Dreaming With His Eyes Open: A Life of Diego Rivera by Patrick Marnham (1998)

My father was a storyteller and he invented new episodes of his past every day.
(Diego Rivera’s daughter, Guadalupe)

This is a hugely enjoyable romp through the life of Mexico’s most famous artist, the massive, myth-making Marxist muralist Diego Rivera. In his own autobiography My Art, My Life, Rivera made up all sorts of tall stories and whopping fibs about his ancestors, childhood and young manhood. He then collaborated with his first biographer, friend and fan Bertram David Wolfe, to produce an ‘official’ biography (published in 1963) in which he continued to perpetrate all sorts of fantastical stories.

Instead of boringly trying to tell fact from fiction, Marnham enters into the spirit of Rivera’s imagination and, maybe, of Mexico more generally. The opening chapter is a wonderful description of Marnham’s own visit to Rivera’s home town during the famous Day of the Dead festival, in which he really brings out the garish, fantastical and improbable nature of Mexican culture – a far far better introduction to Rivera’s world than a simple recital of the biographical facts.

Mexico appears throughout the book in three aspects:

  • via its turbulent and violent politics
  • in its exotic landscape, brilliant sky, sharp cacti and brilliantly-coloured parrots
  • and its troubled racial heritage

As to the whoppers – where Rivera insisted that by age 11 he had devised a war machine so impressive that the Mexican Army wanted to make him a general, or that he spent the years 1910 and 1911 fighting with Zapata’s rebels, or that he began to study medicine, and after anatomy lessons he and fellow students used to cook and eat the body parts – Marnham gently points out that, aged 11, Rivera appears to have been a precocious but altogether dutiful schoolboy, while in 1910/11 he spent the winter organising a successful exhibition of his work and the spring in a small town south of Mexico City worrying about his career and longing for his Russian girlfriend back in Paris.

First half – Apprenticeships 1886-1921

The most interesting aspect of the first half of his career is the long time it took Rivera to find his voice. Born in 1886 to a minor official in the provincial city of Guanajuato, young Diego’s proficiency at drawing was noticed at school. The family moved to Mexico City and his parents got him into the prestigious San Carlos Academy of Fine Arts, when he was just 11 years old. In 1906 i.e. aged 19, he won a scholarship to study abroad and took a ship to Spain, settling in Madrid, where he met the city’s bohemian artists and studied the classics, Velasquez and El Greco, who he particularly revered.

But the real intellectual and artistic action in Spain was taking place in Barcelona (where young Picasso had only recently been studying), the only Spanish city in touch with the fast-moving art trends in northern Europe.

So it was only when Rivera went to Paris in 1909 that he was first exposed to Cézanne and the Impressionists and even then, they didn’t at first have much impact. After a trip to London where he saw Turner, his painting becomes more misty and dreamy, but it was only in 1913 that he began to ‘catch up’, for the first time grasping the importance of the Cubism, which had already been around for a few years. For the next four years Diego painted in nothing but the Cubist idiom, becoming a well-known face in the artistic quarter of Montparnasse, a friend of Picasso, and a fully paid-up member of the avant-garde – all mistresses, models and drinking late into the night.

Marnham’s account of these years is interesting for a number of reasons. It sheds light on how a gifted provincial could happily plough a traditional academic furrow right up until 1910, blithely ignorant of what we now take to be all the important trends of Modern Art. And it is a compellingly gossipy account of the artistic world of the time.

I liked the fact that, in this world of bohemian artists, whenever a ‘friend’ visited, all the artists turned their works to the wall before opening the door. The artistic community – which included not only Picasso, but Gris, Mondrian, Chagall, Derain, Vlaminck, Duchamp – was intensely competitive and also intensely plagiaristic. Picasso, in particular, was notorious for copying everything he saw, and doing it better.

Food was so cheap in the little cafés which sprang up to cater to the bohemians that the Fauvists Derain and Vlaminck invented a game which was to eat everything on the cafe menu – in one sitting! Whoever gave up, to full to carry on, had to pay the bill. On one occasion Vlaminck ate his way through every dish on a café menu, twice!

Rivera’s transition from traditional academic style to cubism can be seen in the ‘Paintings’ section of the Wikipedia gallery of his art. First half is all homely realism and landscapes, then Boom! a dozen or so hard-core cubist works.

Rivera returned to Mexico in October 1910 and stayed for 6 months, though he did not, as he later claimed, help the Mexican revolutionary bandit leader Zapata hold up trains. He simply wanted to see his family and friends again.

But upon arrival, he discovered that he was relatively famous. His study in Madrid and Paris had all been paid for by a state scholarship awarded by the government of the corrupt old dictator, Porfirio Diaz and, to justify it, Diego had had to send back regular samples of his work. These confirmed his talent and the Ministry of Culture had organised an exhibition devoted to Rivera’s work which opened on 20 November 1910, soon after his return, to quite a lot of fanfare, with positive press coverage.

As it happens, this was exactly the same day that the Liberal politician Francisco Madero crossed the Rio Grande from America into northern Mexico and called for an uprising to overthrow the Diaz government, thus beginning the ‘Mexican Revolution’.

In his autobiography Rivera would later claim that he was a rebel against the government and came back to Mexico to help Emiliano Zapata’s uprising. The truth was pretty much the opposite. His ongoing stay in Madrid and then Paris was sponsored by Diaz’s reactionary government. He never met or went anywhere near Zapata, instead supervising his art exhibition in Mexico City and spending time with his family, before going to a quiet city south of the capital to paint. He was, in Marnham’s cutting phrase, ‘a pampered favourite’ of the regime (p.77)

In the spring of 1911 Rivera returned to Paris with its cubism, its artistic squabbles, and where he had established himself with his Russian mistress. Not being a European, Rivera was able to sit out the First World War (rather like his fellow Hispanic, Picasso) while almost all their European friends were dragged into the mincing machine, many of them getting killed.

Of minor interest to most Europeans, the so-called Mexican Revolution staggered on, a combination of complicated political machinations at the centre, with a seemingly endless series of raids, skirmishes, battles and massacres in scattered areas round the country.

Earlier in the book, Marnham gives a very good description of Mexico in the last days of Diaz’ rule, ‘a system of social injustice and tyranny’. He gives a particularly harrowing summary of the out-and-out slavery practiced in the southern states, and the scale of the rural poverty, as exposed by the journalist John Kenneth Turner in his 1913 book Barbarous Mexico (pp. 36-40).

Now, as the Revolution turned into a bloody civil war between rival factions, in 1915 and 1916, Rivera began to develop an interest in it, even as his sophisticated European friends dismissed it. Marnham himself gives a jokey summary of the apparently endless sequence of coups and putsches:

Diaz was exiled by Modera who was murdered by Huerta who was exiled by Carranza who murdered Zapata before being himself murdered by Obregón. (p.122)

Obregón himself being murdered a few years later…

Rivera’s Russian communist friend, Ilya Ehrenburg, dismissed the whole thing as ‘the childish anarchism of Mexican shepherds’ – but to the Mexicans it mattered immensely and resonates to this day.

Rivera spent a long time in Europe, 1907 to 1921, 14 years, during which he progressed from being a talented traditionalist and established himself at the heart of the modern movement with his distinctive and powerful brand of cubism. Some of the cubist works showcased in the Wikipedia gallery are really brilliant.

But all good things come to an end. Partly because of personal fallings-out, partly because it was ceasing to sell so well, Rivera dropped cubism abruptly in 1918, reverting to a smudgy realist style derived from Cézanne.

Then he met the intellectual art critic and historian Elie Faure who insisted that the era of the individual artist was over, and that a new era of public art was beginning. Faure’s arguments seemed to be backed up by history. Both the First World War and the Russian Revolution had brought the whole meaning and purpose of art into question and the latter, especially, had given a huge boost to the notion of Art for the People.

It was with these radical new thoughts in mind that Diego finally got round to completing the Grand Tour of Europe which his grant from the Mexican government had been intended to fund. off he went to Italy, slowly crawling from one hilltop town to the next, painstakingly copying and studying the frescos of the Quattrocento masters. Here was art for the people, public art in chapels and churches, art which any peasant could relate to, clear, forceful depictions of the lives of Jesus and the apostles and the saints. Messages on walls.

