Archive for December 8th, 2013

UA1-WA:P3-p1-Ex Exploring modern art

For this exercise we are asked to select an art movement of the first half of the twentieth century for some further research. The specific approach is up to the student, with suggestions including trying to work in the style of the movement “adapt[ing] the techniques to your own artistic concerns…”. My major interest remains textiles and that drove my selection of Fauvism, which I think has colour and texture qualities that could be interpreted in stitch.

Sailing boats at Chatou Maurice de Vlaminck 1906 oil on canvas

Sailing boats at Chatou
Maurice de Vlaminck
1906 oil on canvas

“Fauvism” is unlike many of the art movements of the first few decades of the twentieth century. There was no manifesto proclaiming their beliefs and no group-organised shows. From an art history perspective there is no clear beginning or end, and beyond the very core few artists no fixed list of agreed participants. They were more fellow travelers, sharing common concerns and explorations for a time then each continuing on their own path.

The Fauvists were a loose group of friends and rivals with Henri Matisse as a central link. Derain and Vlaminck were significant figures, working together in Chatou outside Paris. Marquet, Manguin, Camoin, Puy and Roualt were fellow students with Matisse. Later into the group came a number of artists from Le Havre – Friesz, Dufy and Braque. Kees van Dongen is another artist regarded as part of the group.

The group’s work was first seen publicly at the spring 1905 Salon des Indépendants in Paris. A shocked critic wrote of fauves – wild beasts – and the name stuck. Their last important exhibition was the Salon two years later. However Elderfield (1976) places the seeds of the movement years earlier, including Matisse’s meeting in 1897 with John Peter Russell (who I mentioned in my post of 2-Nov-2013) on Belle Ile, where Russell exposed him to Impressionist and Post-Impressionist work.

Reacting against the Impressionists, the Fauvists didn’t want to paint the colours of a scene and the light. The painting was autonomous, with its own existence. Rather than attempt to imitate, the artists used colour to express how they felt about the scene and tried to trigger strong reactions in the audience.

A checklist of characteristics:
* direct, personal, individual; anti-theoretical
* colour autonomous, used to express, not imitate. Dynamic juxtapositions, high-keyed; pure; arbitrary divisions; define form; often used straight from the tube
* depth flattened, broad areas of colour
* brushwork energetic, impasto, scrumbled, scrubbed, flickering

It’s the colour that first attracts. At the time art critic Michel Puy wrote “their harmonies no longer sing, they have roared” (quoted in (Freeman, 1995, p. 11), while another critic, Etienne Charles, wrote in 1905 “M. de Vlaminck has surpassed all his predecessors by the organic debauchery that he made with colour” (quoted in Freeman (Freeman, 1995, p. 217). Just as important seems to be this idea (which I’m still getting used to) of the autonomous work. Rather than a clumsy rewording, a direct quote from the website of The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, referring to a painting by Derain: “Their freedom from the constraints of expressing the objective world is celebrated in this image. It is a fantasy in color, a place where reality is overrun by the decorative impulse… a milestone in the brief, yet crucial art-historical movement of Fauvism, which explored the central tenet of Modernist painting: that the strength of a picture has more to do with colors and the kinds of marks made on the surface of the canvas than with serving as a window on the world.” (Museum of Fine Arts Houston, 2013). The painting discussed is Derain’s The Turning Road, L’Estaque – go to for an image.

As mentioned above, Fauvism as an informal movement lasted only a few years, with the artists involved going on their separate ways. Much of the textbook reading on twentieth century art history was about groups forming and splitting. It was refreshing to see focus retained in this quote from Emil Nolde about the formation and breakup of the Berlin Secession: “Much sound and fury, both at the beginning and the end. But all these irrelevancies soon pass; the essential alone remains, the core – art itself” (quoted in (Denvir, 1975, p. 35).

Interior with wardrobe mirror (detail) Grace Cossington Smith 1955 oil on canvas

Interior with wardrobe mirror (detail)
Grace Cossington Smith
1955 oil on canvas

The Fauvist artists moved on to other explorations, but there was a long-term legacy from their discoveries. On the right is a detail from a work by Grace Cossington-Smith in 1955. While the brushwork is much more ordered, the light, bright colours glow. I’m not the only one to see a connection – in his introduction to Judi Freeman’s book Fauves Edmund Capon, then director of Art Gallery NSW, made reference to Cossington-Smith “for whom colour remained ‘the very song of life'” (Capon, 1995).

With that brief introduction it’s time to look at a painting by a Fauvist in more detail. I actually had a choice! While in Canberra a few weeks ago I saw André Derain’s Le Cavalier au cheval blanc [Knight on a white horse] (c. 1905) (see The photograph on the gallery website doesn’t do justice to the aggressive colours!

Sailing boats at Chatou Maurice de Vlaminck 1906 oil on canvas

Sailing boats at Chatou
Maurice de Vlaminck
1906 oil on canvas

However I decided to base my annotation on Sailing boats at Chatou by Maurice de Vlaminck in 1905.

I took lots of detail shots – click on any of the thumbnails above to go to a slideshow. You really need to look close to see the energetic brushstrokes, the layers of painting, the beautiful thick ridgelines of paint, and the enormous number of colours used, especially in the water. The movement created in the scudding clouds and tree tops whipping in the wind is wonderful.

