modernist art

late impressionism through surrealism

matisse & fauvism


people, terms, and concepts: fauve, decorative color (versus expressive color and mimetic color), formalism (versus expressionism and realism), the ‘flatness of the picture plane’

additional reading: Matisse, Notes of a Painter

The word fauve means 'wild beast.' Why were the Fauves given this name? Is the name appropriate to the movement? Think about Matisse's description of his aims in this famous quote:

"What I dream of is an art of balance, of purity and serenity devoid of troubling or disturbing subject matter, an art which might be for every mental worker, be he businessman or writer, like an appeasing influence, like a mental soother, something like a good armchair in which to rest from physical fatigue."

Think also about Matisse's working process as revealed in these quotes:

"If upon a white canvas I jot down sensations of blue, of green, of red -- every new brushstroke diminishes the importance of the preceding ones ... The relation between tones must be so established that they will sustain one another."

"Order, above all, in color. Put three or four touches of color, [those] which you have understood, on the canvas; add another if you can -- if you can't, set the canvas aside and begin again."

"Every additional color changes the tone of other colors and the overall harmony of the work."

These quotes reveal Matisse to be primarily a formalist in the same vein as Whistler:  both are interested in creating purely aesthetic (sensory) harmonies of line, shape, and color, rather than in imitating nature or expressing powerful feelings.  Thus we can distinguish a third major way of using color:  not mimetically, to match the colors of objects; not expressively, to convey feelings; but decoratively, create beautiful optical harmonies.  How does this interest in abstract, decorative formal harmonies help to explain Matisse’s frequent thematic references to music and to Islamic culture?

Although Fauvism is primarily seen as a ‘decorative’ formalist movement, how can we connect it also to a sense of social agency?  Think again about Matisse’s “armchair” quote above.  What is the relationship between Fauvism and ‘modernity’ (industry, cities, etc)?

Matisse is also a formalist in another way that we began to examine in relation to Cézanne:  he wanted his works present themselves as unequivocally flat, as two-dimensional, rather than working to give an illusion of three-dimensional depth through techniques such as linear perspective and chiaroscuro.  How do the works below insistently demonstrate their own flatness?  Why is this conformity to the flatness of the picture plane important to Matisse?  The idea that a painting should conform to its own inherent flatness (and, more broadly, that all works of art should be true to their materials) becomes a major theme in Modernist art and art criticism, as we will see.

Derain, London Bridge, 1906

Matisse, Harmony in Red (The Dessert), 1908

Matisse, The Pink Nude, 1935