- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 30, 2004

The “fauves,” or “wild beasts,” a group of French artists so characterized by Parisian critic Louis Fauxcelles in 1905, have descended on the National Gallery of Art.

Often confused with painters from other art movements within postimpressionism, the fauves, including such stars as Henri Matisse, Andre Derain, Georges Braque, Raoul Dufy, Maurice de Vlaminck, Kees van Dongen and Albert Marquet, are currently on display in the gallery’s small, but fine, “Fauve Painting from the Permanent Collection.”

It’s about time a D.C. museum devotes a solo show to the group.

Since 2005 marks the centenary of Fauxcelles’ unflattering designation, the museum decided to exhibit its 10 best fauve works in a one-gallery show. The slashing brush strokes and brilliant, often dissonant, colors of the group exhibit the expressionism that gave rise to their name.

Seeking ways to use color both as an emotional force and path to the artistic freedom he desired, Matisse applied brilliantly hued marks to raw white canvas. With paintings such as the exhibit’s “Open Window, Collioure” — the first work visitors are drawn to — he was beginning to achieve shimmering effects of light and color as a tool for creating unusual perspectives.

Because of Matisse’s innovative style and technique, the artists mentioned above used his pioneering experiments as a jumping off point for their own artistic journeys. Fortunately, exhibit curator Jeffrey Weiss includes paintings by all of them in this show.

Like their postimpressionist predecessors Paul Cezanne, Vincent van Gogh and Paul Gauguin, most fauvists worked in the south of France. Not surprisingly, the fauve group found the scenery and climate perfect for creating their sun- and color-dappled landscapes.

Matisse chose to depict seascapes, among them the exhibit’s “Open Window, Collioure,” while Derain — Matisse’s companion during his summer, 1905 stay in the same town — painted mountainscapes such as the show’s tumultuous “Mountains at Collioure.”

When Derain painted “Mountains,” he adopted the intensity of Matisse’s color for his explosive expression. His short, broken brush strokes delineate reddish-rust trees in front. To show the path that runs through the trees in “Mountains,” Derain uses small lavender marks. The artist also leaves bits of white canvas between the strokes to give it dynamic life.

The painting is the signature fauvist work of the exhibit in its informal sketchiness and closest to the approach Matisse used that summer in Collioure.

Dufy and Braque were also working in southern France at the time. Dufy depicted colorful, superficial landscapes such as the show’s “July 14 in Le Havre.” Braque’s glowing “Port of La Ciotat,” a busy port near Marseilles, is a denser, complexly structured work that forecasts his later cubist style.

Here, however, the vividly hued boats curving around a dock that contrast with low-lying pink buildings behind, are an ecstatic fauve vision.

By contrast, Vlaminck and Van Dongen worked in and near Paris, but it is fully apparent that France’s northerly gray skies did nothing to discourage these artists’ delight in color. Vlaminck’s bright red, blue and white tugboats chug up and down the Seine, while Van Dongen’s brilliantly hued portrait of the orange-faced “Saida” carries through Matisse’s coloristic vision.

Visitors circling back through the gallery to Matisse’s “Open Window, Collioure,” the smallest work in the show, see predictions of the artist’s later-acclaimed style. Mr. Weiss describes the painting as “a series of frames” defined by subtle color orchestrations. He says the complementary pink-reds and blue-greens, placed at opposites of the painting’s edges and glassed French windows, create its sensuous geometric structuring.

However, it’s difficult to agree with Mr. Weiss when he says “Window” is “the greatest fauve painting” and the “icon” of the movement.” The curator’s statement raises questions about the work in view of the transitory and contradictory nature of the fauves that led up to a change in style after 1908 — when most of the artists, especially Braque, went on to other painting expressions.

“Window” is, after all, a small painting and more a study for a larger one than a completed work standing on its own. Studies with similar themes that turned into later masterpieces were seen in the National Gallery’s “Matisse in Nice” exhibit of 1986 through 1987.

For visitors with shorter memories, the gallery has mounted 10 glorious later works by Matisse in an adjacent room to show what grew from his fauvist period.

WHAT: “Fauve Painting from the Permanent Collection”

WHERE: National Gallery of Art, Fourth Street at Constitution Avenue NW.

WHEN: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Mondays through Saturdays, 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Sundays through May 30.

TICKETS: Free

PHONE: 202/737-4215 and www.nga.gov.

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