Arts Essays - Expressionist, Fauve & Cubist Art

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In 1914, the early modernism critic Clive Bell wrote, The representative element in a work of art may or may not be harmful, always it is irrelevant. Or, to appreciate a work of art we need bring with us nothing from life, no knowledge of its ideas and affairs, no familiarity with its elements.

Discuss the adequacy of this claim with reference to Expressionist, Fauve and Cubist art.

On inspection of Claude Monet's famous 1872 painting, 'Impression - Sunrise', one may observe its subject composition of light and atmosphere, the visual effects of mist, smoke and murky reflections in the dirty water of a harbour; it is the record of a fleeting moment, a glimpse of the sun as it rises through the rapidly dissolving mists of dawn which, only seconds later, would have risen further and changed the whole ambience of the scene. Monet, Degas, Pissarro and their artist contemporaries, somewhat sarcastically named after this renowned pioneer piece, exhibited eight times before the 1890s and yet by the turn of the twentieth century the Impressionists were being challenged by one of the fundamental elements of their artwork. The dawn harbours, lily ponds, ballerinas and subtle suburban landscapes that consumed the Impressionist canvas captured a reality with which there was a growing climate of fin de siecle unease.

The representative element in a work of art that Clive Bell describes in his 1914 seminal treatise, Art, was cluttered with the irrelevancies of literature, science and technology that detracted from the essence of art as a significant form composed of purely aesthetic, rather than realistic, forms. Discontent with the idea that art merely replicated life this new breed of modern artist approached the easel in order to express rather than describe, to create rather than imitate, and thus the Impressionists dissolved into a fleeting moment of art history.

Western art had become preoccupied with an art that embraced the realistic rendering of landscapes and figures, where artists worked in front of their subjects, in the open air rather than in a studio, taking full advantage of the technical advances being made in the manufacture of artists' pigments to capture a true impression of the effects of light and colour.

In the early 1900s on the outskirts of Paris Henri Matisse also preferred to go out into the streets and make painted 'impressions' of the streets, the bridges, the river, in fact the same subjects that the Impressionists had chosen in the1860s and 1870s. The paintings Matisse made of Notre Dame, however, had little to do with the atmospheric effects sought by Monet and Pissarro. Rather, he exploited a new interpretation of reality where broad areas of paint and the reorganisation of space were key to an important artistic movement that the Fauves were shortly to pioneer:

I did not want to follow a conventional way of painting; I wanted to revolutionise habits and contemporary life - to liberate nature, to free it from the authority of old theories and classicism I was filled neither with jealousy or hate, but I felt a tremendous urge to recreate a new world seen through my own eyes, a world which was entirely mine.

Henri Matisse, André Derain and Maurice Vlaminck evolved this new world through a style of painting that earned them the name Les Fauves (wild beasts), and, in the brief period between 1904 and 1907 their freedom of expression through the use of pure colours, linear design and exaggerated perspective secured a step away from the representative element upheld by the Impressionists before them. Matisse's 1904 painting 'Luxe, Calme et Volupté' can almost be viewed as a Fauvist manifesto, a revelation to his circle of contemporaries who admired his subjective use of colour, the way the nude figures had been simplified to the point of decoration and the placing of tree, boat and shoreline to unify the picture surface into a single plane.

Through his art Matisse questioned an entire heritage of landscape tradition and lead others to question it too; in front of this picture I understood all the new principles; Impressionism lost its charm for me as I contemplated this miracle of imagination produced by drawing and colour.

Later work of the Fauves demonstrates freedom from the realistic representation that Bell upheld as irrelevant, but remained concerned with using colour for its own sake. Derain sought a way out of the impasse of his fellow Fauves, experimenting with constructs of a more solid and tangible reality within the existence of the painting, and it was Apollinaire who remarked that the Cubist aesthetic was first elaborated in the mind of André Derain.

To bring nothing from life, no knowledge of its ideas and affairs and no familiarity with its elements spilled from a filmy notion in Fauvist art into a manifest aim with artists with Cubist sympathies. In a blatant repudiation of a tradition that dated back to at least the fourteenth century, a tradition that equated good painting with replicating observed light and form, artists such as Georges Braque and Pablo Picasso were using their canvases to create a visual experience of the world.

