Arts / Museums

French Legends Create a Delightful ‘Scandal’ at MFAH — On Henri Matisse & André Derain’s Bond and Radiant Fauvism

Colors Become Sticks of Dynamite In These Rebels’ Hands

BY // 03.20.24

Like a shower of confetti, the paintings and watercolors in the sparkling new show at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston pop with festive colors as they set the stage for the perfect introduction to Fauvism. “Vertigo of Color: Matisse, Derain and the Origins of Fauvism” immerses viewers in fresh-paint colors like scarlet lake and cadmium yellow that leap out from inviting, sun-drenched sea and landscapes.

“It looks like it’s not even dry yet,” a woman marveled, smiling as she admired an enthusiastically daubed pink beach scene Henri Matisse painted well over a century ago.

The show was co-organized by the MFAH and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, where it previously debuted and was praised by The New York Times as “radiant.” It was curated at the Met by Dita Amory and Robert Lehman, the curator in charge at the Robert Lehman Collection; and at the MFAH by consulting curator of European art Ann Dumas. The exhibition comprises 65 impressive works from Fauvist leaders Henri Matisse and Andre Derain on loan from a host of major museums and private collectors all over the world.

Amory and Dumas coauthored an exhaustively researched, lavishly illustrated catalogue, available at the MFAH gift shop (published by the Met and distributed by Yale University Press) well worth perusing before or after seeing the show. And don’t miss the Met’s “Exhibition Tour” (check out the video link on the MFAH exhibition page for a preview of the show courtesy of an informative guided tour from the two curators when the show appeared at the Met).

You enter the exhibition on the upper floor of the MFAH Law Building and plunge into the world of Henri Matisse (1869 to 1954) and Andre Derain (1880 t9 1954) during the summer of 1905 as they experimented with color and brushwork in bold new ways, working in a French fishing village called Collioure.

Derain,”Boats at the Port of Collioure,” 1905
Andre Derain, “Boats at the Port of Collioure,” 1905, oil on canvas, private collection. © 2023 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/ADAGP, Paris. Image courtesy MFAH.

Portraits of the two artists, each painted by the other — Matisse with his spectacles, beard and pipe, and his younger colleague Derain sporting a mustache and rakish cap — start your tour of the dazzling displays emanating from the partnership these legendary artists forged that summer. A partnership that changed the course of French painting.

Elizabeth Anthony

Swipe
ASSAEL
OLYMPIA LE-TAN
EMILY P. WHEELER
EMILY P. WHEELER
MARIA OLIVER
KATHERINE JETTER
MEREDITH YOUNG
LEIGH MAXWELL
MEREDITH YOUNG
  • Elizabeth Anthony Card Deck April 2024 1
  • Elizabeth Anthony Card Deck April 2024 1
  • Elizabeth Anthony Card Deck April 2024 1
  • Elizabeth Anthony Card Deck April 2024 1
  • Elizabeth Anthony Card Deck April 2024 1
  • Elizabeth Anthony Card Deck April 2024 1
  • Elizabeth Anthony Card Deck April 2024 1
  • Elizabeth Anthony Card Deck April 2024 1
  • Elizabeth Anthony Card Deck April 2024 1

It was an exhilarating time of discovery for Matisse and Derain, as author Sarah Whitfield recounts in Fauvism (London: Thames and Hudson, 1991), quoting Matisse as remembering: “We were at that time like children in the face of nature and we let our temperaments speak, even to the point of painting from the imagination when nature herself could not be used.”

Matisse and Derain Embrace the Landscape

These artists wanted to elicit a response to a landscape that was “spontaneous, uninhibited and innocent,” Whitfield writes.

“Vermilion, scarlet lake, veridian green, cadmium yellow, ultramarine, cobalt blue and cobalt violet” were the colors most commonly found in their Fauve paintings, Whitfield notes of their bold palette.

Now, imagine these departures from the norm during a time when “artists were grappling with Post-Impressionism,” encompassing the varying styles of Paul Gauguin, Vincent van Gogh, Paul Cezanne and Neo-Impressionist leader Paul Signac, as Dita Amory noted in the exhibition catalogue.

Matisse and Derain conducted “daring experiments with color and light, form and structure, shadow and perspective” which “turned French painting on end” as they lay the groundwork for Fauvism, Amory writes.

Shortly thereafter, their “radical investigations” galvanized a group of Parisian painters to follow their example and “realized a strain of modernism whose legacy resonated for decades to come.”

