While Fauvism (rooted in France) and German Expressionism both originated from an artist’s need for self-expression, each artistic movement makes important use of a single tool — color. Both Fauvism and German Expressionism used that tool in new and exciting ways, sometimes intersecting, but more often diverging. These two art movements are like “two paths in a wood,” and they end in very different places.
The Fauves (Wild Beasts)
The beginnings of Modernism are often dated by the appearance of the Fauves at the Parisian Salon d’Automne in 1905. At this exhibition, art critic Louis Vauxcelles saw the bold paintings surrounding a conventional sculpture, and declared it was like seeing a Donatello “parmi les fauves” (among the wild beasts). Although Fauvism was a short-lived art movement, which offered painters the freedom and expressive use of color to showcase their work, it also unleashed a new way of seeing art. Their style of painting, which incorporated non-natural coloring was one of the first avant-garde developments in European art.
The Fauves greatly admired Van Gogh, who said of his own work, “Instead of trying to re-order what I see before me, I use color in a completely arbitrary way, to express myself powerfully.” The Fauves followed this thinking, using color to showcase their feelings in a rough, carefree way.
Many of the Fauves were also inspired by African art, and some artists had amassed significant collections of masks and statues. This fashion for tribal art began with Gauguin, and continued with the Fauves. Henri Matisse, the leader of the Fauve movement, used color in much the same manner as Gauguin and Van Gogh, letting it express the emotional landscape of his paintings, as did other Fauves, like Roualt, Dufy, Vlaminck, Derain, and Braques. Under their brushes, the expressive use of color gave splendid proof of art’s vitality, with a brashness never before seen in the art world.
With Matisse and his friends Vlaminck and Derain, color lost its descriptive quality and instead became a source of light, rather than mimicking it. Just a few stunning examples of this unusual use of color can be seen in “The River” (1910) by Vlaminck, in Derain’s “Charing Cross Bridge” (1906), and in Matisse’s portrait of his wife, “Madame Matisse with a Green Stripe” (1905), where the green stripe’s location is down the center of her face.
While Matisse was known as the “king of the Fauves,” his celebration of vibrant colors peaked in 1917 when he began to spend time in southern France, along the French Riviera in Nice and Vence, by which time the Fauves had mostly dispersed. Matisse, in fact, was an incredibly controlled artist. There was little wildness in him. His spirit and his mind always had the upper hand over the “beast” of Fauvism. The Fauves were also never a coherent group, with each painter taking his own path, many moving quickly away from Fauvism toward Cubism.
The German Expressionist movement began at nearly the same period as Fauvism (in 1905), with artists such as Kirchner and Nolde, who leaned toward a Fauvist use of bright color. As “expressionists,” these German painters were interested in heightening the emotional landscape of art by placing emphasis on subjective feelings above the portrayal of an objective reality. Like Fauves, their paintings more acutely reflected a state of mind than the reality of the external world, again using color in a strong role. With the Expressionists, however, the importance of color was supplemented by strong linear effects and harsh outlining not seen in Fauvist work.
While in Northern Europe, the Fauves celebrated color, pushing it to new emotional and psychological heights, Expressionism developed along a darker, more somber path, reflecting the societal influences of the day. Characterized by heightened symbolic colors and exaggerated images, German Expressionism tended to dwell on the heavier, more sinister aspects of the human psyche and plumbed its depths.
Although Expressionism exudes a decidedly German character, the work of French painter Roualt links the Fauves to Expressionism better than any other painter in the genre. Using the decorative style of Fauvism in France with the symbolic color use of Expressionism, Roualt’s palette and profound subject matter land him clearly as an early proponent of Expressionism. His work was frequently described as “Fauvism with dark glasses,” and this perhaps better than any other comparison highlights the differences between the Fauvist and Expressionist styles of painting.
Even in their wildest moments, the Fauves retained a sense of harmony and design, whereas the German Expressionists abandoned such restraint and joy. The Expressionists instead used images of the modern city to convey a hostile, alienating world, with dark colors and distorted figures. There is a powerful sense of violence, contained just beneath the surface in Expressionistic paintings such as Roualt’s “Prostitute at Her Mirror” (1906) and Kirchner’s “Berlin Street Scene” (1913).
Perhaps the greatest of the German Expressionists, Max Beckmann shows in his own work the angst-filled qualities of this painting style. Beckmann’s art reflects the stress of his own life through its sheer intensity, with cruel images held in place by solid colors and flat, heavy shapes. By the time of Beckmann, it is clear that Fauvism and German Expressionism had diverged so broadly that the differences became more overriding than the similarities.
Each art style added something unique to art’s development, moving along two divergent paths that begin from the same emotional tool: a use of color to convey an artist’s feelings. In each, color is not a tool to describe reality but rather to express emotional depth, be it joy (Fauvism) or sorrow (German Expressionism).