At the great ball of wild beasts
About the exhibition "Matisse, Derain and their friends. The Parisian avant-garde 1904-1908", on show at the Kunstmuseum Basel (Switzerland) until 21 January 2024.
The Kunstmuseum Basel is devoting its major temporary exhibition to the first avant-garde movement of the 20th century: Fauvism. Through some 160 exceptional works, many of them on show for the first time in Switzerland, visitors can relive the revolutionary experimentation with colour that an informal group of painters around Henri Matisse, André Derain and Maurice de Vlaminck ventured into at the beginning of the 20th century. These iconoclastic artists, still unknown at the time, were dubbed "Fauves" by Louis Vauxcelles in an article published in 1905, after the art critic became enraged at a bust at the Salon d'Automne, exclaiming: "It's Donatello among the Fauves! The name stuck. It was a way of pointing to the break these artists had made with academic conventions, through their expressionist use of colour, their unusual and often crude combinations of tones, and their refusal to reproduce nature's colours exactly as they were.
"Fauvism was a trial by fire for us (...) We were in the age of photography. This may have influenced our reaction against anything that looked like a snapshot of life. It didn't matter how far we got from things; it was never enough. Colours became dynamite cartridges," wrote André Derain. We can understand the explosion of art critics when they also discovered works of art for sale by Camoin, Manguin, Marquet, Matisse and Vlaminck at the 1905 Autumn Salon.
The crudely coloured paintings were obviously shocking to the public at the time, and also featured motifs that harked back to French naive painting, such as that of Douanier Rousseau, as well as formal borrowings from non-Western art and visual traditions from the Middle Ages. The term "Fauves" symbolised the discredit cast on progressive painting in general by the Parisian haute bourgeoisie, whose tastes were culturally conservative. The informal group of artists around Matisse and Derain immediately appropriated this contemptuous designation and capitalized on the scandal.
Fauvism became the first avant-garde movement of the twentieth century. For a brief period, from 1904 to 1908, it set the tone in the artistic metropolis that was Paris. Its influence was to be felt for much longer. Georges Braque, Raoul Dufy and Kees van Dongen, among others, joined the movement. This was the end of the Belle Époque, at a time when modern society in the big cities was developing rapidly. Mobility was increasing, and advertising and tourism were becoming veritable industries. This major exhibition also challenges our conventional view of Fauvism. A place is given to little-known artists - notably Émilie Charmy and Marie Laurencin - and, in an unprecedented way, the key role played by gallery owner Berthe Weill in the trade in Fauvist works is highlighted. But also, more generally, the role of critics and the art market in the emergence and affirmation of this artistic movement, to which Cubism is directly related. Fauvism left its mark on the pictorial debates of modernity and beyond.
The Basel exhibition highlights the way in which Fauvism asserted itself in a highly unstable art market at the time. The painters had no precise aesthetic programme defined by writings or manifestos, and belonged to heterogeneous social and artistic backgrounds. They did, however, share an interest in the postimpressionist and neo-impressionist painting of Georges Seurat, Vincent van Gogh, Paul Cezanne and Paul Gauguin.
Painted a few months after the Salon d'Automne, around 1906 or 1907 it is thought, around the same time as Picasso's Les Demoiselles d'Avignon, "La Danse is not only one of Derain's masterpieces, but also one of the masterpieces of the first decade of the 20th century", points out Josef Helfenstein, one of the curators of the Kunstmuseum Basel exhibition, along with Arthur Fink and Claudine Grammont. The painting is one of the highlights of the exhibition, echoing another of Matisse's masterpieces: Luxe, calme et volupté. This work, painted in 1904 with Paul Signac, inaugurates the theme of the Golden Age so dear to Matisse and Derain. "From then on, their utopian representations echoed each other," observed Josef Helfenstein.
The September issue of L'Oeil magazine chose André Derain's La Danse, the masterpiece of this historic pictorial adventure, as the subject for its "Arrêt sur image" (freeze frame), which was entrusted to journalist Marie Zawisza. The magazine picked out four details for four themes, in order to better evoke the characteristics of Fauvism in general from this particular work:
"Colour first and foremost". The Fauvists decided to free themselves from the colours of nature, to play with contrasts and to dare bright and daring chromatic associations. While Cubism explored the structuring of space, they were busy mixing intense, warm tones in arabesques no doubt inspired by oriental art. La Danse also shows the extent to which the artists were influenced by the flamboyance of Vincent Van Gogh and the Tahitian edens of Paul Gauguin.
"A classic theme revisited Here, Derain revisits the female nude in the pictorial tradition of bathers that developed from the works of Delacroix, Corot, Courbet and Cézanne. But it was in a revolutionary syncretism that the painter wove together tradition and modernity, curiosity about distant arts and a taste for medieval art.
"The notable influence of the distant arts". A dancer with her back to her face in profile, as if out of an oriental tale, evokes both Egyptian and Indian art. After visiting the Musée Guimet in Paris and the collections of the British Museum in London, Derain wrote to Vlaminck of his enthusiasm: "It's enormous, overwhelming in its expression".
"The snake and the bird, symbols of life and freedom". Here, the snake seems in no way threatening as it embraces the dancers. It's a far cry from the tempting animal that symbolises evil in Genesis. On the contrary, in Asian cultures, its moults evoke the cycle of life, rebirth, fertility and creativity. In the same way, the bird with its colourful feathers at the top right of this monumental canvas evokes freedom and the utopia of a world not destroyed by man...