Amory, Dumas, Met conservator Isabelle Duvernois and Centre Pompidou Curator Emerita Isabelle Monod-Fontaine open art lovers’ eyes to a new understanding of these breakaway artists’ accomplishments by providing context as well as revealing quotes straight from the sources. Gaining a feeling of immediacy, we learn from Amory that it was from his studio overlooking the Port d’Avall that Matisse painted one of his most celebrated works “Open Window, Collioure” (1905.)

“Here, Matisse takes every liberty of palette and brushwork,” Amory observes, drawing attention to a luminous view, a riot of unexpected color. What we see is what Matisse saw and felt over 100 years ago, looking beyond green and pink walls, through wide-open, red and pink French windows to multicolored sailboats gaily bobbing on a pink sea under cotton ball clouds.

Taking a Vacation at MFAH

The viewer is instantly transported en vacances (on vacation), feeling carefree, buoyed and energized by all the lighthearted, joyous color.

Amory quotes from a 1941 interview by Pierre Courthion in which Matisse explained his approach to color:

“A color for me is a force. My paintings consist of four or five colors which clash with one another expressively. When I apply green, that does not mean grass. When I apply blue, that does not mean sky. It is their accord or opposition which opens in the viewer’s mind an illusory space.”

As Amory points out, both Matisse and Derain took the liberty to introduce a whole repertory of varying brushmarks, which we see throughout the exhibition.

Derain articulated his explosive use of color in a 1929 remark commemorated by writer Georges Duthuit, as quoted by catalogue contributor Isabelle Monod-Fontaine: “Colors became sticks of dynamite. They were primed to discharge light. It was lovely, this idea, in its freshness, which could be taken well beyond reality. It was also serious.”

Derain’s wielding color like “sticks of dynamite” is readily seen in Derain’s “Fishing Boats, Collioure” (1905), showing us his perspective of the scene in an array of incendiary colors.

Derain,”Boats at the Port of Collioure,” 1905
Andre Derain, “Boats at the Port of Collioure,” 1905, oil on canvas, private collection. © 2023 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/ADAGP, Paris. Image courtesy MFAH.

The display of Fauve works in such a blatantly revolutionary style jolted critics assessing the new art hung in the center of the Salon d’Automne of 1905 in the Grand Palais. They didn’t know quite what to make of it. One critic’s review used the word “fauves” (wild beasts), a word which stuck. Overall, it was deemed a scandal, but one which was short lived, turning into a significant commercial success among savvy collectors.

In fact, Fauvism was the first movement in modern art to benefit from scandal, Sarah Whitfield declared, quoting Matisse:

“What a scandal!” Matisse told the writer Francis Carco. “Frankly, it was admirable. The name Fauve was perfectly suited to our feelings.”

What some conservative critics found especially offensive was precisely the quality that continues to endear these paintings to a modern audience today – “their unpretentiousness” Whitfield writes.

Moreover, as curator Ann Dumas notes in the catalogue, many of the early viewers hadn’t yet come to terms with “the formal and chromatic innovations of Paul Gauguin and Vincent van Gogh.”

Derain, “Woman with a Shawl, Madame Matisse in a Kimono,” 1905
Andre Derain, “Woman with a Shawl, Madame Matisse in a Kimono,” 1905, oil on canvas, private collection, courtesy of Nevill Keating Pictures, London. © 2023 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/ADAGP, Paris. Image courtesy MFAH.

Vanity Fair found the Fauvism exhibition at the Met and MFAH so appealing, its February issue featured “17 Ways to Wear Color This Month,” drawing inspiration from the show in recommending that readers “Let your outfit shout a little.”

Using an image of Derain’s vividly colored “Fishing Boats, Collioure” (1905), and alluding to Matisse’s “hyper saturated palette of unmixed pigments” in “Open Window, Collioure” (1905), writer Arimeta Diop quoted Matisse as writing that his choice of colors was based “on observation, on feeling, on the experience of my sensibility.”

“In that spirit,” Diop suggested, “chase off the winter doldrums with pieces vibrant enough to be plucked from Matisse’s and Derain’s very canvases – marmalade polos, vert satchels, a timepiece in rich plum.”

Trust the fashionable French to embody this fine idea. As I was contemplating a picture at the MFAH exhibition, I heard a woman speaking French behind me and caught a glimpse of her as she walked to the next gallery, wearing a beautiful, vividly colored outfit that complemented the paintings around her.

By all means, match your spirits and perhaps also a colorful new outfit, to this effervescent display of Fauvism and see the show before it leaves MFAH on May 27.

Visit Dallas' premier open-air shopping and dining destination.

Highland Park Village Shop Now

Featured Properties

Swipe
X
X