Second half – Murals 1921-33

The Mexican Revolution was declared over in 1920, with the flight and murder of President Carranza and the inauguration of his successor President Obregón. A new Minister of Culture, José Vasconcelos, was convinced that Mexico needed to be rebuilt and modernised, starting with new schools, colleges and universities. These buildings needed to be decorated with inspiring and uplifting murals. As Mexico’s most famous living artist, Diego had been contacted by Vasconcelos in 1919, and his talk of murals came at just the same time that Elie Faure was talking to Diego about public art and just as Diego concluded his painstaking studies of Renaissance frescos in Italy.

In 1921 Rivera returned to Mexico and was straightaway given two of the most important mural commissions he was ever to receive, at the National Preparatory School (la Escuela Prepatorio), and then a huge series at the new Ministry of Education.

At the same time Diego evinced a new-found political consciousness. He not only joined the Mexican Communist Party but set up a Union of Technical Workers, Painters and Sculptors. From now on there are three main strands in his life:

  1. the murals
  2. the Communist Party
  3. his many women

Diego’s women

Rivera was a Mexican man. The patriarchal spirit of machismo was as natural as the air he breathed. Frank McLynn, in his book about the Mexican Revolution, gives lengthy descriptions of Pancho Villa and Emiliano Zapata’s complex love lives (basically, they both kept extraordinary strings of women, lovers, mistresses and multiple wives). Diego was a man in the same mould, albeit without the horses and guns. More or less every model that came near him seems to have been propositioned, with the result that he left a trail of mistresses, ‘wives’ and children in his turbulent wake.

EUROPE
1911 ‘married’ to Angelina Beloff, mother of a son, also named Diego (1916–1918)
1918 affair with Maria Vorobieff-Stebelska, aka ‘Marevna’, mother of a daughter named Marika in 1919, whom he never saw or supported

MEXICO
1922-26 Diego married Guadalupe Marin, who was to be the mother of his two daughters, Ruth and Guadalupe; she modelled for some of the nudes in his early murals
– affair with a Cuban woman
– possible affair with Guadalupe’s sister
– affair with Tina Modotti, who modelled for five nudes in the Chapingo murals including ‘Earth enslaved’, ‘Germination’, ‘Virgin earth’ 1926-7
1928 – seduced ‘a stream of young women’
1929 marries Frida Kahlo, who goes on to have a string of miscarriages and abortions
– three-year affair with Frida’s sister, Cristina, 1934-7
1940 divorces Frida – starts affair with Charlie Chaplin’s wife, Paulette Goddard
– affair with painter Irene Bohus
December 1940 remarries Frida in San Francisco
1954 marries Emma Hurtado
– affair with Dolores Olmedo

Diego’s murals

Making frescos is a tricky business, as Marnham explains in some detail – and Rivera’s early work was marred by technical and compositional shortcomings. But he had always worked hard and dedicatedly and now he set out to practice, study and learn.

Vasconcelos was convinced that post-revolutionary Mexico required ‘modernisation’, which meant big new infrastructure projects – railways with big stations, factories, schools, universities – and that all these needed to be filled with inspiring, uplifting, patriotic ‘art for the people’.

The National Preparatory School, and then a huge series at the new Ministry of Education, took several years to complete from 1922 to 1926 and beyond. He was convinced – as Marnham reductively puts it – that he could change the world by painting walls.

There was a hiatus while he went to Moscow 1927-8.

There is an unavoidable paradox, much commented on at the time and ever since, that some of Diego’s greatest socialist murals were painted in America, land of the capitalists.

In 1929 he received a commission to decorate the walls of a hacienda at Cuernevaca (in Mexico) from the U.S. Ambassador, Dwight Morrow. Following this, Diego went to San Francisco to paint murals at the San Francisco Stock Exchange (!) and the San Francisco School of Arts.

His argument in his own defence was always that he was bringing the Communist message to the capitalist masses – but there’s no doubt that these commissions also meant money money money. Fame and money.

In 1931 Diego helped organise a one-man retrospective at New York’s new Museum of Modern Art (founded in 1929) which was a great popular success. Marnham is amusingly sarcastic about this event, listing the names of the umpteen super-rich, American multi-millionaires who flocked to the show and wanted to be photographed with the ‘notorious Mexican Communist’. ‘Twas ever thus. Radical chic. Champagne socialism.

As a result of all this publicity, Diego was then invited by Edsel Ford, son of the famous Henry, to do some murals at the company’s massive car factory in Michigan. Diego put in a vast amount of time studying the plant and all its processes with the result that the two massive murals painted on opposite sides of a big, skylit hall are arguably among the greatest murals ever painted, anywhere. Stunningly dynamic and exciting and beautifully composed.

North wall of Diego Rivera's Detroit Murals (1933)

North wall of Diego Rivera’s Detroit Murals (1933)

Everything was going swimmingly until the next commission – to do a mural in the foyer of the enormous new Rockefeller Building in New York – went badly wrong.

Diego changed the design several times, to the annoyance of the strict and demanding architects, but when he painted the face of Lenin, not in the original sketches, into the mural the architects reacted promptly and ejected him from the building.

A great furore was stirred up by the press with pro and anti Rivera factions interviewed at length, but it marked the abrupt end of commissions (and money) in America. What was to have been his next commission, to paint murals for General Motors at the Chicago World Fair, was cancelled.

Diego was forced, very reluctantly, to go back to Mexico in 1934, back to ‘the landscape of nightmares’ as he called it. Marnham makes clear that he loved America, its size, inventiveness, openness, freedom and wealth – and was angry at having to go back to the land of peasants and murderous politicians.

Diego was ill for much of 1934, and started an affair with Frida Kahlo’s sister. Towards the end of the year he felt well enough to do a mural for the Palacio de Bellas Artes. In 1935 he resumed work on new rooms of the National Palace, a project he had abandoned when he set off for America. He made the decision to depict current Mexican politicians and portray the current mood of corruption. That was a bad idea. They caused so much offence to the powers that be that, once the murals were finished, the Mexican government didn’t give him another commission for six years and he was replaced as official government muralist by José Clemente Orosco.

He did a set of four panels for the Hotel Reforma in Mexico City, but the owner was offended by their blatant anti-Americanism (given that most of his guests were rich Americans) so he took them down and they were never again displayed in Diego’s lifetime.

Thus he found himself being more or less forced out of mural painting – and forced back into painting the kind of oil canvases which, paradoxically, were always far more profitable than his murals. They were relatively quick and easy to do (compared to the back-breaking effort of the murals) and so for the next five years Diego concentrated on politics.

Diego’s politics

Diego’s politics seem to be strangely intangible and were certainly changeable. He lived in a fantasy world, was a great storyteller, and Lenin and Marx seem to have entered his huge imaginarium as yet another set of characters alongside Montezuma, Cortes and Zapata.

Having joined the Mexican Communist Party in 1922 but left it in 1925. He went on an ill-fated trip to Moscow in 1927-8, arriving just as Stalin was beginning to exert his power and the campaign against Trotsky was getting into full swing. During his visit he made some tactless criticisms of the Party and so was asked by the Soviet authorities to leave.

Enter Trotsky

A decade later, stymied in his artistic career, Diego joined the International Communist League, a separate organisation from the Communist Party, which was affiliated to Trotsky’s Fourth International. He wanted to be a Communist, but not a Stalinist.

Trotsky had been exiled from the Soviet Union in 1929. For the next 8 years he wandered as an exile, with spells in Turkey, France and Norway. As this last refuge became increasingly difficult, Diego gave his support to a suggestion by Mexican intellectuals that Trotsky be given refuge in Mexico. They persuaded the reluctant Mexican government to give him safe haven at Diego’s home in Mexico City.

Trotsky lived with Diego and Frida for two years, Diego providing him with every help and resource, taking him on long tours of the country (at one point in the company of the godfather of Surrealism, André Breton, who also stayed at the Casa Azula).

Diego wasn’t a political thinker. In Russia in 1927 he had begun to realise the dictatorial turn which Soviet communism was taking, and the point was rammed home for even the most simple-minded by the simultaneous collapse of the Communist Left in the Spanish Civil War (where Stalin’s commissars, secret police and assassins spent more time torturing and killing the other left-wing forces than combating the common enemy, Franco) and then by the outrageous Moscow Show Trials of 1936-38.

Marnham’s account of all this is very interesting; he writes in a wonderfully clear, sensible, entertaining style, with a persistent dry humour.

