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The Fauves And Cubists
The paths hewn by the Post-Impressionists through the jungle of pretty-colored art were broadened by their zestful pupils and successors. About 1905 a group of these young followers, thrown together mainly by their studies in the atelier of Gustave Moreau and by their cafe meetings, thrashed out the new ideas and set themselves the tasks of carrying them to their ultimate destination. They banded themselves into a little society hoping perhaps to find renown, like courage, in numbers. They aimed to shock Paris and better to do so took the terrifying name "Les Fauves" (The Wild Beasts). These wild beasts numbered among them such gentle and genial souls as Derain, Matisse, Braque, Friesz, Dufy and Vlaminck.
To understand what the Fauves contributed to the art of painting it is necessary to keep before us the achievements of their predecessors. We have seen that Gauguin, besides revealing the possibilities of decorative pattern and color relations, showed that linear beauty (decorative line) could be derived from an ill-proportioned people, as well as from the classical figures of Greek sculpture.
The Fauves studied Gauguin's color relations and discovered that they were beautiful even when not confined to definite patterns. Masses of color, however indeterminate in shape, could be harmoniously composed. Line was beautiful in itself too and had no need for color to support its decorative quality. In short, the Fauves separated the two elements.
Instead of painting a nude flesh color and marking the boundaries of the color by the outline, as painters had always done, they introduced whatever other hue seemed effective as decoration. One side of a woman's leg might be green, the other side pink. Viewed abstractly the painting was alive with harmonious color relations that were completely free of the boundaries imposed by outline. Line too was freed of its slavish imitation of nature. Just as Botticelli had made his pictures seductive by rhythm of line, so the Fauves attempted to secure a decorative charm by the same means. But where the Florentine had been subtle, involved, the shocking Parisians tried to be extremely simple, even brutal in the manner of the Byzantines.
Byzantine art was seized upon by the back-to-the-elemental painter. Indeed, any primitive art was inspiration to the Fauves quite as much as was the work of the PostImpressionists. Even the distortion of Van Gogh, which played upon the emotions so effectively, was found to have its origin in the work of the early Christians.
In the search for new savage expression the art of the negro was discovered. Painters avidly examined the masks, textiles, weapons and statuettes of the Congo for new forms and lines. They made a fetish of fetishes.
What was it the Fauves sought in the art of primitive peoples? Was it the emotional quality absent from civilized art? Was it the expression of terror, lust, the superstitious or religious urge? Only in a few rare instances. For the most part the young heroes were too sophisticated to be touched by the elemental emotions of uncivilized peoples. They sought what they were able to appreciate: new principles of decoration.
Matisse is an outstanding member of the Fauves. He has done with color what his revolutionary contemporaries in music have done with chords. He has put colors together which before his successful efforts were considered impossible to harmonize. Some critics have expressed their belief that he derived his astounding color sense from study of the design of Persians and Hindoos. But the succession of new arrangements in his canvases has established beyond question his originality as a composer of harmonies. While he is preeminent as a colorist, his work does not affect us deeply or hold our attention for long. Its weakness is due to its strength. In other words, his painting is excellent decoration, but too often remains only that. In the picture we reproduce, we see how much he has simplified the lady and the chair, and how he has selected and stressed those particular lines which give them a decorative rhythm. Deprived of the brilliant, exotic color the reproduction seems more of a sketch than a painting. The whole thing has been reduced to a system of decoration, pleasing to the eye, but possessing neither the form nor the character of the woman and chair. The point of view is detached and impersonal, yet it is special rather than objective. It is a selective extraction o f decorative lines combined with the artist's feeling for color.
When we say that his pictures are primarily decoration we do not mean that they are altogether devoid of emotional content. Everything the artist sees for the first time excites him as a child is excited by new experiences, and this excitement is, if the painter is capable, transferred to the spectator. Matisse has succeeded beyond most painters in translating into color the quick reaction to the object. But in no sense, except perhaps that of color, has he surpassed the Post-Impressionists, particularly Van Gogh, in expressing this rapid emotional reaction to the object.
These principles of Matisse were carried to their logical conclusion by Raoul Dufy. In his earlier landscapes he discarded formal notions of design or composition which demand unity, which require a single center of interest, and extracted the decorative elements of whatever met his gaze. Watercolor seemed more suitable to his fragmentary pursuit of pretty little nuances. He sought out the different decorative motifs, the checks, loops, circles, and so on. There is unquestionably a design, but it is the design of wallpaper; it is ornamental design, which never means anything, and is not the design used by the painter to convey his message with clarity and emphasis. It is natural that this phase of his work should be sought by manufacturers of textiles. He has enjoyed a great vogue among smart women who have found his ingenious decorative talents suited to their taste in upholstery materials, dress goods, etc.
Dufy's significance, however, lies elsewhere than in the technical turn taken. He is above every other Modernist the gay Parisian. Gayety leaps from his canvases, his paint sings. There is no scene so banal that subjected to his brush will fail to yield an amusing and interesting facet. Of late he has made his decorative motifs subservient to a more classical composition. His pictures are better organized. But this organization is done so easily and spontaneously that only the student is conscious of it. If Lhote (whose work we shall discuss later) is the spokesman of French theorists, Dufy is the principal exponent of French freshness and frivolity.
