstmuseum Basel not only commemorates a captivating moment in art history but also affirms the enduring impact of those “wild beasts” who once roared with colors and fervor, leaving an indelible imprint on the canvas of artistic evolution.