For every widely known movement in the modern art period, whether pop art, impressionism, or cubism, there are many more lesser known moments that often acted as bridges from one set of ideas to another. Fauvism is a classic example, existing in a short period between 1905 and 1910, this loosely affiliated group of artists was referred to as “the wild beasts” for their bold colours and almost abstract application of brushstrokes and dabs. Fauvism was the first of the French avant-garde movements of the 1900s, and the first to break fully away from impressionism and the remains of traditional perception and representation in painting.
First defined from works from Matisse and Andre Derain in a 1905 exhibition, the two had been inspired by the post-impressionist work of Van Gogh, Gaugin, and Cezanne, and the Neo-Impressionism of Seurat, Cross, and Signac. They began to attempt the re-imagining of pictorial space, pushing much further into alternative applications of paint and choices of colour then the impressionists, their work was spontaneous; representing the world in undisguised brushstrokes and paint applied direct from the tube, in vibrant, non-naturalistic flat places of colours.
Another crucial name in this process which is often overlooked, was the teacher Gustave Moreau; a professor at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts that taught Matisse, Marquet, Manguin, Rouault, and Camoin, constantly encouraging them to be open minded, original, and bold, emphasising his belief in the expressive power of pure colours. As Matisse himself said;
“He did not set us on the right roads, but off the roads. “
Artists like George Braque, Raoul Dufy, Maurice de Vlaminck and Georges Rouault followed the early lead of Matisse and Derain, inspired to explore the possibilities and find some distinct idea down the road beyond Impressionism.
The colours and brushwork of Fauvism, and ties to Expressionists
Use of colour was a key feature of fauvism. Impressionism had pushed artists away from literal interpretations of colour, but fauvism went steps further, finding fascination in the colour theories developed in the late 1900s which first introduced colour wheels and clear, definable concepts of complimentary and contrasting colours. On the canvas it often broke so completely, and so boldly, from reality that the movement could certainly be seen as part of the expressionist movement developing at the same time, and much of the approach was well summed up by Gauguin, speaking to Paul Serusier in 1888:
“How do you see these trees? They are yellow. So, put in yellow; this shadow, rather blue, paint it with pure ultramarine; these red leaves? Put in vermillion.”
The bold colours were matched by equally expressionistic bold brushwork; once again pushing beyond impressionist strokes to simple, solid, blocks of colour, thought through spontaneously in the moment. It broke down many of the traces of conventional form, structure, and three-dimensionality that still lurked in impressionism, and pushed forwards to find something more on the next horizon.
Abstraction, cubism, and the debt to the Fauvists
Both fauvism and German expressionism experimented with wild colours and brushwork, though true expressionism focused more on emotion than fauvism, which was much closer to an extreme of impressionism, however both movements would feed into each other, and into even more extreme approaches to style which were beginning to develop.
The Fauves were the first to really start to feel out the concepts of abstractionism, and many of the artists eventually moved into abstract artworks. Meanwhile other Fauves found new inspiration in Cezanne’s analytical approaches to painting, and fauvist Georges Braque became as important to the development of cubism as Picasso. It was only the father of the movement, Matisse, who kept his style true to the fauvist traits of bold colour, shapes, and brushwork.
Fauvism is certainly a brief transition in a transitory time that few visitors to art galleries will have heard of, however the arrival of it’s ideas at the tail end of impressionism paved a crucial pathway forward for modern art. Before fauvism, the movement had only pushed lightly away from the classical conventions, fauvism set up the ideals that encouraged artists to cast off the necessity to represent anything in any kind of realist way; it was the step that truly set art free.