Art transports us from the world of man's activity to a world of aesthetic exaltation. For a moment we are shut off from human interests; our anticipations and memories are arrested; we are lifted above the stream of life. The pure mathematician rapt in his studies knows a state of mind which I take to be similar, if not identical.

Consider Picasso's 1909 painting 'Houses on the Hill, Horta d'Ebro' and one can clearly see how this example of avant-garde art can transport its spectator to a world of aesthetic exaltation. Every visible surface is broken down into relatively discrete, relatively flat surfaces to form a series of facets, a variety of quasi-geometric shapes, while multiple viewpoints render the houses from a number of simultaneous standpoints.

Consider also Braque's 1909 'Castle at la Roche-Guyon' where the central block of buildings in the landscape hovers and spills across both the foreground and background of the piece making them into accessible, tactile entities with which the spectator can engage. Braque and Picasso transformed painted landscape into a designed Cubist space, manipulated forms through artistic expression and imagination that bore little resemblance to the surface (shallow) reality of existence. Cubist picture space has little regard for perspectival space, in which solid objects only ever recede from the spectator, and where space itself is always empty or hollow.

In his musings on the Avant-garde Clement Greenberg notes that if art and literature are imitation, then what we have here is the imitation of imitating. Art as an expression, or imitation of imitating, as opposed to a mere representation of life, is a notion that has arguably been exploited numerous times during the history of art, during periods of crisis and upheaval, but expressionist art became a preoccupation of its own during the early part of the Twentieth Century.

The Expressionist art of Wassily Kandinsky presents simplified landscapes and experiments in abstract art, where glowing colours and fervent brushstrokes convey the work's meaning directly to the spectator. In his 1911 'Improvisation No. 23' Kandinsky seems to revel in the linear movement of the lines, shapes and spaces and literally improvises a design that is almost musical in its hypnotic constructs of quasi-staves, dots and mock-clefs. In an art-consciousness way beyond the familiar surfaces of life and the artists who sought to recreate them, Kandinsky painted in order to connect the visual matter of art to the inner life of man.

A similar Expressionist phenomenon was evolving in the work of Franz Marc who also moved away from object-orientated art to an art of lyrical expression, haunted by animals which represented the lost innocence of man. For these artists unnaturalistic colours, deigned spaces, the rhythms of nature, symbolic and contemplative images constituted the pursuit for expression:

Picasso, Braque, Mondrian, Miró, Kandinsky, Brancusi, even Klee, Matisse and Cézanne derive their chief inspiration from the medium they work in. The excitement of their art seems to lie in its pure preoccupation with the invention and arrangement of spaces, surfaces, shapes and colours, etc., to the exclusion of whatever is not necessarily implicated in these factors.

Clive Bell's maxim, that art requires nothing from life, no knowledge of its ideas and affairs, no familiarity with its elements is clearly demonstrated in the art movements that evolved out of the representative art at the turn of the Twentieth Century. Reactionary against the Impressionistic rendering of objects the Fauves, Cubists and Expressionists exploited a notion that art should abandon the representative element that had held art in a headlock for centuries in favour of expression and heightened attention to the media or materials with which they created their art.

While novelists explored the problem of novel writing in works such as Ulysses and The Counterfeiters, composers drew attention to the very constructs of their music and visual artists made the evocative function of colour and form their recurrent 'subject matter.' Bell identifies perhaps one of the most important premises in Avant-Garde art and arguably the subsequent progress of art through the Twentieth Century owes a great debt to the critic who mused:

What I have to say is this: the rapt philosopher, and he who contemplates a work of art, inhabit a world with an intense and peculiar significance of its own; that significance is unrelated to the significance of life. In this world the emotions of life find no place. It is a world with emotions of its own.


Bell, Clive: Art, Oxford University Press,Great Britain, 1987

Gaiger, Jason and Wood, Paul (ed.): Art of theTwentieth Century: A Reader, Open University, Great Britain, 2003

Greenberg, Clement: The Collected Essays andCriticism: Perceptions and Judgments 1939 - 1944, The University of ChicagoPress, USA, 1988

Stangos, Nikos (ed.): Concepts of Modern Art:Fauvism to Postmodernism, Thames and Hudson, Singapore, 1997

Wood, Paul and Edwards, Steven (ed): Art of theAvant-Gardes, Open University, USA, 2004