The early 20th century witnessed a rapid succession of some of the most innovative, daring and radical developments in the history of art. Accepted conventions of art were transformed; artists, no longer solely concerned with creating a naturalistic ‘window on the world’, freed colour, form and line from their traditionally illusionistic roles.
The Impressionist and Modern art sales this February feature a selection of outstanding works that showcase many of these key aesthetic developments in the remarkable progression from the last years of the 19th century through the first, seminal years of the 20th century.
In 1905, André Derain, Henri Matisse, Maurice de Vlaminck and others provoked huge scandal at the Salon d’Automne in Paris. Exhibited for the first time, these artists’ radical Fauvist paintings unleashed colour from its traditional, descriptive purpose, heralding a new means of artistic expression that would reverberate through generations of subsequent artists.
With its loose, impulsive brushwork and unmixed, bright pigment, André Derain’s Bateaux au Port de Collioure from 1905, offered in our Impressionist/Modern Evening sale, is a gleaming example of Fauvism, displaying the new liberated and expressive use of colour within painting.
One visitor to the iconic Fauvist debut was the young French artist Georges Braque. Aged just 23, Braque adopted the Fauvist use of exuberant colour and began creating paintings of the landscape transformed into glorious visions of colour. Travelling to the fishing-port of L’Estaque in 1906, Braque experienced an artistic epiphany, revelling in the artistic possibilities that the luminous, sun-drenched landscape held. His landscapes of Provence are rare; the majority now reside in esteemed museums and private collections across the world.
Paysage à L’Estaque, at auction for the first time in over half a century, is a pivotal painting in the development of Braque’s artistic style. Painted in 1907, and exhibited in Braque’s breakthrough exhibition at the Galerie Kahnweiler in 1908, the violent contrasts of colour have here been replaced by softly harmonious tones, used to imbue a greater sense of volumetric form into the landscape of L’Estaque, a concept that would be galvanised by Braque’s increased interest in the work of the Master of Aix, Paul Cézanne.
In 1907, a large, retrospective exhibition of Cézanne’s art was shown at the Salon d’Automne, Paris. The Provençal artist’s work had seldom been exhibited in Paris, and proved a revelation to many contemporary artists at this time, in particular Braque, as well as Pablo Picasso.
Paintings such as Vue sur L’Estaque et Le Château d’If encapsulate Cézanne’s innovative depiction of nature: constructing the landscape with planes of softly radiant colour, built up to create a novel sense of form and space. Cézanne inspired a generation of artists; in the words of Picasso, ‘[Cézanne] was my one and only master. It was the same with all of us — he was like our father. It was he who protected us.’ (Picasso quoted in J. Richardson, A Life of Picasso Volume II: 1907–1917: The Painter of Modern Life, London, 2009, p. 52).
Immediately after seeing the exhibition, Braque returned to L’Estaque where he painted the first ‘proto-cubist’ paintings, converting the landscape into increasingly geometric forms, and constructing a new kind of pictorial space.
On his return from the south at the end of 1907, Braque visited Picasso’s studio in the Bateau Lavoir for the first time: the two became inseparable, and so began one of the most intensive artistic collaborations of the 20th century.
Together, these artists revolutionised visual art, inventing a new pictorial language that transformed traditional Western illusionism. In 1912, the two introduced the techniques of collage and papier-collé into their art practice, which further dismantled the rules of artistic representation, expanding the revolutionary nature of Cubism, exemplified in Picasso’s Bouteille et verre sur une table, which was executed in the autumn to winter 1912.
In the same year, another Spanish artist, Juan Gris, joined their Cubist endeavours. In 1911, having witnessed the birth of Cubism, Gris, a deeply intellectual and methodical artist, had begun to paint in a Cubist style. In 1914, Gris turned to papier-collé, and with this medium created some of the greatest works of Cubism, of which La lampe, executed between May and June, is one of the finest examples. With inventiveness and a playful subtlety, La lampe represents a pinnacle in Gris’ career as he created works that redefined the medium of painting.
Cubism had a wide-reaching influence on artists all over Europe and America throughout the 20th century. A diverse range of artists used a Cubist vocabulary to forge an array of unique artistic styles, a number of which can be seen in the Impressionist and Modern sales this February. Georges Braque’s Verre et pipe, café and his later still-life, Nature morte au poisson, Fernand Léger’s brilliantly coloured, Composition avec coquille, Juan Gris’ Broc et Carafe, and sculptor Ossip Zadkine’s Nu debout display the assortment and diversity with which artists used the language of Cubism in their art.