How female Fauvists were some of history’s most audacious painters

by The Insights

In some ways, the works were a form of socially acceptable erotica, sold to bourgeois men who didn’t dare participate in the lurid night life of Montmartre themselves, but were titillated by scenes of it. Made by men for men, the artworks inevitably reflected the same obsessions.

Fauvism, with its brash colours and vigorous brush work, might seem rebellious and anti-establishment, but the male artists’ portrayal of women perpetuated the same old stereotypes. “They are not the crazy anarchists that we tend to believe they are,” says Fink. “They were all petit-bourgeois, they had families, and they were members of the art committees of the time.” And since it was predominantly men both creating and buying the art, he explains, a patriarchal perspective pervaded.

There’s the trope of the female as closer to nature, for example, with pieces such as The Dance by Derain (1906) and Dance by Matisse (1909-10) ascribing women with a primitive, naïve quality. In her 1973 essay Virility and Domination in Early 20th-Century Vanguard Painting, feminist art historian Carol Duncan describes “the absoluteness with which women were pushed back to the extremity of the nature side of the dichotomy, and the insistence with which they were ranked in total opposition to all that is civilised and human”. The “beastliness” of Fauvism clearly extended to the representation of women. “A young woman has young claws, well sharpened,” Matisse once said.

But, says Fink, there’s “a clear distinction” in the way Fauves represented different women. “They depict their wives in an idolised way, in a way, morally superior. They’re dignified in their presence. Whereas, informed by late 19th-Century discourses, there’s this other extreme, where many of the portraits of the Fauves that are sexual, focus not on the face of the woman, but really on the flesh, on the genitals, on the breasts. There’s this depiction of a sexual appetite, of virility, that is not present at all in the family portraits.”

In contrast to his dressed models, Matisse’s nudes − such as Pastoral (1905) and Nude in a Forest (1906) − tend to be turned away, faceless and objectified, lacking in personality and relegated to lines and curves. Even a still life, such as Goldfish and Sculpture (1911), is a case in point. “It’s quite extreme,” agrees Fink. “The buttocks of the woman are enlarged quite significantly.” The Fauves, aware of the taboo, argued that they had a “formal” interest in women, he says. “But obviously it goes beyond that.”

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