Vertigo of Color: Matisse, Derain, and the Origins of Fauvism
by Scott Newman

The Metropolitan Museum of Art

In one of Derain's letters to Maurice de Vlaminck from L'Estaque, the young painter remarked, "I don't see the future as corresponding to our trends." Derain's note prefaced his reckoning with a programmatic rupture then afflicting artistic modernism regarding the role of nature in the composition and creation of modern art. Yet the immediacy of Derain's truth was best summarized by Yves Alain-Bois in his estimation that Fauvism as a conscious movement dissipated within a season, following the fanfare of the 1905 Salon D'Automne. It is fitting then, as The Met's recent exhibition relays to us, that Fauvism arose within the transient and diaphanous haze of a Mediterranean summer. Indexing an artist's work according to geographical context is always an interesting exercise, as the visual facts of one's environment foster particular perceptive habits, such as when John Berger demonstrates various correspondences between the visual facts of the Jura and Courbet's realist program. Returning to Collioure, both Matisse and Derain deployed color and compose pictures in a luminous yet fragile way, hoping to uncover a new mode of universal expression—the realization of a visual language that encodes, but does not illustrate, the emotional architecture of human life. We receive the brilliance of their images as gestalt, as synthetic apparitions that recede from visual consciousness as we engage in the very act of beholding them.
Tasked with administering the dye works for the Gobelins textile factory in 1824, French chemist Michel Eugène Chevreul uncovered how the juxtaposition of colors could transform an observer's visual impression of both pigments, either intensifying or dulling their radiance. This effect, he stressed, was not due to an underlying change in the pigment's material structure but was rather the byproduct of certain operations inherent to the observer's perceptual apparatus. This body of observations was systematized as modern color theory and influenced the revolutionary upheavals of modern French art, including those of Matisse and Derain. Critically, Chevreul's theory overlays the subjective sensation of contrasting color with a metered cadence; tonal harmony or disharmony exists within the confines of perception. The nature of a picture is similar, though the duration of pictorial effect stems from more objective factors. The abbreviated existence of the picture—as an ensemble of motifs and their relations in concrete existence—concludes as these elements are altered over time. The shadows move, the clouds disappear. The pictorial frame as perceptual reality is a transient phenomenon. Though these facts and the thesis developed therefrom do not explain or encompass the entirety of the exhibition, I believe they form a productive framework for analysis.
Taken from his own writings, Matisse's principal concerns were stability and expression. Yet his most lucid depictions of weight and solidity rely on his discovery of a composition's "essential lines." Reclining Bather succeeds as an enduring icon of the graceful feminine silhouette through its rigorously simplified curvilinear nature. La Japonaise, Young Woman seated from behind, and Woman With An Umbrella depend on a similar compositional technique. As exercises in uncovering the constructive capability of color, these works are unsuccessful. A brushstroke of peach-colored watercolor paint traces the Bather's thigh; it fortifies but does not compete with the structural contention of Matisse's line. Though essential to the piece's visual gestalt, this stroke does not articulate any compositional claim. However, these paintings succeed in expressing the effect of a passing moment, the particularities of place and sentiment. The majority are painted in watercolor, enabling Matisse to modulate tone without completely retreating from his radical stance.
Though a less skilled painter, Derain also conveys particularity through his sober penetration of Collioure's environs. However, these paintings—The Port of Collioure, Fishing Boats, Collioure, and The Pier at L'Estaque, for example—revert to more traditional methods of engendering depth and space on the canvas. Color remains a prominent feature of their visual systems, but it is relegated to its decorative function. Foreshortening, geometry, and tonality perform much of the actual compositional work in these pieces. While they are less experimental in the areas of form or technique, each scene reveals a breathtaking dedication to specificity. Observe how orange, cream, and cyan brushstrokes coalesce in the sails of Fishing Boats to convey the complexity of an afternoon light. Woman With a Shawl showcases a related study in humanist dissonance. Derain relays the emotional intricacies of her withdrawn demeanor with immediacy and arresting detail but does so through a more conservative use of tonal range.
Compare Derain's work with other portraits in the exhibition, such as Matisse's portrait of Derain and Derain's portrait of Etienne Terrus. Reviewing the latter, Derain paints with a Divisionist technique that draws more attention to the painted surface than the subject himself. His technique advances the avant-garde enterprise of universal expression, which I contrast with the particular forms of expression outlined above, to the detriment of evocative portraiture. Color models depth and structure in Matisse's portrait of Derain, though this detracts from the face's emotive qualities. The landscapes of Matisse (e.g. the Landscape at Collioure series) and his studies for The Joy of Life develop this principle outside of portraiture. Here, color reveals a universal mode of natural composition without specific reference points. Through uniting the objects of nature with painted imagination, Matisse's landscapes suggest an almost placeless depiction of the world as it not yet is. This is not to suggest that they are lesser works, or that expressive particularity necessarily hinders formal innovation. His Nude in a Wood presents an intriguing marriage of the two painterly approaches—color as an expressive and a compositional factor.
Returning to the function of gestalt in visual impression, the juxtaposition of complementary colors as both an expressive and stabilizing strategy results in an enticing contradiction. Matisse hints at this precariousness in his seminal "Notes of a Painter," as he outlines his compositional method. In its sense of measure, each stroke or splotch of color belongs to the canvas and its unique dimensions; the former depends on the latter for its compositional meaning. As stated by Matisse, " modified according to the surface to be covered." Color as a constructive element is a delicate thing. The collection's most durable images, such as Matisse's Open Window, Collioure, retain some degree of draftsmanship in their lining and a bounded particularity. The most expansive and lyrical works, such as La Japonaise beside the Water, achieve universality through the precarious effect of gestalt. An ensemble of colors intimates space and figuration, the collective impression of which is only felt in fleeting moments of total perception. Far from being emblematic of failure, these contradictions compound the human vigor underlying all art as a mediation between the ideal and reality. Through the art of Matisse and Derain, we can recognize universality in stolen glimpses and particularity in permanence.