The painting shows boats on the Seine at Chatou, just outside Paris and where Vlaminck and Derain shared a studio. It was a scene Vlaminck painted a number of times, for examples see at The Hermitage Museum (c. 1906; very similar), The Philadelphia Museum of Art (1908; very dissimilar), the National Gallery of Art (1906; tug boats instead of sail), Foundation E. G. Bührle Collection (1906; near Le Pecq, but clearly related) and a couple at the Metropolitan Museum of Art – see here and here (both 1906).

vlaminck_08The subject picture has a high horizon with a series of swoops progressing across it, shown in yellow. I also found sweeping curves covering the upper part of the picture from side to side. The overall effect is dynamic, full of movement. Even the steadying verticals of trees and masts are in motion, and I imagine I can see the clouds racing across the sky. vlaminck_06In contrast most of the lower half of the picture is, at least at first glance, still, the vertical bands of colour reflecting in the water relieved only by a gentle reflecting swoop in the hull of the boat. A closer look shows the sweeping strokes of the underlying layers of paint. This painting is unlike the others of the period linked above in that water occupies the entire lower part although the triangular reflection of the boat’s sails provides some differentiation. A triangle of land appears in the foreground of all the others, a much stronger element. Comparing them in the small images available to me, I see that Vlaminck used a high to very high horizon line in all. The other paintings have to a greater or lesser extent more stability in the upper part of the picture, with the triangular foreground and diagonal line of the river providing movement. In the subject picture this is reversed with the water moving steadily away from the viewer. Following this line of thought, the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s painting at seems to offer a middle point, with a moderate level of movement on each side in both foreground and sky creating a circular, enclosed composition.

vlaminck_02In comparison to the other pictures linked the colour used in the subject painting is the most “natural”. Even so there are some strong and unlikely combinations such at the orange bank on the left of the river. There are other bright and pure touches in the green of the fields and trees and the red roof of the house – I think the most stable and solid point of the picture. This painting is colour-full, with layers and layers of colour shimmering and glowing. The “white” sails seem to be almost everything except white.

vlaminck_09This photo of the left hand side is another example of layering and bold use of colour. I also love the calligraphic dark lines almost dancing on the canvas, the clearest defining the edge of a bush, with fainter but still vigorous repeats in the water and on the bank beside.

Looking back at my checklist of Fauve-like characteristics all the 1906 paintings are clearly part of the movement. Considering the subject painting in particular it appears a very direct and personal view, showing a quite frenzied energy in the brushwork and handling of the paint. The colour is vibrant and exciting, rich and varied. Depth is reduced but not removed, the land on each side pointing to the receding river in the centre but a band of trees behind stopping any distant views. It would be wonderful to see all six works in a room together.

My eye was on textile interpretation when selecting Fauvism as a focus. I’ve written before about Sonia Delaunay (see 1-Mar-2012), artist and textile designer. I’ve seen her mentioned more in relation to Orphism (for example Dempsey, 2010, p. 99), but also as coming from Fauvism (see Gage, 2006, p. 38) – so it was a shock not to find even a mention when reading for this Exercise (her husband Robert got a look-in as an “also ran” a few times).

For this part of the exercise I selected an area of a 1904 painting by Henri Manguin, Before the window, rue Boursault. The only on-line version I’ve found is at, which has colour reproduction quite different to the books I used.

fauve_stitch_01This shows progress to date. It is about 14 cm square, stitched on a fine cream cotton using a wide range of colours in 20/2 silk. I used two threads at a time in the needle to get additional colour mixing and tried to suggest brushwork by changing the direction of stitching. This section shows the bent left elbow of the woman, the curve of her breast and pregnant body.

fauve_stitch_03As a learning exercise I found this enjoyable and useful. I really focused in on the colour changes and variety in the image. As a textile it has some issues. My intention was to use a modified version of bayeaux stitch, which I learnt in an ATASDA class with Carolyn Sullivan back in pre-blog days (2007). This is a form of couching used in the Bayeaux “Tapestry” with a ground of long floating stitches crossed by spaced floats which are secured by small stitches. This is normally very controlled and neat, as attempted in my unfinished class sample. Carolyn also showed us a modern take, with much more variety in length, density and direction of stitching.

fauve_stitch_02I used a variant of the modern style and have completed the ground layer. I intended to add extra texture and flecks of colour with the crossing floats and securing stitches. I rather like it as it stands (rotated here and looking more like a seaside image), but the stitching is quite unstable and would easily catch and pull. Some friends have suggested ways of supporting and securing it, or on the other hand I could push the learning part of the exercise further and see what emerges with the extra layers. I’m going to let it sit for a few days before making a decision.


Capon, E. (1995) “Introduction” in Freeman, J. (1995) Fauves. Sydney: Art Gallery of New South Wales
Dempsey, A. (2010) Styles, schools and movements: The essential encyclopaedic guide to modern art. London: Thames & Hudson.
Denvir, B. (1975) Fauvism and Expressionism. London: Thames and Hudson
Elderfield, J. (1976) The “wild beasts” : Fauvism and its affinities. New York : Museum of Modern Art
Freeman, J. (1995) Fauves. Sydney: Art Gallery of New South Wales
Gage, J. (2006) Colour in Art. London: Thames & Hudson
Museum of Fine Arts Houston (2013) ANDRÉ DERAIN [online] Available from (Accessed 6-Dec-2013).

UA1-WA:P3-p1-Ex Exploring modern art
Understanding Art 1 – Western Art.
Part three: Modern art and still life
Project one: Into the twentieth century
Exercise: Exploring modern art


No Instagram images were found.

Calendar of Posts

December 2013

Enter your email address to follow this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.