Anyway, the idyll with Trotsky came to a grinding halt when Diego discovered that Frida had been having an affair with him. She was 30, Trotsky was 58. (One of the revelations of this book is the number of affairs Frida Kahlo had, with both men and women. She had affairs with at least 11 men between summer 1935 and autumn 1940.)

In fact Diego had put himself in some danger by hosting Trotsky. We now know that Stalin commissioned no fewer than three NKVD hit squads to track Trotsky down and kill him. After Diego kicked Trotsky out of the Blue House (the home he shared with Kahlo), the ailing Communist, along with wife and bodyguards, were fixed up in a house only a few hundred yards away.

It was here that Trotsky was subject to a horrifying attack by an armed gang led by – bizarrely – one of Mexico’s other leading mural painters – David Alfaro Siqueiros – who burst into the villa and fired 173 shots into the bedroom. Amazingly, the gunmen managed to miss Trotsky who took shelter under the bed with his wife. Siqueiros went on the run.

Having read 400 pages of Frank McLynn’s biography of the endlessly violent Mexican Revolution, I was not at all surprised: McLynn shows that this was the routine method for handling political disagreements in Mexico.

A second assassination attempt was made in August, when Ramón Mercader, also hired by the NKVD, inveigled his way past Trotsky’s security men and, as the great man leaned down to read a letter Mercader had handed him, attacked Trotsky with a small ice-pick he had smuggled into the house. Amazingly, this failed to kill Trotsky who fought back, and his guards burst in to find the two men rolling round on the floor. The guards nearly killed Mercader but Trotsky told them to spare him. Then the great man was taken off to hospital where he died a day later.

After Trotsky

Deeply wounded by Frida’s affair with the old Bolshevik, Trotsky’s murder led Diego a) to forgive her b) to flee to America, specifically  toSan Francisco where he’d received a commission to do a big mural on the theme of Pan America.

Also, a new president had taken office in Mexico with the result that the unofficial ban on Rivera was lifted. He returned to his home country and, in 1940, began a series of murals at the National Palace. There were eleven panels in all, running around the first floor gallery of the central courtyard. They took Rivera, off and on, nine years to complete and weren’t finished till 1951. They bring to the fore his lifelong engagement with a central issue of Mexican identity? Are Mexicans Aztec Indians? Or Spanish? Or half-breeds? Who are the Mexicans? What is the nation and its true heritage?

Diego and Frida

Surprisingly, Marnham deals with the last 15 or so years of Diego’s life (he died in 1957) very scantily. Rivera painted numerous more murals but Marnham barely mentions them.  Instead Marnham devotes his final pages to developing a theory about the psycho-sexual relationship between Frida and Diego, trying to tease sense out of their complicated mutual mythomania.

He starts from the fact that Frida’s illness limited her mobility and made her a world-class invalid. This she dramatised in a wide range of paintings depicting her various miscarriages, abortions, corsets, operations, prosthetic legs and other physical ailments.

But overlaid on almost all of Frida’s paintings was her unhappiness about Diego’s infidelity, especially with her own sister… In reality she seems to have had scads of affairs with lots of men and quite a few women but this doesn’t come over from her art, which presents her as a a pure victim.

And yet she was a powerful victim. Biographical accounts and some of the paintings strongly suggest that, although he boasted and bragged of his own countless affairs and ‘conquests’, in the privacy of their relationship, Diego could become the reverse of the macho Mexican male – he became Frida’s ‘baby’, the baby she was never able to have. Apparently, Frida often gave Diego baths, and maybe powdered and diapered him. Many women dismiss men as big babies: it can be a consolation for their (women’s) powerlessness. But it can also be true. Men can be big babies.

Then again Marnham quotes a startling occasion when Diego said he loved women so much that sometimes he thought he was a lesbian. And Frida apparently poked fun at his massive, woman-sized breasts.

Marnham shows how their early childhoods had much in common: both had close siblings who died young and haunted their imaginations; both fantasised about belonging to peasant Indian parents, not to their boring white European ones. And so both egged each other on to mythologise their very mixed feelings for their vexing country.

I was particularly struck to discover that, during their various separations, Frida completely abandoned her ornate ‘look’, the carefully constructed colourful dresses, and earrings and head-dresses which she largely copied from the native women of the Tehuana peninsula. According to Marnham, when the couple divorced in 1940, Frida promptly cut her hair, wore Western clothes and flew to New York to stay with friends, looking like a crop-haired, European lesbian.

The conclusion seems to be that her self-fashioning into a kind of mythological creature incorporating native dress and symbolism – and his murals, which obsess about the native inheritance of Mexico – were both ingredients in a psychological-sexual-artistic nexus/vortex/chamber of wonders which they jointly created.

Their mutual infidelities upset the other, but they also found that they just couldn’t live apart. Sex between them may have stopped but the intensity of the psychological and artistic world they had created together couldn’t be even faintly recreated with other partners.

It was obviously very complicated but in its complexity prompted the core of the artworks, in particular the endless reworking of her own image which have made Frida more and more famous, probably better known these days than her obese husband.

Looking for one narrative through all this – especially a white, western, feminist narrative – strikes me as striving for a spurious clarity, where the whole point was the hazy, messy, creativity of very non-academic, non-Western, non-judgmental, very Mexican myth-making.

Same with the politics. In her last years Frida became a zealous Stalinist. This despite the Moscow Show Trials, Stalin’s alliance with Hitler and everything Trotsky had told them from his unparalleled first-hand experience of the corrupt dictatorship Stalin was creating. None of that mattered.

Because Marx, Engels, Lenin and Stalin were part of her personal and artistic mythology. Just as Diego – more objective, more interested in the external world than Frida – experimented endlessly with the theme of the Spanish conquest, fascinated by his Aztec forbears, and endlessly tormented by the meaning of being Mexican. Is being Mexican to value the European heritage, or despise it? Should you side with the defeated Indians, or leap forwards to a future of factories and communist state ownership? Even when – as Diego knew only too well – most of the Indian peasants he claimed to be speaking for, and ‘liberating’ in his murals, in fact clung to village traditions and above all to their Roman Catholic faith, were, in other words, among the most reactionary elements in Mexican society.

Neither of them wrote clear, logical works of politics and philosophy. They both created fantasias into which their devotees and critics can read what they will. That, in my opinion, is how art works. It opens up spaces and possibilities for the imagination.

Two deaths

On 13 July 1954 Frida died, probably from an overdose of painkillers. A few months later, one of Diego’s repeated attempts to rejoin the Mexican Communist Party was successful.

He embarked on his last set of murals. In 1954 he married his art dealer, Emma Hurtado. Everyone says that after Frida’s death, he aged suddenly and dramatically. Before the year was out he was having an affair with Dolores Olmedo who had been friends with Frida, was her executrix, and was also the principal collector of Diego’s easel paintings.

So, as Marnham summarises the situation in his customarily intelligent, amused and dry style – Diego was married his deceased wife’s art dealer while simultaneously having an affair with her principal customer.

In September 1957 Diego had a stroke and in December of the same year died of heart failure. He left an autobiography, My Life, My Art, full of scandalous lies and tall tales, and a world of wonder in his intoxicating, myth-making, strange and inspiring murals.

Dream of a Sunday Afternoon in Alameda Park by Diego Rivera (1947)

Dream of a Sunday Afternoon in Alameda Park by Diego Rivera (1947)


Related links

Related reviews – Diego and Frida

Related reviews – Mexico

In Montmartre: Picasso, Matisse and Modernism in Paris 1900-1910 by Sue Roe (2014)

Roe’s previous book – The Private Lives of the Impressionists  (2006) – gives a chatty, anecdotal overview of the Impressionists’ lives and loves (and poverty, lots of poverty) blended with lashings of pop social history, ending with the eighth and final Impressionist exhibition of 1886.

This one skips 14 years (neatly avoiding the complex decade of the 1890s when Symbolism and Art Nouveau became the new thing). Instead Roe starts with the dawn of the new century in 1900, and launches her account with the enormous Exposition Universelle which was held in Paris from April to November, built and designed in the dominant Art Nouveau style to house a vast array of innovative machines, inventions and architecture.

The decadence and darkness of the fin-de-siecle didn’t disappear immediately, but there was a widespread sense of hope and optimism, that the new century was going to bring marvellous advances in science and medicine and society and, accompanying this optimism, there was in the arts a palpable thirst for something new, for the next big thing.

