”Wild Beasts” at the Albertina
A century-old artistic movement founded by Matisse and Derain, the Fauves (Wild Beasts) bring their animal energy to Vienna with works ambitious, explosive and extraordinary
Fauvism, we are told, was a movement simultaneously avant-garde and neo-classical. The eight rooms of the Albertina’s new show provide us with a fine opportunity to investigate and enjoy this paradox. Their 160 works are mostly paintings, but there are also sculptures, drawings, woodblocks, ceramics, and even a big carved bed.
The Fauves (wild beasts) got their name from a disgusted critic reviewing the first group exhibition at the Paris Salon d’Automne of 1905, in which the movement’s founders, Henri Matisse and André Derain, were joined by a dozen other big names of the future, including Braque, Rouault, Dufy, Vlaminck, and van Dongen, all represented here. There was only one woman among them: Alice Bailly from Geneva, and it’s a pity that no work of hers is included in this show.
Fauvism lasted strictly only from 1904-1908, but in fact it stretched forward, and even backward, from that time. Art historians largely agree that "all the detonators for the Fauve explosion of 1905," were already present in Matisse’s work by early 1902. But, implicated in a financial scandal and cowed by family problems, he retreated for the next two or three years into more conventional work and a markedly duller palette.
Perhaps it’s not surprising, then, that the first of his paintings displayed here, from 1905-06, seem hesitant, as if Matisse isn’t sure it’s safe to take the plunge. "What I dream of," he wrote, sounding like a pensioner though still in his 30s, "is an art…devoid of troubling subject matter, …something like a good armchair that provides relaxation from physical fatigue."
From what we see here, it’s hard to imagine his younger colleague Derain dreaming of anything so mundane. "I convinced myself that future happiness, the future idea, is not to have any preconceived forms at all," he declared.
And indeed, it’s Derain who steals the show. Aged just 25 and apparently self-taught, he seems by far the more assured painter, with his two bold portraits of a red-bearded Matisse overwhelming the latter’s cautious portrait of him.
Londoners must have been astonished to see what Derain made of their grimy city during his visit of 1906 and 07: sunlight bursting out over Waterloo Bridge in thick gold rectangles; a Hyde Park scene – pink paths, red horses, yellow dogs, blue trees. It’s mad, but you want to be there. Quite different but equally riveting are his proto-expressionist Street Scene and Girls, and above all his extraordinary Fall of Phaeton, a white explosion of fear and falling and death.
It was during his London visit that, together with Vlaminck, Derain first encountered the beauty and power of African sculptures and other arts premiers in the British Museum. He conveyed the liberating discovery to Matisse, encouraging the latter’s break away from the constraints of anatomical exactitude towards a rawer expression.
Dissolving the barriers
And if Matisse’s paintings here are on the timid side, his half-dozen small sculptures are wonderful.
The lovely female nudes include the lithe and elongated Serpentine, more line drawing than bronze; in Head of a Young Girl, we see Matisse’s invalid daughter Marguerite, impassive, tender, and reflective, all at the same time.
And there’s the rocky, Cézannesque Serf, modelled, to the horror of fellow Fauve painter Jean Puy, on a tough old Abruzzi peasant, "a sort of anthropoid…with the face of an orang-utang.’
Puy watched this sculpture taking shape, becoming ‘cruder and more formless, but exceedingly expressive".
There is one Derain sculpture: a crouching man like a white stone cube, at once primitive and futuristic, head clasped in big square hands in a dense despair.
It was Derain who was first to get his artist’s hands into the decorative arts, paving a path for Matisse and, much later, Picasso too. A few of the ceramic works are included here: a vase, a plate – and one sees the barrier between art and craft dissolving, like all artificial things, in the end unsustainable.
One small room is devoted to Georges Rouault, ‘the gloomy Fauve’, and after the joyous colour of the other seven rooms, one almost resists going in. But the reward is immediate: Rouault’s marvellous Clowns from the National Muzej in Belgrade, in sketchy, blocky dark blues and greens and black, the three of them a powerful presence and yet, by shadowy sleight of hand, hardly there at all.
The influence of Van Gogh is everywhere. In his Carousel of 1905, "the Dutch Fauve" Kees van Dongen gives us bright white lights in splotches of paint so thick you could break them off from the canvas. But the bold colour planes of his big portraits – the largest paintings here – are forward-looking, presaging, it seems, the abstractions of Suprematism.
The handsome catalogue is available in German and English. In the rooms, curators Heinz Widauer of Vienna and Claudine Grammont from France have avoided the distraction of detailed descriptions of each individual work, relying instead on large, general introductions. These are consequently very important, and here they are marred somewhat by the often cloudy English translations.
But the art is what matters. This is a lovely show. Go and see it – twice.
Matisse & the Fauves
Albertina, through 12 Jan. 2014
1., Albertinaplatz 1