In the summer of 1905, Henri Matisse and André Derain transformed the sleepy French fishing village of Collioure into a crucible of modern art. Matisse was 35 and still reeling from the financial disaster of his first one-man show, exhibited the year before at Ambroise Vollard’s Parisian gallery. Derain, a decade his junior, had only recently quit a career in engineering to pursue art full-time.
Under the dazzling Mediterranean sun, the pair spurred each other on, pushing their painting to its limits: perspective was abandoned, systematically applied daubs of paint evolved into free-flowing swirls and slabs of spontaneous brushwork, and colors exploded into a palette of complementary tones dictated by emotion rather than representation. Derain likened it to igniting a stick of dynamite under their work.
Back in Paris, they unveiled their radical new paintings at the Salon d’Automne. The general consensus was disgust at their disregard for the rules. And when the critic Louis Vauxcelles declared that the pictures were the work of “fauves” (wild beasts), he unwittingly gave the first avant-garde art movement of the 20th century its name.
“He was essentially calling them young, uneducated bastards,” says Arthur Fink, an assistant curator at the Kunstmuseum Basel, where “Matisse, Derain and Friends: The Paris Avantgarde 1904–1908” opens next week. The exhibition—co-curated by Fink; Claudine Grammont, the Centre Pompidou’s head of graphic art; and Josef Helfenstein, the director of Kunstmuseum Basel—tells the story of the short, sharp bang that was Fauvism. Three years in the making, it brings together 120 paintings, drawings, sculptures, and ceramics by Matisse, Derain, and the others who soon joined their mission to liberate paint—Maurice de Vlaminck, Georges Braque, Raoul Dufy, and Kees van Dongen.
Notably, the curators have dedicated a large part of the show to placing the Fauves firmly in the context of Belle Époque Paris between 1904 and 1908. Photographs that capture the extreme contrasts between the city’s down-and-outs and its bourgeois inhabitants will be displayed alongside postcards the cohort sent one another, which the curator likens to an early form of text messaging.
Another area examines the often overlooked yet vital role that women played in Fauvism. Amélie Parayre-Matisse ran a hat shop that provided enough income to support her husband Henri’s early career. The art dealer Berthe Weill, meanwhile, was a crucial early champion of Matisse, Derain, Vlaminck, Braque, Dufy, and Van Dongen. She was also one of the only patrons to promote the work of women artists at the time, mounting exhibitions by the female Fauves Émilie Charmy and Marie Laurencin.
Commenting on the fate of Fauvism, Fink says that it finished as quickly as it began, fizzling out in 1908. Why? “The group became critical of Matisse claiming his position as ‘King of the Fauves,’ and the rise in nationalism across Europe coincided with the public becoming more disapproving of the group’s work,” he explains. “But, most importantly, in 1907 Picasso finished his landmark painting Les Demoiselles d’Avignon—and Cubism was born.” —Harry Seymour
“Matisse, Derain and Friends” will be on at the Kunstmuseum Basel, in Switzerland, beginning September 2
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Harry Seymour is a London-based art historian and writer