A group biography

The book is mostly about the artists, specifically Picasso and Matisse, their lovers and wives and children and mistresses, their struggles simply to survive, to find somewhere to live, and their relationships with the growing number of Parisian collectors and dealers.

The book details the slow-burning rivalry between Matisse and his young rival, explaining how and why it began and grew (for example when the two artists exchanged paintings, Picasso hung the work Matisse gave him on the wall and encouraged his mates to use it as a dartboard).

Around them cluster other important artists – Derain, Vlaminck, van Dongen, Braque – each given their own potted biographies, who then weave in and out of the plot – for example, she devotes some pages to le douanier Rousseau, the naive painter of jungle scenes, who Picasso organises an elaborate celebration dinner for.

Several characters I found it hard to care about. Roe has a particular fondness for the master couturier Paul Poiret. I have a blind spot for fashion so I didn’t really care that among his customers was Margot Asquith, the fashionable wife of the British Prime Minister, who apparently wore violet satin knickers, or that his design for skirts slashed open to the knee caused the sensitive to faint and the outraged to write letters to the press. After a while I skimmed through these chapters.

Similarly, Gertrude Stein was an important early collector and supporter of both Matisse and Picasso, and it’s certainly interesting to read about her own avant-garde experiments with a kind of radically decentred prose as a verbal equivalent to what the painters were doing with point-of-view.

But the intricacies of her relationship with fellow lesbian Alice B. Toklas, let alone other lovers and friends called Nancy and Alice, and how they all corresponded with Fernande, Picasso’s lover and muse, descended – for me – into pointless tittle-tattle, and I skipped these parts too.

Social history

Roe’s social history is patchy. The disastrous Dreyfus Affair which dragged on from 1894 to 1906 and bitterly divided France into pro- and anti-Dreyfus camps, is not mentioned and isn’t in the index.

On the other hand, she has a good couple of pages (162-163) about the political chaos of 1906, specifically the record number of strikes and the ubiquity of anarchist agitation. Characteristically, this is mentioned mainly in order to introduce us to a person, namely the thin, witty journalist and art critic Félix Fénéon, who had coined the term ‘neo-Impressionism’ to describe the Divisionist paintings of George Seurat and Paul Signac.

Similarly, the rise of cinema is an interesting thread running through the book, from the very first film made in 1896 to the fact that by 1902 ten-minute movies with elaborate special effects, dialogue captions and so on were being shown in newly created cinemas. Indeed, some French newspaper dubbed 1907 ‘the year of the cinema’ (p.192). But again, Roe’s interest is in relating it to the location of her title, to the fleapits and even open waste ground, where films were projected in run-down slummy Montmartre.

By introducing the notion of ‘cuts’, movies invented the method of showing the same scene from multiple points of view – wide shot, mid-shot, close-up, different angles. It’s not difficult to make links between these new ways of seeing and Cubism, which also presents multiple points of view of the same object.

More interesting to me was the detail that cinemas were so dirt cheap – entry often only a few centimes – that they quickly became the preferred venue of entertainment for the really poor, and that this change prompted the cabarets and vaudeville theatres to go up-market, charging more for entry, cleaning themselves up, becoming more ‘respectable’. That was an interesting insight into social history.

Late in the book we are given a brief history of manned flight (the Wright brothers made the first manned flight in 1903) because Picasso and Braque visited the new aerodrome at Issy les Moulineaux to watch the earliest French airplanes. Alongside Futurists hymning the car (‘a roaring car that seems to ride on grapeshot is more beautiful than The Victory of Samothrace‘, as the Futurist Manifesto put it), the rapid evolution of cinema and the introduction of the telephone, Cubism was part of the new technological excitement of the times.

And – it’s difficult to sum up in a paragraph – but the book is drenched in the mechanics and economics of selling pictures. As a professional artist, if you don’t sell, you don’t eat. Competition was fierce because it was competition to get money to pay rent, get studio space, to buy food.

The noughties saw the further rise and complexification of the networks of collectors and dealers who bought and sold modern art, and we learn almost as much of their biographies, backgrounds, motives for collecting, and economic ups and downs, as we do about the painters.

Ambroise Vollard in particular emerges as a predatory buyer, repeatedly swooping on the studios of Picasso, Derain or Vlaminck and buying everything in sight – not once but several times we are told that passers-by gawped in wonder as Vollard loaded a horse-drawn cab to overflowing with colourful canvases and then trotted it off to his gallery (for example, buying 30 paintings off Picasso for 2,000 francs, p.270).

Private collectors – like the Stein family, Michael, Sarah and Gertrude who arrived in Paris in 1902, and whose adventures we follow in some detail – pale in comparison with the professional activities of Vollard, Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler and the growing band of professional art dealers.

As a result of the growing interest of the dealers – and of wealthy collectors and patrons like the Russian Shchukin – we watch Picasso and his fellow painters in particular go from starving in garrets (specifically, the ramshackle building in Montmartre known as the Bateau-Lavoir) trying to flog paintings for 15 francs a pop to – in the last few chapters of the book, by 1909, 1910 – being paid two or three thousand francs per consignment, huge sums which allow Matisse to give up the burden of teaching and move out of Paris altogether, and Picasso to rent a swanky apartment on the Boulevard de Clichy.

Lots of addresses…

Above all In Montmartre is – as its title suggests – the biography of a place, the ramshackle alleyways and slums, vacant lots, little squares, scattered windmills and allotments which made up the prominent hill of Montmartre, to the north of central Paris. Still, in 1910, the haunt of the real working class, not to mention a floating population of performers who worked in cheap, tatty circuses and cabarets, it was so ramshackle that you could not only rent apartments and studio space dirt cheap, but on the northern, more derelict face (the so-called Maquis), you could simply find abandoned shacks and move in, rent-free, as Modigliani did when he first arrived in the city in 1906.

Maybe it’s because the publisher commissioned it as the biography of a place as much as of any specific artists, that Roe pays such fanatical attention to addresses. If you want to know which famous artist was living where, which road or boulevard was home to which dealer’s gallery where so-and-so’s studio was, the precise locations of the top cafés and cabarets – Roe is your woman.

Much more even than descriptions of the art, Roe’s text is absolutely stuffed with addresses, precise directions how to get there, and which floor the collectors had to clamber up to, to discover Picasso or Matisse or Derain daubing away.

  • In 1900 Picasso was living in Nonell’s studio in the rue Gabriel while Braque was living two streets away in the rue des Trois Frères.
  • Matisse’s studio in February 1901 was at 19 quai Saint Michel.
  • Marie Laurencin, painter, printmaker and later muse to Apollinaire, lived at 51 boulevard de la Chapelle, an extension of the boulevard Rochechouart.
  • In 1904 Picasso was staying at the Hôtel Poirier at the corner of the rue des Trois Frères and the rue Ravignan. The Place Ravignan (since renamed the place Émile Goudeau) was just below the place du Tertre.
  • In 1904 Braque moved into a rented studio at rue d’Orsel, near the offices of the anarchist paper, Le Libertaire, a couple of hundred yards from the place Ravignan.
  • By the time she met Picasso in August 1904, Fernande Olivier (destined to become his first muse) was living at the ramshackle building known as the Bateau-Lavoir ‘on the ground floor, in room number three, on the rue d’Orchamps side’ (p.88)
  • The cabaret artistique, the Lapin Agile, was ‘a dark little two-roomed cottage nestling between the trees at the corner of the rue Corot and the rue des Saules’.
  • Maurice Utrillo lived at 12 rue Cortot from 1906 to 1914, Raoul Dufy shared an atelier there from 1901 to 1911. It is now the Musée de Montmartre.
  • The circus Medrano was in a large building at the foot of the Butte (the hill or ‘mound’) at the corner of the boulevard Rochevcouart and the rue des Martyrs, once site of the Circus Fernando where, in 1879, Degas painted Miss Lala hanging by her teeth from a rope, a painting now in the London National Gallery.

And so on. No one goes anywhere or does anything without Roe nailing down precisely where it was, with the street, the number, the floor and – if you’re lucky – the precise room number given. The digital version of the book ought to have a deal with Google Maps so that each address links through to a map with, ideally, archive photos of what the place looked like then, next to photos of what it looks like now.

… but not so many illustrations

I annotated the book with a line by each address that was mentioned, and an asterisk by each painting that was mentioned. Flicking back through the book makes me realise that a) nearly as many addresses are referenced as paintings b) the book only contains eight full-colour illustrations of paintings.

