This essay is part of an extended series by Jeanne Willette. You can find other pieces in this series (to date) in the Avant-Garde section of this website.
Summary: One hundred years ago, the world was engulfed in its first global war, then called the “Great War.” By 1915, a generation of young men, the pride and hope of their time – like Gallipoli and Ypres – were dead or dying in battles unparalleled in the sheer scope of the slaughter. This new all-encompassing modern war of machines and technology put an end to an era, an epoch during which the avant-garde in the arts had flourished. With artists lost on the battlefield, careers derailed, and those who helped produce the culture of the time scattered into exile – the War ended an unprecedented run of artistic innovation. Beginning from the time of the “Great War”, this series looks behind the scenes in search of the cultural conditions, social situations, and economic circumstances that allowed avant-garde art to be created, exhibited and collected. In this essay (part 11), a notable turn in art history is considered: the finding of fauvism.
By Jeanne Willette
In 1896, an event in Paris took place that was termed a “scandal” or an “infamy” or a “disgrace,” depending upon one’s level of astonishment: Impressionism arrived at the Louvre, invading the sacred precincts of France’s most hallowed museum. On its own, the Louvre would not have considered purchasing upstart rebellious avant-grade paintings; but it just so happened that a gift of an extraordinary collection of Impressionist paintings was delivered from the great and greatly underrated artist Gustave Caillebotte, who died in 1894. Caillebotte was not only an Impressionist, but one of the wealthy ones who generously helped his colleagues by purchasing their art. Because he was long seen as an organizer of Impressionist exhibitions, historically Caillebotte was considered more of a supporter and patron than an artist in his own right. Today a corrective to this art historical (mis)judgment is underway; but, at the end of the nineteenth century, he was an outlier of little note to the establishment of the traditional art world.
In Paris there is no establishment like the Louvre, guardian of all that is “French” and accepted as “art” in the land. The august museum was also the site of immortality, but having one’s art placed in the Louvre was a signifier of entering into the halls of history. Because the Louvre proper preferred its artists dead and gone, the place for worthy “living artists” was a branch office, the Musée du Luxembourg, set aside for these works in 1818. So it was to their horror that the elders of the Louvre learned that a minor (and dead) Impressionist artist had decided to supersede their judgment and force them to receive (and display) his bequest of a motley crew of his fellow insurrectionists. As Caillebotte wrote to the Louvre in his will:
I leave to the State the paintings in my possession; however, as I want this gift to be accepted, and in such guise that these paintings not end up in an attic or a provincial museum but rather in the Luxembourg and later in the Louvre, a certain lapse of time will be necessary before the execution of this clause, until the public may, I do not say understand, but admit this painting. Twenty years or so might be required; in the meantime my brother Martial, or failing him another of my heirs will keep them.
Caillebotte appointed fellow Impressionist Pierre Renoir to the difficult task of negotiating with the State. After years of discussions and reluctance on the part of the Louvre, a paltry forty paintings out of the nearly seventy offered were finally accepted. The Académie des Beaux-Arts protested and complained of what the late Kirk Varnedoe termed “noxious” impact upon French art. A year before the famous Fauve exhibition of 1905 in the Salon d’ Automne, Renoir attempted to donate his share of Caillebotte’s holdings and was refused. As Varnedoe pointed out, certainly some of the angst over the Bequest concerned the attempt by the late artist to pole vault (my terminology) his friends into the museum, disordering established norms and processes.[i] In 1908, the year that the term “cube” was applied to a group of new paintings, he tried again with the same result. The Luxembourg was well-known for its reluctance to accept celebrated works of non-academic artists, and Impressionism was, in their collective and cautious minds, still too radical to grace the hallowed walls. Belatedly in 1928, two decades after the Louvre decided to close off any further conversations with Renoir, the time arrived when Impressionism had finally become—how shall one say this delicately?—valuable. The venerable guardians of French culture came to their senses and attempted to claim the gift that had been offered to them by Caillebotte. Perhaps the museum, which had just received Manet’s Dejeunner sur l’herbe, wanted finally to round out its small collection of “modern art.” In disgust, the Caillebotte family refused the offer from the Louvre and sold the remaining Impressionist works to an American collector, Alfred Barnes. In 1929, the entire Impressionist collection, a shadow of what Caillebotte offered, was finally moved to the Louvre, where the works could be viewed by the Parisian public as “official” French art.
The tale of the Caillebotte bequest is the story of a debacle that turned into a belated embarrassment for the government. But the way in which the generous donation was handled is indicative of a long-term problem in the French art world—the inability of the art powers to recognize any art outside the purview of the Academy. This reluctance to accept the new or the modern carried over well into the twentieth century. The fate of the Impressionist paintings, many of which wound up in America, may seem like a small detail but details can be telling. In contrast to the art historical account of the progression of avant-garde movements in neat steps, the actual art world in Paris was ruled by the conservative salons and the Academy, whose power swamped the independent artists and wreaked havoc upon any understanding of either Impressionism or Post-Impressionism. The press and public in general were unwilling to recognize the artists who responded to Impressionism and many of these artists died in obscurity, leaving no one behind to explain or defend them. For example, Emile Bernard, who had worked so closely with Paul Gauguin and Vincent van Gogh, became reactionary and conservative, a poor spokesperson for his former colleagues. In addition, during these early decades of the avant-garde, artists themselves were rarely interviewed or consulted by art writers, who were accustomed to speaking ex cathedra.
