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Celebrating a century of untamed art

Of all the labels attached to art movements, "Fauvism" is probably one of the least apt.

The French word "fauve" means "savage or wild beast." There is really nothing of this in the brilliantly colorful and jubilant paintings of the group of artists so identified in Paris in 1905 when their works were first exhibited publicly. It was Louis Vauxcelles, the art critic, who coined the word in his newspaper review of the Salon d'Automne in Paris. But he was, rather ambiguously, referring to the public who scorned the works by Matisse, Derain, and others of their ilk, as well as to the works themselves.

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In fact, he praised Matisse as "robustly gifted" while also criticizing what he saw as a diminishing respect for form in Matisse's paintings. It is true that light and color was the startlingly dominant aspect of Fauve paintings (the label stuck), and it is vivid, contrasting strokes of color that constitute their structure or form.

This, at the time, was an unconventional and liberated approach to form in a painting, even though it had precedents in Impressionism, Post-Impressionism, and Pointillism (to indulge three more labels).

One artist not included in that 1905 showing, was Georges Braque. But he was bowled over by it and soon started to paint not only in the spirit of the Fauves, but also in their neck of the woods. Southern France, with its intensely dazzling sunlight, was the home of Fauvism. La Ciotat is a southern town. The lights and shadows of this resonant image of its port, painted on Braque's visit in the spring of 1907, convey a saturated luminosity through bold juxtapositions of pure - though not naturalistic - colors.

Braque's Fauve paintings were made in a period of less than two years. It was in the autumn of 1907 that, under the influence of a major posthumous show of Cézanne's work, that he turned away from Fauvism and started to move toward the invention (with Picasso) of Cubism. Another label.

'The Port of La Ciotat' is one of 10 Fauve paintings in a current installation at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., celebrating the gallery's collection of Fauve works and also the 100th anniversary of the naming of the movement. The exhibition ends May 30.


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