When the Los Angeles County Museum of Art unlooses the wild beasts caged up in its galleries as "The Fauve Landscape" on Thursday, L.A. will take one look and think it has died and gone to Paris.
The show is a huge, splendid 175-work compendium tracing the short life of the art movement that brought radical art into the 20th Century and made it truly modern. Organized by LACMA assistant curator Judi Freeman, it surely ranks high on the short list of the most pertinent shows originated by the museum. The exhibition will travel to New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art and London's Royal Academy after closing here Dec. 30. That's prestige, and in the art world it matters.
This is the first major Fauve exhibition ever seen in Los Angeles. (The Museum of Modern Art did one 15 years back.) It is the first to focus on the significance of the style's landscape painting and the first to examine the critical climate surrounding the movement.
Actually, it wasn't a movement, it just sort of happened. One June day in 1900, a suburban train outbound from Paris derailed, obliging the passengers to walk. Two artists got to talking as they trudged along to their digs in Chatou. They were Andre Derain and Maurice de Vlaminck--a professional bicycle racer and the writer of a couple of quasi-pornographic novels. They decided to go painting together and, voila , the result was the first Fauve landscape.
Visitors to the exhibit may have a little trouble understanding why the dozen pioneer modern artists represented on the walls were ever called les fauves, the wild beasts. Exuberant they were, beastly hardly.
Typically, Fauve work was marked by the use of stylized form and, crucially, color--usually lots of it and very bright. Viewed in reproduction, these paintings look excessively domesticated because their compositions seem so familiar. In person, they come magically alive. It's all about the eloquent hues and emotive brushwork.
Fauvism shaped up around 1904, peaked in 1908 and managed to surround itself with more ingenuous paradoxes than "The Mikado." The first was its name. It was bestowed by critic Louis Vauxcelles at the 1905 Salon d'Automne. Calling these chaps beasts was like calling Jesse Helms a libertarian. At least Vauxcelles was even-handed. He also said the salon audience was beastly.
Fauvism was actually a style crafted with cautious French logic to synthesize the two most important preceding movements. Its pastoral landscape subject matter was borrowed from the Impressionists. Its form came from the Post-Impressionists. Its singing color derives straight from Gauguin's advice to paint a shadow bright purple if it even blushes lavender. The signature painting of the show, Derain's "Turning Road, L'Estaque" is no less marvelous for being Gauguinesque. It points forward as well as back.
Vlaminck's admiration for Van Gogh sings in "The Seine at Le Chatou" with its rushing sunlit water and yellow skyline. What is different about the Fauve hybrid is that it significantly de-sentimentalizes the Impressionist landscape and formalizes the passion and exoticism of Post-Impressionism. It's Van Gogh without tears, but that doesn't mean the work lacks emotion. Fauvism just makes it clear that the feeling comes from the painting itself, not the seductions of subject matter. Fauvism's contribution to modernism was in its furtherance of art as a thing in itself.
Fauvism was a rare informal school that included artists who were minor by nature, like Jean Puy, Kees van Dongen, Henri Manguin or Louis Valtat. The exhibition proves they had their shining hour in Fauvism's sun. Valtat's "Hut in the Woods" is like lyric Van Gogh with its forest of comma strokes and verdant texture.
Other, more gifted Fauves like Vlaminck, Derain and Raoul Dufy were so fundamentally conservative--or ambitious--that they later took to easy solutions, potboilers or decorative silliness. Unlike other radical art movements, Fauvism attracted dealers and influential collectors almost from the beginning.
Georges Braque had a Fauvist period and did some masterpieces in the style such as "Boats on the Beach." Even here his interest in structure was as clear as a hod carrier's bricks. By 1907 he and other Fauves were attracted to Cezanne and the form-based art that would lead to the dual discovery of Cubism by Braque and Picasso. In short, everybody abandoned the movement.
Except Henri Matisse.
History has come to recognize Matisse as Fauvism's key figure and patriarch. You'd never guess it from the look of the galleries. A wall of Derains done at the port of Collioure are vigorous, assured and inventive. Matisse's output of the same period is small, tentative and quizzical. Matisse did terrific Fauve still lifes and figure paintings, but the truth is he never liked the discomforts of painting outdoors. Too hot. Rained again.
But Matisse went from strength to strength in a style that was a logical extension of Fauve beginnings, so history stuck him with a reputation as its leader. As a result of Matisse's professorial mien, the critics stuck Fauvism with the accusation of being the heartless application of a theoretical idea lacking real response to nature.
If the show proves anything, it is that the Fauves were out there looking and reacting to the particular qualities of place. There's a funky unease about the "Chatou" of Vlaminck and Derain, but when Derain goes to London, the pictures change.
There must be something visually fussy and overdone about Antwerp, because when Braque and Emile Othon Friesz went there they both picked it up. But when they got back to Paris after les grandes vacances , the winter city of lights was as gloomy as ever.
Matisse sparkled at St. Tropez. In Normandy, artists as unlike as Braque and Dufy mirrored the populism of this commercial and industrial center in stolid buildings and squatty figures.
The Fauves prove the Gallic cliche, reculer pour mieux sauter , which can be taken to mean, "be sure of your ground before you jump." Fauvism was a centrist staging-ground style delightful and tough at best. It consolidated art's foundations in a way rarely seen today, making it solid for styles that seem more radical. The German Expressionists misinterpreted Fauvism to our profit. Both Jawlensky and Kandinsky were in contact with it in Paris. It certainly contributed to Jawlensky's iconic heads and Kandinsky's spiritual abstract art.
In the end, Fauvism was an exercise in traditional French compromise. Aside from the somehow predictable scandal, almost everything about it is dull, except the pictures.