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Matisse and the art of Fauvism

Woman with a hat by Henri Matisse - painting

‘Wild Beasts!’ thundered one purple-faced art critic. ‘A pot of paint has been flung in the face of the public!’ spat out another fuming connoisseur. Well! Such were the spittle-flecked condemnations from the buttoned-up guardians of artistic taste in Paris in 1905. So, what could be the source of such incandescent rage from otherwise urbane critics and art lovers?

Ironically, what caused the critics’ faces to turn purple was a new portrait that dared to drastically change the conventional colours in a woman’s face – including that purple. And then there were the wild colours in her hat, her clothes and even the painting’s background. The offensive nature of the painting was only amplified by the deliberately provocative blandness of its title: Femme au Chapeau or Woman with a Hat. The woman in question was 33-year-old Amélie Matisse, the wife of the painter himself, Henri Matisse.

A beastly expression

At the time, a common and carping criticism of the painting was that ‘It doesn’t even look like Madame Matisse!’ And in a literal or representational sense, the critics were correct: it didn’t. In an era that valued skin the colour of fine porcelain, it’s fair to suspect that not many Parisians promenading along the Avenue des Champs Élysées would have encountered respectable ladies with kaleidoscopic faces of green, orange, purple, brown, blue, yellow and more besides. Upon being questioned by infuriated critics about the actual colour of the dress and hat she was wearing when her portrait was painted, Madame Matisse responded flatly, ‘Black, of course.’ If anything could have inflamed passions further, that answer did so.

Against a storm of abuse, Henri Matisse merely shrugged his shoulders and said, ‘Exactitude is not truth.’ Hmm! So, if ‘exactitude’ – or objective, realistic representation – was not ‘truth’ then what was? For Matisse and his fellow ‘wild beasts’ or ‘Les Fauves’ – they had adopted the venomous insult as a badge of honour – truth in art resided in the subjective and personal experiences, interpretations and expressions of the artists themselves.

Fauvism and its legacy

That is to say, Matisse and his small circle of followers were utterly uninterested in painting the world as we might routinely perceive it: what we would commonly call ‘reality.’ As a well-known – or notorious – exponent of the primal potency of brash colour and swiping brush strokes in art, Matisse embraced spontaneity, simplification and flat backgrounds in his paintings of this period. Fauvism, of which Matisse was a co-founder, was about painting in a way that is personally expressive, using vivid non-realistic colours to depict natural colour schemes.

He engaged in a form of guerrilla warfare with the conservative Parisian art establishment, choosing to paint Madame Matisse in an utterly conventional middle class pose, which he then totally subverted by his slashing application of a riot of ‘unreal’ colours. In painting as he did, Matisse was quite openly mocking the aesthetic ‘rules’ of the establishment – and in turn, the establishment seethed with resentment at this challenge to its artistic authority.

As an original and living art movement, Fauvism came and went within the opening decade of the twentieth century. But the beastly genie was out of the bottle and art would never be the same. Think of Andy Warhol’s colour-saturated Marilyn Monroe portraits from the 1960s and ask yourself if there just might be a visual echo from Femme au Chapeau as created six decades earlier. And while we’re touching on the 1960s, the lurid imagery of psychedelia may well owe a hefty tribute to Les Fauves. Does it stretch imagination too far to conceive the Beatles’ freakish Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds as the astonishing Femme au Chapeau of its own era? ‘Tangerine trees and marmalade skies’ indeed.

The works of the prolific Henri Matisse are spread among private and public collections around the world. Femme au Chapeau can be viewed at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art in California.

By Brad Allan, writer and wine tasting host in Melbourne, Australia and frequent visitor to France…

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