Monday, 30 July 2012

Elephant No. 302: Fauvism

I had a passing acquaintance with Fauvism from an art history course years ago, but it's something I've never tried, so I thought I'd give it a go for today's elephant.

Fauvism is the style associated with a loose group of artists known as les fauves (French for "the wild beasts"). Characterized by bright colours in unusual juxtapositions, Fauvism was influenced by the work of artists such as Van Gogh, Gauguin and Seurat, all of whom used blocks and dots of pure colour.

Although the Fauvism style began around 1900, and has endured in various ways to the present day, the movement itself lasted only from 1904 to 1908, and had only three exhibitions. Led by Henri Matisse and André Derain, the movement also included artists such as Maurice de Vlaminck, Raoul Dufy, Georges Rouault and Kees van Dongen.

Charing Cross Bridge, 1906.
AndrĂ© Derain (1880–1954)
Collection of the National Gallery of Art

The main characteristics of paintings produced by the Fauves were bold brush strokes, garish colour, and simplified forms and subject matter. Much of Fauve art employs some of the principles of colour theory—in particular, the juxtaposition of complementary colours. This juxtaposition sets up a visual vibration along the border where, for example, purple and yellow, red and green or blue and orange meet, making the work vaguely enervating.

Matisse was the first to develop the principles of Fauvism in his work. As an art student in 1896, Matisse went to study at the home of artist John Peter Russell in Brittany. Russell was an Impressionist painter who had been a friend of Vincent Van Gogh, and Matisse had never seen an Impressionist painting firsthand before.

Apparently Matisse was so shocked by Impressionism and its requirements that he left after ten days, commenting, "I couldn't stand it anymore." Despite this, he returned the following year. This time he stayed, studying with Russell and ultimately abandoning his previous palette of earth tones for the bright colours of Impressionism.

A few years later, another Fauve painter, Maurice de Vlaminck, encountered Van Gogh's work at an exhibition. He was so moved that he famously declared that he loved Van Gogh more than his own father. Vlaminck's style changed almost immediately, to the extent that he often squeezed strokes of paint directly onto the canvas, essentially using the tube as a brush.

Picking up Deadwood, 1906–1907.
Maurice de Vlaminck (1876–1958)
Collection of the Courtauld Gallery, London, U.K.

The first exhibition of Fauve art was presented in 1905 at the Salon d'Automne in Paris. It was at this exhibition that the movement got its name. Nestled amongst more staid works of art, this new style of painting created a sensation—and not in a good way. Critic Louis Vauxcelles described their work as "Donatello au milieu des fauves!" ("Donatello amongst the wild beasts!"). This was because their work shared a room with a famous Renaissance sculpture by Donatello. Vauxcelles' comment may also have been influenced by the fact that a jungle painting by Henri Rousseau, The Hungry Lion Throws Itself on the Antelope, was located nearby.

 Woman with a Hat, 1905.
Henri Matisse (1869–1954)
Collection of the San Francisco Museum of Art

Another critic commented, "A pot of paint has been flung in the face of the public," and, in general, condemnation was more the rule than the exception. The painting that came in for the most criticism was Matisse's Woman with a Hat. Matisse went into something of a depression following the scathing reception of his work, and it wasn't until Woman with a Hat was purchased by collectors Gertrude and Leo Stein that his spirits improved.

Today, many artists create work using the principles of Fauvism, and some create in a distinctly Fauvist style. These works are usually characterized by garish and unrealistic colour and simplified forms.

Self Portrait by Nashaath.

For today's elephant, I decided to work on canvas for the first time in a while. I was going to use oils, but I didn't really feel like dealing with the clean-up part of oil painting, so I decided to use acrylics.

Because Fauvism is so unrealistic in the final result, I decided to start from a photograph. This is the photograph I chose:

African elephant.

I planned to use mostly the elephant's head for my painting, and I thought I might add a hat in a sort of homage to Matisse's much-maligned painting. The photograph below shows my initial pencil sketch on the canvas.

I started by mixing some garish colours of paint. These were mostly full-strength acrylic colours, jazzed up a bit to make them pop a little more.

Obviously a brownish elephant wouldn't be a very good Fauvist painting, so I started with purple and acid yellow.

I added red and green next, as two more complementary colours.

And then blue and orange, as the final pair of complementary colours.

I found this incredibly gaudy and unappealing, but I figured it might look better when I'd filled it in some more. I continued using the same basic six colours, sometimes blending them a bit with one another to create new shades. I decided to stick to the same six colours, even while blending, assuming that this might give the final piece more visual cohesion.

Still a bit too gaudy for me, but I was beginning to suspect that this was more or less what I was going to end up with. I added more touches of colour wherever I thought they might look nice, until I had filled it in about as much as I was going to.

I liked this well enough, but I thought it needed a bit of definition, so I mixed some purple with a touch of black to add a few fine outlines here and there. I also added a few more touches of colour throughout. The next few photographs show some of the details, to give you an idea of how the colours are juxtaposed and overlaid.

This was one of the easiest paintings I've ever produced. Because the colours are completely unrealistic, I could slap on paint anywhere I liked. I did try to lay complementary colours next to one another, and I did pay a bit of attention to tonal values, but mostly I just put colours wherever I wanted.

This is also the craziest painting I've ever produced. I see why early critics thought Fauvism looked like paint had been thrown at the canvas, and I had a hard time leaving well enough alone towards the end.

I liked it enough to try it again, but it does take some getting used to if it's not your usual style. And, despite his bowler hat, this elephant definitely seems rather wild to me.

Elephant Lore of the Day
Some of the most colourful sights in Asia are festivals involving elephants. Painted, dressed up, and carrying everything from huge umbrellas to full-sized howdahs, festival elephants are certainly impressive to behold.

Elephant dressed up for Jaipur Elephant Festival, 2009.
Photo: Brij Khazanchi

Although it can take up to a year to create the elaborate headdresses, umbrellas and other accoutrements an elephant bears, it usually takes only a day or so to decorate and dress the elephant itself.

For most elephants, preparations start with a good scrubbing. This is probably the elephant's favourite part of the exercise.

Once the elephant is clean and dry, painting can start. All painting is done with non-toxic water-based paints. In most parts of Asia, thick tempera is used, although acrylic paint is often used for harder-wearing areas such as toenails.

While the elephant is being painted, it is also being dressed. This may be as simply as a headdress and blanket, or as elaborate as blanket, headdress, bells on legs and neck, howdah, and sometimes even fairy lights. If the elephant is particularly tall, scaffolding is sometimes set up around the elephant to help make painting and dressing easier. Most elephants are used to the process, and are also kept happy with snacks of sugarcane, bananas and other fruit throughout.

Elephant with scaffolding, Surin, Thailand, 2011.
Photo: Dan Koehl

The video below shows a Canadian artist painting an elephant in preparation for a wedding. At one point, you'll see the elephant curl its trunk to smell the paint on its trunk—probably wondering what it is, and whether it might be tasty.

To Support Elephant Welfare
Elephant sanctuaries (this Wikipedia list allows you to click through to information
on a number of sanctuaries around the world)
Wildlife Trust of India