Since the point of the book is (at least partly) about the evolution in style of Picasso, Matisse, Derain, Braque and so on, you want to see the works which are liberally mentioned throughout, and sometimes analysed in considerable detail (e.g. the four pages devoted to analysing Picasso’s breakthrough work, Les Demoiselles d’Avignon). But since hardly any of them are illustrated in the text, I ended up spending quite a lot of time on the computer googling the images mentioned in the text, but not included. In other words, it’s not a very visual guide to the period.

Instead it does what it says on the tin – provides an enjoyable romp through who lived where, bumped into who, organised such and such an exhibition, started painting this or that famous work, went holidaying and painting in Normandy or the South, arrived in Paris from abroad and stayed at the so and so hotel before moving into studios at such and such address, and was bought up by such and such a dealer who had just moved into new bigger premises on the Boulevard thingummy.

It’s in this respect that the book is as much the biography of a place as of the avant-garde artists or art of its time.

Timeline of the avant-garde 1900s

The book begins with a pen portrait of the 1900 Exposition Universelle and how the last few weeks of its run saw the arrival of a nineteen-year-old Spanish artist in town, come to seek his fortune and try his luck – Pablo Picasso.

1900

  • April to November the Exposition Universelle is held in buildings erected in the open ground around the Eiffel Tower
  • October – Pablo Picasso arrives in Paris aged 19.
  • Winter – Picasso heads back to Barcelona for Christmas with his family.

1901

  • Cézanne paints his portrait of art dealer Ambroise Vollard, which allegedly took 115 sittings and still wasn’t finished.
  • February – Picasso’s friend Casagemas commits suicide by shooting himself in front of the woman who was spurning him. This really affects Picasso who sinks into a prolonged depression and starts doing paintings of down and outs, sad people, outcasts, in a monochrome blue, the so-called ‘Blue period‘ which lasts into 1904.
  • March – 71 paintings by Vincent Van Gogh are shown at the Bernheim-Jeune gallery, his first solo exhibition anywhere. Here Matisse (aged 31) runs into André Derain (21) and his tall, burly friend, Maurice Vlaminck (25), all three of whom would become the core of the ‘Fauves’.

1902

  • The first narrative movie – A trip to the moon – is shown (the first ever film had only been shown in 1896).
  • September – Émile Zola, boyhood friend of Cézanne, dies, possibly murdered by his opponents in the long-running Dreyfus Affair.
  • October – Back in Barcelona, Picasso’s uncle pays for him to avoid Spanish military service.
  • Leo Stein arrives in Paris in 1902 and takes rooms at 27 rue de Fleurus, close to the Luxembourg Gardens where he is joined by his sister, Gertrude (b.1874) that autumn. In 1904 Michael Stein arrives with his wife and child and takes an apartment at rue Madame, just round the corner from rue de Fleurus. They immediately begin collecting contemporary art.

1903

  • February – Matisse is living at his parent’s home in Bohain, northern France.
  • May – Paul Gauguin dies in Tahiti.
  • October – The first Salon d’Automne shows 990 works.

1904

  • April – Picasso is back in Paris. He paints Boy leading a horse, epitome of his ‘Rose period’.
  • Matisse spends the summer staying with neo-Impressionist or Divisionist artist, Paul Signac, at St Tropez in the south of France, discovering the bright white light of the Mediterranean, and paints the pointillist Luxe, calme et volupte.
  • July – Romanian sculptor Constantin Brancusi arrives in Paris. Born in 1876, he is 38 years old.
  • October – the second Salon d’Automne features 2,044 works and has a Renoir room (35 works) and a Toulouse-Lautrec room (28 rooms).

1905

  • March – as part of the annual Salon des Indépendants, organised by Signac, Matisse helped put together a display of 45 works by van Gogh (who had committed suicide as long ago as 1890). Matisse later said this was a turning point in his career, van Gogh helping him turn away from Signac’s Divisionism towards a more expressive style.
  • In early summer Matisse’s wife discovers the picture-perfect fishing village of Collioure near Perpignan, and Matisse goes there to start painting fiery bright paintings of the landscape and people. He writes to all his friends in Paris to join him but only André Derain replies and arrives, tall, dressed in a white suit with a red beret, and they both spend the summer feverishly painting. By the start of September Derain had completed 30 canvases, 20 drawings and 15 sketches.
  • 5 September – Fernande Olivier moves in with Picasso thus starting their tempestuous relationship, during which he painted more than 60 portraits of her. He paints performers from the nearby Montmartre circuses, including Boy with a pipe (which, in 2004 was sold for $104 million to the head of an Italian food processing conglomerate).
  • October – the third Salon d’Automne includes a room devoted to the brightly coloured works of Henri Matisse, André Derain, Albert Marquet, Maurice de Vlaminck, Kees van Dongen, Charles Camoin, and Jean Puy. Their visual violence leads art critic Louis Vauxcelles to nickname them all wild beasts, or ‘fauves’. And so an art movement was born.
  • Michael Stein buys Matisse’s Madame Matisse in  a green hat for the full asking price of 500 francs, massively relieving Matisse’s financial straits.
  • November – dealer Ambroise Vollard buys Derain’s entire stock of paintings, 89 oils and 80- watercolours,for an unprecedented 3,300 francs (p.134). Then buys a 100 francs-worth of work from Vlaminck.
  • November – Vollard commissions Derain to travel to London to paint city landscapes, such as Charing Cross bridge, following in the footsteps of Monet (as explained by the current Impressionists in London exhibition at Tate Britain).
  • December – Kees van Donger, his wife and little girl move into the Bateau-Lavoir and become close friends of Picasso and Fernande. Picasso is painting a portrait of Gertrude Stein – she claims she had to do 99 sittings for it. Gertrude is working out her revolutionary new prose style. She notices that what she calls Picasso’s ‘harlequin’ phase is played out.

1906

  • January – Amedeo Modigliani arrives in Paris, aged 21. He moves into a derelict shack on the Montmartre hill and establishes a reputation as a dissolute womaniser gifted with phenomenal draughtsmanship.
  • 19 March – Matisse’s one-man show opens at the Galerie Druet, displaying 60 paintings hardly any of which sell.
  • Juan Gris arrives in Paris from Spain, at first supporting himself by doing satirical illustrations.
  • April – Vollard gives Picasso 2,000 francs in exchange for all his recent paintings, enough to fund Picasso to take Fernande on a holiday to Spain, specifically to the village of Gosol where he painted the locals and himself in a chunky new ‘primitive’ style. – Picasso self-portrait (1906)
  • October – Paul Cézanne dies.
  • October – the fourth Salon d’Automne opens with a vast display of the entire history of Russian art collected and arranged by Russian impresario, Serge Diaghilev (b.1872 and so 34), marking the start of Diaghilev’s artistic and musical adventures in Paris. The Salon also shows a big retrospective of Gauguin including drawings, ceramics, 227 paintings and his totemic carvings.

1907

  • April – Matisse leaves Paris to paint at Collioure.
  • Spring – Picasso visits the Ethnography Museum and is bewitched by the power of African fetishes. From now on all his work now shows angular human figures with harsh, stylised shapes and blank eyes, completely different from the naive figuratism of either the blue or rose period. – Dance of the Veils, 1907
  • August – Matisse starts writing Notes of a painter, published in 1908.
  • Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler opens his gallery at 28 rue Vignon. He will become one of the greatest supporters of Cubist art and will have his portrait painted by Picasso just three years later.
  • Autumn – Picasso cautiously unveils Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (originally just titled The brothel) to close friends and a fellow artists. Nobody likes it and he puts it away for 16 years.

1908

  • By the spring Picasso’s gang or bande had crystalised into Picasso, Derain, Vlaminck and Braque. Picasso (25) formed a particularly close working relationship with Braque (26), reading the same pulp paperbacks, going to the same clubs, to the cinema, thinking about the next step in their odyssey away from traditional painting.
  • August – Picasso spends a month painting in the country at La Rue des Bois, a tiny hamlet near Creil, north of Paris.
  • November – Braque holds a one-man show at Kahnweiler’s gallery. It was here that the same critic who coined the expression ‘fauve’ described the content of many of Braque’s landscapes with houses as containing ‘petits cubes’. Cubism was born – or at least, named.

