The Birth of Modernism: Fauvism

History is full of “avaunt-grade” movements in art and literature. Last week we discussed the entire modernist period, which lasted for nearly half a century, and for the next few weeks we will be discussing the various styles that were developed during the Modernist period. The movement began with the development of “Fauvism” which featured a shocking display of vivid, usually unnaturally exuberant colors. The style first appeared in France and was led by such artists as Paul Gauguin, Paul Cézanne, and Vincent van Gogh. Fauvism was expressionistic in essence and featured a great deal of distortion. The artists who were practicing the style originally took the name after an art critic derided the fact that their art was like a faun among the wild beasts after it had been placed with some renaissance style sculpture.

The movement, like most new art trends, was greeted by the art world with revulsion, hence the negative comment by the art critic. It did not take long however for wealthy art collectors like Gertrude Stein to recognize the genius of the new style and prices began to raise. The movement was able to stage several exhibitions between 1901 and 1906, although the first real full exhibition was not recognized until their appearance at the Salon d´Automne in 1905. The great van Gogh, unappreciated during his life, summed it up best when he said, “Instead of trying to render what I see before me, I use color in a completely arbitrary way to express myself powerfully”. These artists used vivid colors to shock their viewers out of their complacency and bringing art down to Earth with their rough, clumsy style.

Fauvism was not extremely long lived and by 1908 most of the artists had moved on to cubism, which we will address next week. When the originator of the style, Matisse, died (1869-1954), Fauvism soon followed. When the movement moved away from Fauvism and into Cubism they moved from using color to using shape to convey emotions and ideas. But while it existed this style gave us some of the world´s most extraordinary art. When Vlaminck gave us The River we were treated to an ostensibly peaceful scene but his free use of colors gives us the sense of an impending storm on the horizon.

A Deluge of New Styles

During the last few decades of the 19th Century and first decade the world had changed more than it had during the previous 100 years or more. The rapid industrialization of the Western world had changed nearly every aspect of most peoples lives. The camera, less than 50 years old, had already begun to develop and the movie camera would not be far behind. Telephone and telegraph lines were beginning to dominate the landscape and with the invention of the electric motor, diesel engine and automobile had begun to shrink the world and these changes had to change the art world as well. The engineers, from civil to construction to eventually software engineers, were changing the way we viewed the world and even the way we viewed reality. Until this period the world had never really gotten over the Greeks obsession with depicting real life images, viewing the real world. While they might have blurred images or painted them slightly out of proportion, we always saw life.

The rapid mechanism of the world led to an artistic fascination with shapes developed into the Modernist period. Modernism is actually a group of related but visually different styles, such as Fauvism, German Expressionism, Constructivism, Cubism, Dadaism and Surrealism. The first Modernist was the French master,Edouard Manet, and the first American Modernist was Theodore Robinson. This period was one of the longest in recent art history, lasting in all more than a century. The style had actually begun to develop, although slowly in the mid 1860′s, or the beginning of the Industrial Age, and did not finally expire until the 1970´s. As new inventions abounded and science delved deeper and deeper into the very nature of reality, the art world developed new experimental forms and media to express some of these new ideas and to suggest even more possibilities. They used the ideas of Darwin, Freud, Watson and Crick, quantum physics, chemistry, all are explored by modernist art. Modernists felt that depicting what you saw was easy. Mere mimicry. But to use intuition instead of intellect when you were trying to understand reality was a different proposition.

The multiplicity of “isms” such as Cubism, Surrealism, Dadaism, Futurism, Fauvism and all the rest was mostly an American phenomenon. Artists from Theodore Robinson (1852-1896) to Abraham Walkowitz (1878-1965), used the porous boundaries between the styles and developed a new era of experimentation. Basically these artists blended philosophy with modern art in an effort to literally get them to explain each other. One American, Alfred Henry Maurer (1868-1932) was responsible for introducing the modernist ideas of Matisse and Picasso to American painters and sculptors. Maurer´s father was an artist as well, a Currier & Ives illustrator, and Maurer committed suicide after his death, guilt wracked over his fathers hatred of the the art that he loved so much.