A painter who studied with the two mentioned above, without allying himself to the group of Wild Beasts, is Rouault. He denies that he was affected by the principles and theories of the group, but his work speaks more loudly for him. The primitive approach, the ill proportions of the early Christians, the heavy rhythmic outlines ally him in technique with Matisse. But Rouault differs from most of the Fauves in that he has something to say. His spirit dominates his canvases. In his paintings of repulsive prostitutes and dance-hall types he has something of Van Gogh's fearlessness, but not his objectivity. He is frankly brutal and bitter. He shows himself an idealist, a sort of masochistic hater of humanity and lover of God. His early experience as a designer of stained glass may have affected his pictorial technique, but there is no question of his strong religious feeling in his Biblical pictures.
The picture reproduced, The Baptism of Christ possesses the same quality that we have seen in primitive Christian art. The figures have the same ludicrous proportions which marked the ascetic cartoons of the catacombs. But there is an added charm. The heavy rhythmic lines and the patterns of light give the canvas a decorative quality similar to that of a stained glass window.
In Braque's work we have the beginnings of a more substantial theory of art than those preached or exploited by the other Fauves. In the still-life reproduced, we trace easily the influence of Rouault. There is the heavy black rhythm, the same strong patterns of white. In color Braque equals and perhaps surpasses Matisse in the invention of strange harmonies. His picture, too, is not treated as an indeterminate area of little decorative snatches as Dufy's landscapes are, but possesses orthodox composition. There is unity and a center of interest. So that we see in his work all the good qualities of the Fauves. And in addition to these qualities of new rhythm, new color harmonies and good composition, he adds something of the principles of Cezanne and Seurat.
He sees planes. He does not use them as Cezanne did to express form, roundness, volume. But he finds in planes a decorative beauty and detaches them from the object in which they appear. For instance, in the still-life shown here, he paints the pitcher not as it appears in nature, but according to his new theory. He separates a plane of dark in a severe geometric shape so that we see it as a design in itself and also as part of the pitcher. It was in Seurat's work that he saw the possibilities of geometric forms in arbitrary arrangement.
This is the principle which was carried further in the experiments of the Cubists. Braque himself attempted to extract from objects only their planes and lines, and rearrange them into a picture. The result was called Cubism, since the illusion of space and the third dimension was supposedly heightened by this method. It has also been called Purism, although this term has come to have a special significance which we shall explain later. But whether the thing is called "a synthesis of abstraction" or "a cross section" of a group of objects, the whole point of the movement is that the Cubists attempted to do with planes what Matisse attempted to do with color, that is, to separate them from their objects and make a beautiful design of them.
To us Braque is the perfect example of the French modern painter. He is a theorist, an inventor, and above all a Classicist. His painting comes from the head, not from the heart. He accepts the limitations of the art of painting as imposed by the French tradition and within these limitations performs astounding mental acrobatics. He is a laboratory painter. That is to say he paints for the admiration of painters not for that of the people. Compared to such a moralist as Rouault he appears sophisticated, aloof, more concerned with the problems of paint than with those of humanity.
Braque was not alone in this new field of abstract expression or decoration, whichever you will. The versatile Picasso joined him in carrying out the theory of decorative planes. We see in his still-life (Fig.36) a more rigid pattern than Braque's, a more naive (or pseudo-naive) drawing, and a grotesque distortion. (For purposes of design he has made the mandolin handle curve like the trunk of an elephant.) But on the whole there is no great difference between the two pictures.
Here we speak of an innovation of the Cubists, which, no longer indispensable to Cubism, has become almost a tenet of Surrealists. This is the matter of texture. Picasso and his followers in their search for variety of texture concocted compositions of pieces of newspapers, tinfoil, wool, plaster and any other material pleasing to their fancy. When it became apparent that any young girl could manufacture pictures no whit less esthetic by means of a scissors and a pot of paste, the artists perceived the weakness of their method (or were they simply aroused to jealousy?) and abandoned it for a more subtle and difficult one. They simulated textures with paint, which was after all the means of Velasquez. But where Velasquez attained surface by means of accurate values, the Cubists succeeded by differences in technique-the way of putting on the pigment. In one place the paint was stuck on in little lumps; in another it was rubbed in with a chamois; in a third it was striped by the teeth of a comb. Today some Surrealists attain variety in surface by using No. 2 flat inside white in one pattern and glossy white enamel in the corner opposite. But let us return to the Cubists.
In the work of Gleizes, Metzinger, Leger and others, the Cubist theory reached its logical end. We see it as a sterile art, the reductio ad absurdum of Seurat's and Cezanne's worthy efforts to purify art from reality. It serves today only as advertising art and decoration, no longer novel, but still useful in the applied arts and architecture. While it strove at times to create spatial relation, it seldom attained anything more than pattern.