Vibrant: Derain’s “Turning Road”

Childlike exuberance and freedom to do whatever feels good—these are things I feel when I look at this week’s selection. I’ve been meaning for quite a while now to talk about Fauvism. Qu’est-ce que c’est le fauvisme? I’m so glad you asked! Fauvism is color!

Well, that is an oversimplification, but to be honest, it is a bit difficult to say what fauvism is. It really only lasted a few years, mostly in France, and was dominated by colorful artworks by Derain, Matisse, and Vlaminck. A “fauve” is a wild beast in French, and the art critic who inadvertently named the short-lived “movement” found the intense use of color far too wild for his taste.

I find the intense use of color quite scrumptious, myself.

Andre Derain's "The Turning Road, Estaque"

This is Andre Derain’s The Turning Road, L’Estaque. Estaque is the name of a small town in southern France, that has now been subsumed by the larger city of Marseille.  A landscape with a road, hmmn, let’s see. How about some greens, browns, muted yellows, and maybe a hint of light blue for the sky? If there are flowers, we could add a few small dabs of color, but mostly a painting of a road should be earth colored, right? Nope. Derain broke free from traditional color choices. Here, he paints in the sort of palette you find on toddler toys: candy apple red, sunshine yellow, and crayon blue.

detail of Andre Derain's "The Turning Road, Estaque"

For those of you who haven’t finger painted in a while, red, yellow, and blue are the primary colors, and can be mixed to create any of the other hues you might desire (namely, red+yellow=orange, yellow+blue=green, blue+red=purple). A traditional, “academic” landscape would hardly have a single fully saturated color in it, much less all three primaries undiluted by whites or blacks. Here, at Estaque, Derain gives us pure unadulterated color.

What kind of town do you image Estaque to be, so colorful? I think it must be warm. Red and Yellow are considered warm tones, as is orange, and they seem to dominate the large canvas. There are blues and greens and hints of purple, too, but they seem to be mostly shadows. There is shade here, it isn’t just an arid desert awash in sun. These shadows temper the “weather” in the painting, but also help us distinguish where things are in the space.

detail of Andre Derain's "The Turning Road, Estaque"

I want to go there. I want to lay in the grass overlooking this turning road and watch the goings-on. I want to know if the personalities of the inhabitants are as colorful as their re-imagined landscape. I want to hear their stories and their culture and take lots of pictures. Estaque seems energetic, lively, warm, and unique. It doesn’t seem like a run-of-the-mill roadside stop. It seems vital. The Fauves used color for its expressive quality rather than its representational accuracy. To me, the color here expresses a sense of childlike exuberance.

detail of Andre Derain's "The Turning Road, Estaque"

I don’t think just anyone can recast the colors of nature from a crayola box and have such a vibrant affect. Derain is familiar with color theory, what shades work best next to each other to create soothing harmony or vibrating energy. And his composition and use of line help us “read” what is going on, rather than a simple patchwork of colors. The lines in this painting are abrupt. The central tree divides the image in two vertically, and several other trees add to a rhythm of vertical slices. And the turning road, the namesake of the painting, provides a strong curving line that begins at the halfway point on a horizontal course and curves, moving our eyes along  to the foreground.

The shapes and trees and people are outlined in blue, which reminds me of a coloring book, with bold black outlines filled in by a child’s favorite colors rather than by the nearest match to the real hue. Why shouldn’t a tree be red? Or a horse or a man, for that matter?

Andre Derain's "The Turning Road, Estaque"

At the MFAH, a museum guide was leading  group of kindergarteners when one said that Derain’s Turning Road looks like Candy Land. I like that very much. I keep seeing children’s references in this work—my kids Fischer Price toys, coloring book outlines, and also Dr. Suess. Look at those Truffala Trees! “The bright-colored tufts of the Truffala Trees!… All my life I’d been searching for trees such as these.”(Geisel)

Later, artists would abandon the images of trees and roads and people and just use areas of color to make art. “The Turning Road serves as a milestone in a crucial art-historical movement that, though brief, explored the central tent of modernist painting—that the strength of a picture has more to do with colors employed and the kinds of marks made on the surface of the canvas than with serving as an illusory window on the world.” (Bowron p. 199) The Fauves were a step on the turning road to abstraction.

Andre Derain's "The Turning Road, Estaque"

Do you prefer a landscape of realistic earth tones, or Derain’s bright explosion? How does this candy-colored version of Estaque affect you?

This site has a slide show of other artworks painted in Estaque, including some Fauvist and Cubist versions.

Here you can find coloring book pages of artwork including Matisse, Van Gogh, and Kandinsky. Go create your own crazy colored fauvist artwork!

Bowron, Edgar Peters, and Mary G. Morton. Masterworks of European Painting: in the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. Princeton: Princeton University Press in association with the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. 2000. Print.

Geisel, Theodor Seuss. The Lorax. New York, Random House. 1971. 

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