1909

  • February – Matisse is in Cassis, studying seawaves as preparation for La Danse, a major commission for a mural from the Russian businessman and art collector Sergei Shchukin. This year Shchukin opens his collection of French avant-garde art (Monet, Gauguin, van Gogh, Derain, Matisse) to the public in St Petersburg.
  • February – the first Futurist manifesto was published in Italy.
  • May – the Ballets Russes give their first performance in Paris, at the Theatre du Chatelet and become wildly fashionable.
  • May to September Picasso is in Spain, visiting relatives in Barcelona, but mostly at the village of Horta where he had spent time when he was ill as a teenager, accompanied by his mistress Fernande, who was herself severely ill with a kidney infection.
  • September Vollard pays Picasso 2,000 francs for thirty paintings and Picasso can at last afford to leave the slums of Montmartre and move into a swanky apartment on the boulevard Clichy.
  • The Bernheim-Jeune brothers become Matisse’s sole dealers, guaranteeing to buy everything he paints, with a sliding scale depending on size. This is the first reliable income Matisse, now aged 40, has ever had.

1910

  • February-March Matisse holds a retrospective at the Bernheim-Jeune gallery, including sixty-five paintings and twenty-five drawings.
  • May – the Ballets Russes return with a new repertory of ballets, featuring the greatest dancer of the era, Nijinsky.
  • Juan Gris moves into the Bateau-Lavoir and begins to paint cubist paintings.
  • October – First cubist works show at the Salon d’Automne. Matisse displays La Danse and La Musique which are both greeted with howls of criticism.
  • November – Roger Fry organises an exhibition bringing together works by French artists from the previous thirty years under the title ‘Post-Impressionism’ at the Grafton Gallery in London.

Holidays or whores

In The Secret Lives of the Impressionists I noticed Roe’s fondness for describing women’s boobs and busts and lingering on the opportunities for a titillating glimpse of female flesh given by, for example, holiday trips to the seaside in the 1870s to watch bathing beauties.

In this book I really noticed her fondness for the word ‘whore’. I won’t bore you with a string of quotes, but she uses it a lot to describe the prostitutes who thronged around Montmartre (and who the artists alternately used and painted).

I find ‘whore’ a blunt, mannish word; in fact I tend to associate it with male writers who want to convey a show-off sense of their own man-of-the-world toughness. There is available to writers the much more neutral word ‘prostitute’ – and these days I thought we were all meant to use the non-judgmental phrase ‘sex workers’.

In Roe’s hands (pen, keyboard or discourse) the prolific use of the word ‘whore’ seems to me to epitomise the drastic change in atmosphere from the sunlit world of the Impressionists in the 1860s and 70s to the much more intense, night-time, bars-and-cabarets-and-circuses world of the noughties, the world of late Toulouse-Lautrec, to the beggars and street people of Picasso’s blue period, to van Dongen’s brutal depictions of naked women with splayed legs, to Matisse and Derain’s terrifyingly intense portraits.

It is a harsher world. Thus, for example, Roe writes – brutally, I think – that the five women depicted in Picasso’s epoch-making painting, Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, are ‘not only whores but whores with attitude’ (p.220).

It came as a complete revelation to me that Les demoiselles are in fact ‘whores’. All the commentary (not only in this book but in several online articles, once I came to read about it) takes it for granted that the painting depicts a brothel with a bunch of naked women standing around, and that their blunt sexuality is part of the point.

I’ve known this painting for forty years or more and never given it a thought that it is set in a brothel. I thought it was one more example of the thousands of paintings in the western tradition of a number of half-dressed women standing around, not least thousands of scenes from the classical world.

Certainly the women’s supposed ‘sexuality’ is the last thing I notice when I look at it. Coming from a world awash with images of naked women (and from Western art awash with nudes) my first response to this painting isn’t shock at their ‘blatant sexuality’ – I can see boobs and bums in thousands of other paintings.

It is dismay and difficulty at the aggressively unsensual depiction of the figures, of their angular bodies and especially, of course, the blacked-in primitive masks of the right-hand pair. I register it as a calculated assault on our visual conventions and norms which still, 110 years later, retains its capacity to shock and awe. Like a lot of Picasso, I don’t think I like it but I respond to its horrible power.

Roe’s book is a thoroughly researched, colourful and absorbing portrait of the world from which this weird and challenging art emerged.


Related links

Related book reviews

Related exhibition reviews

Fauvism by Sarah Whitfield (1991)

‘What characterised Fauvism was that we rejected imitative colours and that with pure colours we obtained stronger reactions.’ (Matisse, quoted on page 62)

Fauve

Fauvism was an art movement in the first decade of the twentieth century. ‘Fauve’ is French for wild animal, wild beast. When the Parisian art critic Louis Vauxcelles attended the 1905 Salon d’Automne he came across the room hung with strikingly colourful and crudely finished paintings by Derain, Matisse, Vlaminck, Manguin, Camoin and Marquet, in the middle of which were some more traditional works of sculpture. Struck by the contrast, he wrote:

The artlessness of these busts comes as a surprise in the midst of the orgy of pure colours; Donatello at home among the wild beasts [les fauves]. (quoted p.82)

The artists concerned adopted this insult with pride, called themselves ‘les fauves’, and for a few years claimed to be carrying forward a movement called ‘Fauvism’.

But, as Whitfield shows in this excellent introduction and overview, Fauvism was more a restless search for a new style than a movement. As early as 1907 the leading figures were developing in their own ways and by 1909 Fauvism was over – making it, as Whitfield comments, possibly the shortest-lived art movement of the 20th century.

Matisse and Derain

At its heart Fauvism amounted to the works and attitudes of its leader Henri Matisse (b.1869) and his close companion in the decisive summer of 1905, André Derain (b.1880).

That summer the pair had worked side by side in the south of France painting works characterised by:

  • extremely bright colours, sometimes taken straight from the tube onto the palette with no mixing or moderating
  • deliberate use of non-naturalistic colour – green for the sea, blue for grass, red for shadow and so on
  • very broad dabs of colour – taking the Impressionist use of stroke and dabs to an extreme with really big strokes of paint often sitting in isolation

The effect of this third aspect in particular was to make the colours – no longer part of a smooth continuum of painted surface – instead stand out as isolated units. This created a tremendous vibrancy and shimmer – precisely the visual attack which Vauxcelles had responded to.

The final element in the style was the radical simplification of the subject or motif so that, sometimes, it is quite hard to make out what is depicted. Even when it is ‘readable’, the old idea that a painting was a window on a world which had a clear unified perspective, a depth, a sense of recession into the distance, is deliberately overthrown.

Fauvist art is designed to draw the viewer’s attention to the blunt fact that a picture is the deployment of paint on a two dimensional surface. The Fauves set art free from its requirement to paint ‘pictures’, it liberated art to become the free play of colours, patterns, shapes and designs.

In the two works above it’s not only the bright colour, it’s the gaps between the strokes or dabs, the way each stroke is isolated in space so that it rings and vibrates all the more powerfully.

Other members

Matisse had attended Gustave Moreau’s art class at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, where he met Henri Manguin, Albert Marquet and Charles Camoin.

After Moreau’s death in 1898, Matisse began attending classes at the Académie Carrière where he met Jean Puy and the young André Derain.

Derain formed a close friendship with the Flemish painter Maurice Vlaminck, who he met in the summer of 1900.

The year after the 1905 exhibition, this loose group was joined by three painters from Le Havre – Emile-Othon Friesz, Raoul Dufy and Georges Braque.

Loosely associated with the Fauves were Georges Rouault, also a one-time student of Moreau, and Kees van Dongen from Holland.

Contemporary movements

Fauvism can be seen as an extreme extension of the post-impressionism of Van Gogh combined with the neo-impressionism of Seurat.

1. In 1904 Matisse went to stay with Paul Signac, heir to the neo-Impressionist innovations of Georges Seurat (who died in 1891) proponent of the theory of ‘dots’, of pointillism. Matisse produced a batch of works in this style before he realised that the isolated and detached bit of colour used to create a pointillist painting needn’t be dots – they could be isolated and detached strokes. – Luxe, Calme et Volupté is considered a pivotal moment in this history of art, as neo-impressionism gives birth to Fauvism.

Luxe, calme et volupté (1904) by Henri Matisse

Luxe, calme et volupté (1904) by Henri Matisse

2. Fauvism can also be seen as a form of expressionism in its use of brilliant colours and spontaneous brushwork. It is the French (and therefore stylish and joie de vivre) equivalent of the (tortured, angst-ridden) Expressionism which emerged in Germany a few years later, itself in its way another development of post-Impressionist discoveries, but given a characteristic Teutonic flavour.

