André Derain and the founding of modern art
André Derain played a leading role in the creation of Modern Art. He was behind two major art movements of the beginning of the 20th Century, namely Fauvism and Cubism. He had an intellectual curiosity that compelled him forward, always researching and observing the works of his friends, whether Matisse, Picasso, Gauguin or Cezanne, all like him, curious and creative young artists. He influenced many artists, and the American writer Gertrude Stein, described him as “The Christopher Columbus of Modern Art.” THE “FAUVES” OR “WILD BEASTS’
For André Salmon, the French poet and writer, Derain was “the figure to whom young artists looked to for instruction,” and Giorgio de Chirico described him as “the only painter today who has made some contributions.” Other intellectuals and critics of his time viewed him as “the greatest power amongst young French painters” and Alberto Giacometti wrote: “Derain excites me more, has given me more and taught me more than any painter since Cezanne; to me he is the most audacious of them all.”
André Derain (1880 – 1954) was born in Chatou, a suburb of Paris, to a middle class family. The artist’s father was a pastry chef who wanted his son to become an engineer. In Paris, Derain frequented the young painters who were struggling to get recognition, and in 1900 he met another French painter Maurice de Vlaminck with whom he had an immediate sympathy, and shared a studio. Together, they would leave their studio to paint outdoors.
Derain was studying engineering, but after finishing his military service in 1904, his friend Matisse persuaded Derain’s father to allow him to give up engineering for painting.
In 1905, Derain and Matisse spent the summer together in Collioure, a fishing town on the Mediterranean coast of Southern France. Derain was 26 and Matisse eleven years his senior. When they came back to Paris, they exposed their paintings at the Salon D’automne. Their unusual and original work, their strong blue and green mountains, their pink clouds and vibrant unnatural tones were stupefying, so that a critic nicknamed them ‘ Fauves’ or ‘Wild Beasts’ and the name stuck to the movement that developed.
Their crude compositions and vibrant colours, their strong broken brushstrokes and simplified forms offended the viewers, so that a critic wrote, “a pot of paint has been flung in the face of the public.” They had gone beyond the Impressionists’ representational
and realistic style. Colour was very important to them; it was part of the subject of the painting. Derain said of Fauvists: “We were always intoxicated with colour, with words that speak of colour, and with the sun that makes colours live.”
THE LONDON YEARS
In 1906, Derain went to London to paint the city. He produced 30 pieces that were completely different from anything seen before. His River Thames and Tower Bridge paintings are now considered of his best work. He had expected to see the notorious London fog, but when found, he said, “dismayingly, London has been drenched in sunlight for a fortnight, turning it into another Marseille.” Then, he observed, “It was absurd to paint the blazing sun in the world capital of fog.” So he decided to “explore the notion of colour as an independent entity and paint a landscape which no longer represents anything.” An art critic explained: “Not since Monet has anyone made London seem so fresh and yet remain quintessentially English. Some of his views of the Thames use the Pointillist technique of multiple dots, although by this time, because the dots have become much larger, it is rather more simply the separation of colours called Divisionism and it is peculiarly effective in conveying the fragmentation of colour in moving water in sunlight.”
THE DEVELOPMENT OF CUBISM
In 1907, Derain moved to Montmartre to be near his friend Picasso. He introduced African art to Picasso and played a major role in the development of Cubism along with Picasso and Braque, something not often recognised. The poet Guillaume Apollinaire confirmed Derain’s role by referring to the “almost immediate birth of Cubism to the closeness of Picasso and Derain in 1906”.
Derain participated in both world wars, and coming back after the First World War ended, the Fauve years were definitively behind him and his work started showing the influence of the old masters that he had studied at the Louvre. He used sober and subdued colours, austere forms and traditional painting techniques that included light and darkness for volume. He came close to Neoclassicism and the spontaneity and explosion of colours of his earlier work disappeared. Around this time he became a celebrity and won the Carnegie Prize and was in demand internationally.
By 1930, he publicly criticised modern art and reverted completely to the classical tradition and stuck to it till the end of his life. His new style was criticised as “Youth has departed; what remains is a highly cerebral and rather mechanical art”.
In 1941, Derain accepted an invitation by Nazi Germany to go to Berlin to see an exhibition. After the Liberation, some considered him a collaborator and ostracised him, but he denied helping the Germans, saying, “art had nothing to do with politics, was, in fact above it”.
In 1953, a year before his death, he fell ill, which affected his eyesight, and though he later recovered, in 1954 he was hit by a truck and passed away.
We were always intoxicated with colour, with words that speak of colour, and with the sun that makes colours live.
View of Collioure - 1905
The Ball of Suresnes (1903)
London Bridge winter – 1906
The fishermen of Collioure – 1905
Henri Matisse – 1905
Madam Derain in green – 1907