The problem, and it was a real problem, was that individuals who followed avant-garde art in Paris, and there were a few, were singularly ill equipped to track the generations of modern art and to understand the complex cross currents within a small art community on the margins. The appearance of the so-called “Fauves” came as a distinct shock to the natives. One could argue that Fauvism was the first avant-garde movement of the twentieth century or one could make the case that Fauvism was but a catchy word and not an entity in its own right, existing only as a coda to Post-Impressionism. The perspective that Fauvism put a period, a definitive end, to the nineteenth century movements by summing up Impressionism – Gauguin, Seurat, van Gogh but not Cézanne – suggests that Fauvism was, from its radical debut, a dead end. The distinguishing characteristic of the paintings were, as Louis Vauxcelles famously noted, the vibrant and discordant colors. Regardless of the colors of the “wild beasts,” the other scandal of Fauvism was that it announced a new generation, the children of radical artists, all of whom were unfamiliar to the art audiences who still quelled before Impressionism.
The importance of Fauvism lay in its synthesis of van Gogh and Gauguin and Seurat, appearing almost simultaneously with the (re)introduction of these artists to the French public. In 1905, the Salon des Indépendants held retrospectives of Vincent van Gogh and Georges Seurat. In 1906 the Salon d’Automne held a retrospective for Paul Gauguin. These were significant exhibitions of heretofore uncirculated art. Johanna van Gogh-Bonger-Coen kept a close watch over the legacy of her brother-in-law, and the Salon would have been a rare opportunity to see his works in Paris. In fact in 1905, van Gogh was much better known in Germany, thanks to an exhibition mounted by his sister-in-law in the Stedelijk Museum that attracted the attention of the northern artists. In 1906, Gauguin had been dead a mere three years and his retrospective was an attempt on the part of his friends and supporters to repair the bad reputation of an artist who died in exile, forgotten and alone, in the far reaches of the Pacific. A year before his death, his old friend Daniel de Monfreid had written to him prophetically, “You are so far away. You should not return. You should not deprive them of the one they hold in their teeth. You are already unassailable like all the great dead; you already belong to the history of art.”[ii] When he received the letter, Gauguin was only months away from death and was never coming home. As for Seurat, almost fifteen years had passed since his posthumous exhibition in 1892—in Brussels, not in Paris. And now the Parisians could see a large cache of Seurat’s pointillist paintings in all their faded glory.
The Fauve artists, a loose conglomeration of artists, who digested these rich retrospectives, gorged upon an avalanche of art from the near past. That is not to say that the Fauves were entirely ignorant of the Post-Impressionists, they were not; but it is to say that, before these retrospectives, it was difficult to see the oeuvres of these artists in a single place. Fauvism can be directly tracked in relation to the revelation of Post-Impressionism. Again, this is not to say that there was a one-to-one “influence”; but it is interesting to note that the shock of the Fauves is explainable by the tardy and coincidental retrospectives of heretofore unfamiliar ancestor artists. Matisse’s brief flirtation with pointillism, Luxe Calm et Volputé is dated 1905, the year of the Seurat retrospective. His bold disregard for local color, The Green Line (Portrait of Madame Matisse, was painted in the same year as the van Gogh retrospective. The miraculous Le bonheur de vivre (The Joy of Life) with its strong outlines and large evenly stroked islands of color was shown in 1906, the year of the Gauguin retrospective.
André Derain’s Bateaux dans le port, Collioure of 1905 flouted the dissonant and strident colors inspired by van Gogh, and in 1906 his Charing Cross Bridge flaunted Seurat-like pockmarks of vivid color.
Maurice de Vlaminck, the third leading Fauve was always a follower of van Gogh, until suddenly in 1906, the year of the death of Paul Cézanne, when he abruptly began to pay homage to a new master, predicting the end of Fauvism which would dissolve in the face of the retrospective of the legendary and mythic senior artist of Aix. The Cézanne exhibition in the 1907 Salon d’Automne was, like the other retrospectives, a watershed moment in the Parisian art world. Suddenly in three short years, the public had been introduced to Vincent van Gogh, Georges Seurat, Paul Gauguin, and Paul Cézanne and to the raucous Fauves artists, only to be swept away upon another wave that would carry avant-garde art into the twentieth century – Cubism. It is possible to trace the development of Fauvism retrospectively, and to witness its brief run from Gauguin to Cézanne, where the movement effectively ends. Reactionary from start to finish, Fauvism, as a solidified artist movement, may have never really existed.
[i] Kirk Varnedoe. Gustave Caillebotte (Yale University Press, 1987)
[ii] Victoria Charles. Paul Gauguin (Parkstone International, 2011)
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