Woman in a hat strikes me as being on the Expressionist end of the spectrum, eschewing the isolated strokes of the paintings done at Collioure or the thick impasto of the Open window in favour of the pure play of colour. Note the green and yellow nose or the sudden stroke of green across the forehead.

The contemporary critic Roger Marx described paintings like this as ‘lab experiments’ and you can see why. You can feel Matisse, Derain and Vlaminck – in particular – trying things out, suddenly liberated to use any colour in creating a portrait, setting about a wild profusion of experiments and tests.

It also explains why, although there is a common theme of super-bright primary colours in the 1905 paintings by Derain and Matisse, you can see why the movement was always pretty unstable. Even the core members were painting works which depart from the official ‘look’. It is more like a period of rapid experimentation focusing on experiments with brightly coloured isolated brush-strokes, creating form and shape with coloured rather than black outlines, thick impastos of paint then then – boom! – it was over.

After Fauvism

Some of the minor names mentioned above (Puy, Manguin, Camoin and Marquet) rejected the label Fauve even at the time, generally believing that more remained to be done in the avenues opened up by the Impressionists. Whitfield shows works which emphasise the way they stopped well this side of full ‘wild beastliness’.

Even for the most adventurous of the others, Fauvism was a very temporary phase, a stepping stone towards their more mature and individual styles.

In fact it is striking how many of them went on, by 1908 or so, to fall under the influence of Cézanne, with his much more muted palette and the artfully analytical approach he took to painting landscapes, people and objects.

Thus Braque, after a series of muscular landscapes shown and described by Whitfield, went on to develop cubism along with Pablo Picasso.

Derain rowed back from his garish experiments to adopt a more muted, grey and brown palette and a much more neo-classical, figurative approach as early as 1911.

Dufy was initially dazzled by the Fauvist outburst, but also moderated his palette by 1909, flirted with cubism and, after the war, developed an entirely new look based on clear draughtsmanship and light washes of colour depicting bright outdoors subjects, especially on the fun-loving Riviera of the 1920s.

Vlaminck was a grumpy outsider to the group, who pioneered the use of a thick impasto of vivid colours creating an expressionist swirl – the landscapes shown by Whitfield make me want to see more of  his work – but he, too, by 1909 had subdued his palette under the influence of Cézanne, and retreated to a more sombre figuratism.

Rouault’s style was always harsh and satirical, never really Fauvist, and he went on in later years to develop a highly stylised primitive style. – The Old King (1936) by Georges Rouault

Only Matisse continued his explorations of colour and design, always happy to remember and discuss his Fauvist roots, and evolving into one of the great master painters of the 20th century. In a late interview he summarised Fauvism as being

a revolt against the subtleties of Impressionism, it is a revolt against ‘mere charm’, against accidental aspects of illumination; a return to simplicity, directness, pure colours and decorative qualities. (quoted page 192)

I find that phrase ‘a revolt against charm’ very revealing, very indicative.

Later chapters

Later chapters of the book deal with landscape and the nude – I was particularly struck by Derain’s paintings of London, the Thames and the Houses of Parliament (three of these can be seen at the current Impressionists in London exhibition at Tate Britain). Vlaminck emerges as a painter of great forcefulness and crude power; and Dufy is laying claim to the seaside idylls which were to become his forte.

There’s a really interesting chapter on the evolution of the art market, with the rise of a new cohort of upper-middle class professional collectors, and of new, entrepreneurial gallery owners and dealers willing to cater to them. Ambroise Vollard is probably the most famous of these, and forged close working relationships with Matisse in particular. Vollard is a pivotal figure: in 1895 he bought up almost all of Cézanne’s output, some 150 canvases, to create his first exhibition in 1895. This was followed by three other influential exhibitions devoted to Manet, Gauguin and Vincent Van Gogh. Vollard mounted the first ever exhibitions devoted to Picasso (1901) and Matisse (1904). You can see Cézanne’s sombre, proto-cubist portrait of Vollard at the current Cézanne Portraits exhibition at the national Portrait Gallery.

By 1900 these one-artist shows had become established as a good way for critics to assess the scene, other artists to catch up with new developments, and collectors to invest in the hot new thing. It was exhibitions marking Cézanne’s death in 1906, displaying his later, more ‘analytical’ works for the first time, which account for the influence he suddenly cast over so many painters in 1908 and 1909.

The final chapter traces the way all the main players reacted against their Fauvist phase. By 1907 they were expressing doubts about flaring colour, by 1908 they were copying Cézanne’s more muted palette and analytical approach – the search for the geometric in the object rather than the play of bright colour – and in 1908 Georges Braque painted the first cubist works – Houses and trees. The Fauvist moment was over.

In Whitfield’s summary, Fauvism was a kind of midwife to twentieth century art, fulfilling the legacy of post-Impressionism, and completing the mission to move Western art all the way from an art of representation to an art of abstraction.

Whitfield’s prose style

Writing about art – really describing what you see, conveying what the eye sees and processes so quickly, into slow-moving and clumsy words – is very difficult. Ways of not writing well about art include:

  1. giving yourself airs and graces – the very old-school way of declaring such a work ‘fine’ and ‘superb’ and a ‘wonderful example of the so-and-so school’ etc, an approach which turns art criticism into wine-tasting and mainly serves to convey how superior andsrefined the critic is
  2. giving in to a biographical approach i.e. telling us all about the artist’s life and loves, his mistresses and sex life, but conveying precious little about the actual look of their works
  3. giving in to generalised prose poetry about ‘vibrant’ use of colour and ‘bold’ design – phrases which could refer to anyone from Botticelli to Francis Bacon
  4. giving into art critical theory and interpreting works as ‘subverting traditional narratives’ or ‘engaging’ with ‘issues’ – all too often the same old ‘issues’ of ‘race’ or ‘gender’ or ‘identity’

Whitfield is a rarity in my experience, someone who can really express in words the specificity of particular works and the feel of a style.

Fauvism was the first movement to insist in explicit terms that a painting is the canvas and the pigments. The idea that a picture is the sum of the marks made on the canvas rather than a mirror held up to life, or to nature, or to literature accounts for the chief characteristics of the first true Fauve paintings being composed of briskly applied strokes, patches and dabs of brilliant colour. (p.9)

Describing Matisse’s very early work La Desserte she writes that it is ‘modern’ by virtue of

adopting the range of separately applied brush strokes with which the Impressionists invigorated the picture surface; the vibration of colour in their paintings was in total opposition to the smooth, ‘licked’ surfaces advocated by their teachers. (p.16)

The ‘smooth licked surfaces’ of the Salon painters is good, but I found the idea of the separately applied brush strokes invigorating the surface of a painting a really useful description of how many Impressionist paintings work. Here she is explaining the importance of Cézanne:

Matisse understood the manner in which Cézanne had unshackled painting from its representational role by making the paint itself the subject of the picture: the way in which every form in a Cézanne canvas is invested with equal weight regardless of its size came as a revelation to him. (p.23)

‘Equal weight’ is a great phrase, bringing out exactly the way a Cézanne painting is made of patches of colour constantly pressing towards a flat two-dimensionality. Late on she describes

The delicately crafted way in which Cézanne built up his paint, hingeing one brush-stroke onto the next… (p.200)

Reviewers of the book on Amazon all point out that only 24 of the 174 illustrations in the book are in colour, the rest in drab black and white, which is especially ironic considering the Fauves were all about colour, really strong, dazzling colour.

But so be it. The book is still well worth reading not just as a handy primer about the chronology, the artists and works which made up the movement – but for the continual flow of insights Whitfield gives into the working of specific paintings, her excellent ability to verbalise and articulate the hard-to-pin-down visual effects of oil paintings. That’s a rare gift.


Related links

Related book reviews

Reviews of Impressionist exhibitions

Every room in the Courtauld Gallery

The aim of doing all the rooms in a gallery isn’t necessarily to look at every exhibit in the place. It is to:

  • discover the out-of-the-way corners where treasures are sometimes hidden
  • get a feel for the complete geography of a place, to understand how it fits together as a building
  • and understand how the works exhibited in it fit together to tell a story (or multiple stories)

Background

The Courtauld Gallery houses the art collection of the Courtauld Institute of Art, a self-governing college of the University of London specialising in the study of the history of art.

