Judi Freeman has been pondering the meaning of landscapes in paintings for a long time. Ten years ago in a graduate course on Impressionist landscape at Yale University, she wondered if landscape paintings might contain content other than what is seen on a canvas. She went so far as to write a paper suggesting that the houses in Cezanne's paintings really represent a face, perhaps Cezanne's alter ego.
That paper raised the eyebrows of her faculty adviser, but he could not have known that Freeman's unusual investigation into landscape painting would lead to the stunning Fauve Landscape exhibition at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.
"Seeds for this exhibition were sown in that graduate seminar," said Freeman, an associate curator of 20th-Century art at LACMA and exhibit organizer. "I wanted to extend that kind of inquiry into the Fauve artists, to explore what's the meaning of that art. I felt something spectacular could be done if their work were treated seriously."
"The Fauve Landscape" features more than 170 paintings created by French artists such as Henri Matisse, Georges Braque, Andre Derain, Maurice de Vlaminck, Raoul Dufy and others between 1904 and 1908. It is an art exhibition and a social history of the artists and their time.
The Fauves connected informally through their friendships. They painted outdoors, often in pairs, positioning their easels side by side. Using vibrant, saturated colors and vigorous brushwork, their paintings presented a daring new way to depict nature.
The paintings shocked the public and earned the artists the name les fauves (the wild beasts) from an art critic of their day. The name stuck, and by the time the Fauve period came to a close, the young painters had profoundly influenced the subsequent development of painting in the 20th Century.
Freeman worked on the exhibition for nearly four years, about as long as the Fauve period itself. "We spent longer on the paintings than they did," she said with a hearty laugh. When she started her research, she was aware of about 65 paintings that fit within the concept of the exhibit. Determined to find every Fauve landscape painting that still existed, her meticulous search took her all over the world.
Freeman began her quest by scouring books and magazines for pictures of Fauve landscapes. She scrutinized records at Sotheby's and Christie's auction houses in New York and London for information on the whereabouts of paintings. She amassed notes on more than 800 paintings.
"We tried to trace every one of those paintings, and found at least 500 of them," she said with some pride. "I found paintings everywhere, from Japan to South America, Israel, the Arab world and the Soviet Union."
One of the paintings Freeman could not get is in Iran. Derain's "The Golden Age" was last seen at the Museum of Modern Art in Tehran.
"I did call the State Department, but they said, 'Forget it, sweetheart.' "
Like a detective in a whodunit, she followed every clue that might lead her to Fauve landscapes. In Paris, and armed with just the family name of a man who had been given Fauve paintings in 1905 by his father-in-law, she took out the Paris phone book and called everyone with the same last name.
"I finally got this one couple who said, 'How did you get our name?' and I told them, going through the telephone book. I always started out with the positive, 'I hear you have a painting. . . .'
"They said if I could come over in 10 minutes I could see the painting. I ran over to their place. They opened the door to this very elegant, dark apartment and walked me down the hall. There was nothing on the walls, and all these doors were closed. It looked like the apartment had been ransacked.
"They opened one door, and it was to the bathroom. They had one painting sitting on the toilet waiting for me to see. That was it. They weren't going to let me see anything else in the apartment. They said I could not borrow the painting and I could never say where I saw it. It was a terrible tease, but at least they let me see it. It was a stunning painting." The painting was a small landscape by Derain.
By the time Freeman quit wandering the globe, she had seen about 90% of the paintings that were loaned to LACMA for the exhibition. She had also traveled to all the locations where the Fauves had painted--Saint-Tropez, L'Estaque, Collioure, to name a few--to see the actual landscapes and to talk with city historians and the oldest residents in the towns. Funding for her travels came from the Ford Motor Co. and the National Endowment for the Arts.
For Freeman, though, the soul of the Fauve period is the interaction among the artists.
"The paintings are not going to talk to you about that. People are."
Her desire to "get inside the artist's head" took her beyond the published interviews with Matisse and the autobiographies of Vlaminck to the artists' families.
Matisse's son, daughter-in-law and grandchildren, Derain's niece, Vlaminck's daughters, Manguin's daughter and grandchildren, Dufy's niece, Braque's heirs--all of them were willing to help her explore what these artists were saying and thinking, and how that related to society.
Freeman had known Matisse's son, Pierre, since 1978. Shortly before Pierre died last year, at the age of 89, she interviewed him.
"We were sitting in his apartment with all the paintings and the photographs. I would pull out a photograph and he'd say with a sense of sentimentality, 'Oh yes, that painting was made in Collioure when it was raining. . . .' He knew. It was wonderful."
Of all the artists of this period, Freeman said, Manguin is the best-documented during the five years starting in 1904. His daughter, Lucile Manguin had organized her father's material, and it had been given to her nephew, Jean-Pierre Manguin.
"He was a saint," Freeman said. "He let me go through every single letter, document and photograph he had."
A self-described "archive freak" who is fluent in French, Freeman read everything she could get her hands on from the various artists' estates. She turned the largely unpublished raw material into a 60-page chronology of the events of the Fauves' daily lives: gallery openings, the weather, critiques of each others' work, their need to borrow money, nagging self-doubts and the constant struggle to understand why they did what they did.
"Trying to re-create the picture, that's what's really exciting for me," she said. The chronology is part of the catalogue that Freeman produced to accompany the exhibition. The catalogue also includes several essays by her on the Fauves' art and travels.
It could be said that Judi Freeman's career began at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.
"I first became interested in art when my then-future husband took me on a date to the Met," said Freeman, who was in high school at the time. "Mine is not the typical story of the curator who says, 'Ah, yes, when I was in third grade I went to classes at the Museum of Modern Art and the Met.' "
At Vassar College, she enrolled in a Greek history class but found the textbook boring, so she tried an art history course on Greek sculpture.
"I had a wonderful professor who turned me on to the idea that you could study art and through that you would learn about history and literature."
After three years at Vassar, she graduated with honors in 1978, got married and received a master's degree from Johns Hopkins University a year later. She took a year off from graduate studies to work in Washington at the Hirshhorn Museum and the National Gallery of Art.
Freeman began her doctoral program at Yale in 1980. In the spring of 1982, she went to Europe to live for 2 1/2 years, primarily to research her dissertation on French painter Fernand Leger. During this time, her husband practiced law in London.
She returned to the United States and continued her research on Leger on a Chester Dale Fellowship at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Then Freeman was offered what she termed a "good opportunity" to come to Los Angeles. It was 1985, and LACMA was a year-and-a-half away from opening the Anderson building for 20th-Century art.
"It seemed that L.A. offered great potential," Freeman said. She accepted the job of assistant curator for 20th-Century art, and a year later was promoted to associate curator.
Now 33, Freeman has organized, installed or been involved with five exhibitions at LACMA. For the past two years, she also has been in charge of the permanent collection on the third floor of the Anderson building. She finished her dissertation this year and taught at USC and Cal State Fullerton.
Between lecturing on the Fauve show and guiding tours through it, she is organizing two exhibitions for 1992, one on contemporary artist Mark Tansey, the other on Picasso and his Weeping Women.
"LACMA has one of the few Weeping Women that are in public museums," Freeman said. "It's an amazing image, this beautiful yet weeping woman."
Freeman does not see herself as atypical. "The women in my field who I admire all juggle a lot of different pressures and work very hard," she said.
She and her husband, Ken Slade, have a 6-year-old daughter, Jessica, who at age 4 traveled with her mom on a research trip. "She can still tell you about fishing in Saint-Tropez," said Freeman with delight. "She came through the museum a few weeks ago with her class, and she told the class about Collioure and about eating paella in a restaurant."