PRINT May 1963


The Fauves

Jean-Paul Crespelle, The Fauves (Greenwich, Conn.: New York Graphic Society), 1962. 351 pages, illustrated.

GAUGUIN AND VAN GOGH, though they disagreed about almost everything, shared a common dissatisfaction with the state of painting as it had been handed to them by the Impressionists. The Impressionist concern with light, with fidelity to nature, “with what the eye sees,” led directly in the opposite direction from what had become to both men most important: the painting as painting, color as color, and, above all, the painting as an expression of the independent vision of the artist. If the history of 19th century painting up to Van Gogh and Gauguin can be seen as a series of answers to the question “How can we see nature most truthfully?” the history of 20th century painting from their time can be seen as a series of answers to the question: “How can we respond to nature most meaningfully?” To mark this turning point, an annihilating commando-raid on traditional esthetics, the mission of which was to establish the total independence of the artist from his subject matter, was necessary. This commando-raid was Fauvism, and its major weapon was color.

The Van Gogh exhibition at Bernheim’s in 1900 provided the Fauve painters with the missing link. Gauguin’s theories of the painting as an end in itself had already filtered down: Van Gogh’s use of color astonished them all. Derain, Matisse and Vlaminck attended the exhibition together; “At that moment,” Vlaminck later said, “I loved Van Gogh more than my own father.” That color alone was expressive, that it did not have to correspond to reality, that handled with sufficient boldness it could produce the effects that hitherto only perspective, chiaroscuro and tonal values could achieve, that with an independent use of color the artist could explore deeply his own temperament was the stunning legacy of Van Gogh.

The resultant body of Fauve paintings remain one of the most beautiful, vivid and exciting moments in the history of modern art, and remain extraordinarily relevant to the painting of the immediate contemporary scene. Indeed, Fauve painting is perhaps more akin, in look and feeling, to the art of the abstract expressionists, than that of any movement of this century. That its recognizable subject matter did not prevent its true nature from being obvious is reflected in a comment by Maurice Denis which, without alteration, can be applied to the New York School:

It is painting divorced from contingencies, painting for its own sake, the pure act of painting. All qualities of description or personal reflection have been excluded from the work of art. These painters are searching for the absolute.

Our knowledge of the full extent of Fauve painting remains very incomplete; a huge number of Fauve works are barely accessible even today. Hundreds of Fauve paintings remain in the possession of the Vollard heirs (in 1905 Vollard bought out Vlaminck’s studio––some 300 of his most high-keyed Fauve canvases). Hundreds more rest in semi-seclusion in the Barnes collection, and still more hundreds, from the great Morosov and Shchukin collections, sit in relative obscurity in the museums at Leningrad and Moscow. For this reason, if no other, this beautifully illustrated––there are 100 full page, full color reproductions––and delightfully written book is particularly welcome. French intellectuals seem to possess a genius for writing about art denied to those of other nations. Whatever the reasons––the elegance of the language, the history of genial relationships between poets, novelists and painters, the very geography of Paris––the French writer seems completely at home in writing about art. Crespelle, for example, making no attempt to match the sheer brilliance of Germain Bazin or the depth of Malraux, shows no trace of the awkward solemnity or the embarrassing scrambling for insights that characterizes American and English art writing, or the heavy-handed pedantry of German art writing. His text is graceful, highly readable, and full of genuine pleasure in its subject. Drawn primarily to the personalities of the artists, Crespelle delights in anecdote; Vlaminck’s wooden ties and Dufy’s anarchist roommates become as much a part of the Fauve scene as red trees and green faces. His book is a joy to read.

Philip Leider