The Courtauld collection was formed largely through donations and bequests and includes paintings, drawings, sculptures and other works from medieval to modern times. It’s a kind of miniature National Gallery, following the same story of Western art through a much smaller selection of, in many ways more exquisite, pieces. It’s best known for its French Impressionist and Post-Impressionist paintings; those rooms are always packed.

In total, the collection contains some 530 paintings and over 26,000 drawings and prints, displayed in 12 rooms over three floors reached via the charming old stone circular staircase.

The rooms

Room one: 13th-15th century 30 paintings and altar pieces, a big statue of the crowned Virgin Mary, 12 exquisite little ivory carvings, five caskets, a marriage chest and 12 pieces of Islamic metalwork. I liked:

  • The ivory Virgin and child with a chaffinch. I understand the symbolism, having seen the same subject at the V&A ie the chaffinch was thought to eat seeds from thorny plants, thus prefiguring the crown of thorns which the little baby Jesus was destined to wear 33 years later.
  • An ivory depicting ‘Scenes from the life of Jesus’, with an Ascension scene where the crowd are, Monty Python-style, looking up at a tunic and pair of sandals disappearing out of the frame (top left section).
  • What I liked about the medieval ivories is that the figures are cramped and packed into the composition, yet important ones, the Virgin in particular, are still willowy and sinuous; it’s the combination of cramped with willowy which is one of their appeals.
  • I discovered I like Robert Campin at the National Gallery: here, I liked his Seilern Triptych (1425). The most obvious thing is how dark it is; he uses an intense black to create variety or drama across the picture plane. On a separate level, I also liked the use of the grapes motif in the gilt background. And homely details like the handmade hedge in the bottom right.
  • Compare, in terms of light, with the nearby Coronation of the Virgin by Lorenzo Monaco, amazingly sumptuous and golden, but without the extremes of black, the density and drama of the Campin.
  • I realised at the National Gallery that I like northern European medieval and Renaissance painting for its concern for individuals. A good example here is the portrait of Guillaume Fillastre from the workshop of Roger van der Weyden (1430s)
  • Ugliest baby award went to Virgin and Child with angels by Quentin Massys

Mezzanine room: ‘Panorama’ Half-way up the stairs to the first floor is a small room which holds changing displays of prints. Currently it houses 14 drawings or prints on the theme of ‘the panoramic view’, including Canaletto, two Turners, a Towne etc. The wall label said the panorama derives from Dutch interest in landscapes, confirming my view of northern Europe as being humanist, interested in individuals and places, as opposed to Italy and Spain, home to countless images of the simpering Madonna, weeping saints and the limp corpse of Jesus, all set in rocky, barren deserts.

Room two: 16th century Renaissance Europe 19 paintings and some painted marriage chests, objects whose long narrow front panels are well suited to paintings depicting processions or battle scenes. There are also 23 Renaissance ceramics in an exhibition case, but the room is dominated by Botticelli’s Trinity with saints. As I discovered in the National Gallery, I like Botticelli as a cartoonist but not as a serious painter of the human condition.

Room three: 17th century Rubens and the Baroque 18 paintings, 11 of them Rubens, and a chest. My favourites were:

  • Cranach Adam and Eve (1526) for the medieval feel, the sumptuous northern flora, and the symbolic animals. Although it’s a well known story, the painting has a strange mysterious air, as if pregnant with additional, hidden meanings.
  • Hans Mielich Portrait of Anna Reitnor (1539) A typically north European, humanistic and individualistic portrait of a specific person. Compare and contrast with…
  • Rubens Cain killing Abel The wall label can go on about what Rubens had learned from his visit to Italy and his debt to Michelangelo – this still seems to me an over-muscled, deformed account of the human body, glorifying in a kind of murder porn.
  • Similarly, I disliked the nine sketches by Tiepolo, typified by St Aloysius Gonzaga. Words can’t convey the kitsch nastiness of this Catholic propaganda.

Room four: 18th century Enlightenment As at the National Gallery, it is a great relief to walk from rooms full of tortured saints, crucified Christs and weeping Maries into the common sense, calmness and reason of the English Enlightenment. This rooms contains a pleasant selection of comfortable, bourgeois paintings by Romney, Ramsay, Gainsborough and display cases full of silver plate, cups and so on. I liked:

Room five: 19th century Early Impressionism And now for something completely different, the rooms the Courtauld is famous for, this one holding 6 paintings, 2 sculptures. I liked:

  • Degas Two dancers on stage (1874) He did hundreds of studies and oils of this subject, this one is good.
  • Renoir La Loge (1874) When I went to see the Inventing Impressionism show at the National Gallery, Renoir emerged for me as the most consistent of the Impressionists, finding his style early and sticking to it, in paintings that look more consistently finished than his colleagues’ ones.
  • Monet Autumn effect at Argenteuil (1873) Exactly the kind of Monet which looks better compacted onto a computer screen or chocolate box, than how it appears here, in the flesh, where it is much larger, much blurrier and wispier.
  • Compare and contrast with Manet’s Banks of the Seine at Argenteuil (1874). The wall label says this is the most impressionist painting Manet ever did, made while he was staying at Monet’s house at Argenteuil. Although using the same short dabs of paint and showing the same hazy disregard for detail, as his friend, the striking thing is the quality of the black in the painting, a really deep, intense, black black, there in the boat but especially the woman’s hat, and giving the other colours, especially the blue, a darker hue. This gives the whole painting a greater intensity. It kind of roots it into a starker world, a firmer world, than anything in the pink and yellow creations of Monet’s which are hanging near it.

Room six :19th century Impressionism and post-impressionism

  • Manet The bar at the Folies Bergers (1880) This isn’t a very good reproduction, but again it highlights the importance of black in Manet’s compositions.
  • Cézanne The card players (1896) The stylisation of the human form is completely convincing.
  • Cézanne Mont St Victoire (1887) Characteristic deployment of the blocks and rectangles of colour which anticipate cubism.
  • Gauguin Te Rerioa (1897) I didn’t like Gauguin when I was young. I think exposure to lots and lots of tribal and native art has helped me ‘read’ him better, so that now I just accept and enjoy the whole composition.
  • Gauguin Nevermore (1897)

Room seven: 19th century Post-impressionism Just seven paintings, the standout specimen being Self-portrait with a bandaged ear by Vincent van Gogh. I like the strong back lines and the forceful, not necessarily realistic colouring.

Room eight: An exhibition room this is currently dedicated to Bridget Riley: learning from Seurat.

Room nine: 20th century French painting 12 paintings and statues by among others Derain, Braque, early Matisse, Vlaminck.

Room ten: 20th century French painting 1905-20 12 paintings, including specimens by Dufy, Bonnard, Picasso, Léger, all dominated by the Modigliani.

  • Modigliani Female nude (1916) Perfectly and completely itself.

Room eleven a: Late 19th-early 20th century painting 8 paintings.

  • Cézanne Route tournante (1905) a) Unfinished, so I like it. b) Even more of Cézanne’s characteristic cubes and blocks of paint, creating a powerfully dynamic image.
  • Degas Woman at a window Unfinished and with strong black lines, a wonderful visionary image.

Room eleven b: 19th century Seurat sketches. A small room with 8 tiny paintings by Seurat (died 1891)

Room 12: 20th century German Expressionists A bit of a relief to emerge from the fuzziness of France into the bright, barbarian virility of strident German expressionism. 12 big bold crude paintings.

Room 13: 20th century British painting Half a dozen big horrible paintings by Leon Kossof and Frank Auerbach, with an early Lucien Freud to brighten the gloom.

Rooms 14 and 15 are devoted to temporary exhibitions – earlier in the year Goya’s Witches and Old Women Album, currently the wonderful show of Peter Lanyon’s gliding paintings.

Conclusions

If I didn’t know before, spending three hours walking slowly through these wonderful rooms packed with treasures, made me realise a few simple things about my taste:

  • I like unfinished paintings, sketches and cartoons, where the image/work/composition is struggling to emerge, struggling to create order and beauty from the chaos of perception, or has the pathos and fragility of incompletion
  • I like firm lines which define the subject, especially the human subject, as in Degas or van Gogh
  • I like works which contain black blacks: for some reason its presence makes the entire work seem deeper, as if the spectrum from a really deep black to the light which reveals the object is wider, the experience of the colours on the canvas or wood, deeper and richer.

Related links

Other museums and galleries

%d bloggers like this: