Culture and Society

What is Fauvism?
Answered by Kim Williamson
  • Kim Williamson

    Kim Williamson


    Imagine Europe at the beginning of the 20th century. Communism had developed roots and there were political stirrings that would lead to World War I. Sigmund Freud introduced his theories of psychoanalysis and Paris hosted the 1900 World Fair. Marconi sent the first trans-Atlantic message via radio. The early 1900s was a period of flux, and the art world was no different. On this stage, Fauvism surged into the spotlight.

    To truly understand Fauvism and its impact, you must understand its roots. Impressionism, made famous by painters like Monet, dominated painting in the late 1800s. Impressionists used broken brush strokes and small dabs of color to portray brief glimpses of their subjects; they showed how something looks when a certain light hits it. They painted modern life -- the cities, people and landscapes around them. Post- and Neo-Impressionism furthered and altered aspects of the Impressionist movement.

    Fauvism took some of these ideas and exploded them -- meanwhile ignoring others. Fauvists made bolder, vigorous and even violent brush strokes. Their work showed passion and enthusiasm, and they applied the same zest to color. Fauvists used color to express emotion about their subjects, not to show them realistically. André Derain, a Fauvist and contemporary of Matisse, used color to convey his feelings, rather than as a means to depict the world around him [source: The Art Story].  A signature trademark of Fauvism was contrasting colors, taken from opposite sides of the color wheel. A good example is Henri Matisse's "Dance (II)" (1910), showing a ring of naked bodies in rich,  earthy-rusty-orange (quite striking against a deep blue sky and vibrant green ground) rather than the softer, peachy skin tones he'd used in the original work, "Dance" in 1909. Matisse also used color to show light, unlike his Impressionist predecessors who used brush strokes.

    Space was also a defining characteristic of Fauvism, influenced by Post-Impressionists like Paul Cezanne. Instead of trying to show space as three-dimensional, Matisse focused on flattening out the space, working in planes rather than depth, something that would later influence Pablo Picasso and his Cubist colleagues.

    From a 21st-century perspective, Fauvism doesn't seem that radical, but at the time, it was a cutting edge movement; its very name, Fauvism, comes from the French word fauves meaning "wild beasts."

    Although Matisse is probably the best-known Fauvist, and was the unofficial leader of the group, he and Derain were in the company of several artists who dabbled in Fauvism, including Georges Braque who would later found Cubism with Picasso, Kees von Dongen, Raol Dugy and Othon Friesz. For most, probably because the movement lasted only a few years (ranging from 1905 to 1908), Fauvism was a stepping stone in their career, and many of them were fortunate in that they had success while they were still alive.

    Art movements are like a row of dominos, each one impacting another as it moves, and Fauvism is no exception. The "Wild Beasts" sprang from Impressionist and Post-Impressionist influences, like Cezanne and Van Gogh, and subsequently influenced other movements.

    More answers from Kim Williamson »

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