In the early 20th century, art underwent momentous changes. Artists became increasingly interested in non-naturalistic representation, departing from the traditional use of form and color. From 1904, the Fauve artists, including Henri Matisse (1869-1954), Andre Derain (1880-1954), Raoul Dufy (1877-1953), Henri Manguin (1874-1949), Maurice Vlaminck (1876-1958) and Georges Braque (1882-1963), begin to portray familiar objects with "unfamiliar" colors. The French term "fauvism" refers to "wild beasts." However, a better name for the group might be "the artists of pure color." Fauvism is the first modern movement in which color rules supreme. Why and how did these artists depart from naturalistic colors?
According to Matisse, "Fauve art isn't everything, but it is the foundation of everything." However, contemporary spectators did not always understand Matisse's aims and were outraged by Fauve paintings. Why were they so shocked?
Even if the subject matter of the Fauve painting is often traditional (for example, a portrait, a nude, a landscape or an interior), the Fauve colors were something different. The Fauve colors seemed bright and unnatural, even assaulting to the eye. Also, the fragmented way that they were applied — in larger and smaller blocks — made the pictures seem sketchy, clumsy and unfinished to their contemporary audience. The spectator identifies the form to be "right" and the color to be "wrong."
In traditional art, both form and color are "right" or representational. The artist starts with form and the form determines the color. Color follows form; the artist cannot start with color. The traditional artist cannot use color alone as a means of expression.
Matisse's expressive use liberated color, so that it is no longer determined by form. His color looks for a sensation that represents his subjective vision and state of mind. Therefore, it could be unnatural or non-representational. For the spectator, Matisse's form may seem right but his color may seem wrong, because it is not used to convey likeness, but rather sensation. As Matisse put it, "When I put a green, it is not grass. When I put a blue, it is not the sky."
Even today, the spectator of Matisse's work senses the intensity achieved by color. Does the afternoon sun in Matisse's Boats in the Port of Collioure (above) look bright to you? Which of the colors are right? Which are wrong? The shore should not be red. Nor the sea green. Using his intuition, Matisse created the effect of a spring sky with complicated color combinations and luminance.
Neuroscientifically, Matisse's paintings work like a black and white photograph. Although the photograph lacks color, our brains are able to recognize the depicted elements because our minds react to the unnaturalistic colors using one visual pathway. Even if we perceive the color as wrong, to other visual pathways that are solely monochromatic, the scene seems more right. This principle of discussing color in terms of right and wrong helps us to understand Matisse's work. Even so, it is important to remember that Matisse never discusses his work in these terms. For him, it does not matter whether color is right, because color reflects his subjective inner vision. Therefore, color is always right to Matisse, since it responds to his artistic perception.
A few years later, the Cubists, led by Georges Braque and Pablo Picasso (1881-1973), liberated form, contributing to the development of modern art. Their work suggests an illusion of four-dimensional space, in which the subject is seen simultaneously from multiple perspectives, opposing the traditional three-dimensional view to the world. Even so, the subject of the Cubist painting is still identifiable. Although the Fauvists and the Cubists are not interested in depicting abstraction, their departure from the traditional use of form and color is important to the development of abstract painting, where these two elements — form and color — become fully independent from the depicted subject. Therefore, instead of a naturalistic illusion, modern art often represents the artist's subjective sensation.
Late 19th- and early 20th-century Western art is characterized by bold rejections of naturalism and the depiction of local color. The Fauves and German Expressionists, prioritizing prismatic color within the pictorial vocabulary, asserted the autonomy of visual language. In doing this they were influenced both by modernity in Europe and by examples of non-Western art, particularly the arts of African and Oceania that were brought back to Western countries (Britain, France, Germany) as a result of the imperial policies of the great powers.
African sculpture and masks showed Western artists (Gauguin, Matisse, Derain, Vlaminck, Kirschner, Pechstein, Picasso) that naturalism provided only one formula for translating life into art. African art offered powerful evidence of a conceptual approach to image construction. The simplified, stylized forms of African sculpture fascinated European anthropologists and artists who, seeing their own culture as increasingly complex and "civilized," responded to simplicity. Ignorant of African culture, their enthusiasm for what they deemed "primitive" was a romantic interpretation of sculptural objects that artists found alluring because they were exotic, or radically different to Western art forms.
Although Western modernists were attracted primarily by the forms of African art, bright, chromatic color sometimes contributes detail to African carvings. The dominant color of African sculpture is the natural color of the materials used – wood (used to carve sculptures in West and Central Africa) and cast metal bronze (used in sculptures from Benin). Masks are often made of a variety of textural materials (such as wood, hair, cloth, raffia, fiber, and bone) and some masks have natural pigments (such as ochre, chalk, and charcoal), painted as design elements painted onto facial forms (such as Kuba masks in Congo). Cowry shells, seeds, or glass and clay beads are frequently added. Here, detail offers visual contrast, attracting the eye to significant areas of the sculpture, such as glass bead necklaces in Yoruba carvings. When beads are incorporated into sculptures, the contrast between grey or brown wood and blue and red beads is visually dramatic, and the principle of tonal tertiary color, acting as a foil for pure hues, is demonstrated.
Textiles give African art its vibrant color. In African communities, authority is signified by the rich apparel and regalia worn and used by leaders. Art is used to confirm status; in West Africa, rulers present themselves magnificently robed, adorned with gold jewelry and holding beautifully crafted objects. Because the spirit forces, signified in the masquerades, also gain their power from the visual impact of maskers, color is used in costumes to attract attention.
Embroidered cloth (akunitan), woven cloth, printed textiles, and appliqued textiles are all used imaginatively to dazzle the eye with hues, tones, and textures. Indigo resist ndop cloth from Cameroon, woven textiles (kente cloth), and printed cloth (adinkra mourning cloth, restrained in color and stamped with patterns expressing sorrow) from Ghana are all manufactured locally. However, imported printed cloths are also incorporated into costumes. Inventiveness, rather than cultural "purity" is the objective favored by the artists orchestrating visual spectacle.
One of the most sumptuously colored textiles used for clothing is Ghanaian kente cloth, made by Asante and Ewe weavers using specially designed looms. Kente was probably introduced from the western Sudan during the 16th century, when heavy, elaborate, labor-intensive versions of this fabric were designed for wealthy tribal chiefs and simpler designs became available for the general citizenry. Kente is woven in four-inch (9.5 cm) narrow strips that are sewn together. A characteristic Asante kente has geometric shapes woven in bright colors along the entire length of the strip, while Ewe kente often displays a tweed effect by plying together different colored threads in many of the warps. Ewe kente may also incorporate pictorial symbols.
Detail of hand-woven Asante (Ashante) ceremonial cloth featuring red and yellow (primary colors), green (secondary color, complementary to red), and black (neutral color and the darkest tone available).
Originally, kente cloth was black and white, but dyes were developed from different plants and a range of colors evolved. Blue was obtained from the indigo plant, red from dried cam wood, brown from Indian tamarind, and green from boiled spinach leaves. With increased trade, imported silks and cottons were unraveled to extend the color range. Colors convey mood, dark shades being associated with grief and used for mourning ceremonies, while lighter shades are associated with happiness. The symbolic significance of kente is located in the motifs (the elephant signifies kingship, the scorpion bitterness). The colors of the Ghanaian national flag – red, yellow, green and black – are popular in modern cloths.
Kente cloth is characterized by sharply defined shapes created by the technique of loom weaving. It is easier to weave geometric than organic shapes, so rectangles, diamonds, zigzags, and squares are predominant. Colors and tones interact along their straight edges, creating optical vibrations as the eye attempts to accommodate constantly changing visual stimuli. Although weavers do not consciously apply the scientific color theory established by the color wheel, they tend to work with abrupt contrasts of tone and hue.
In the hand-woven Asante (Ashante) ceremonial cloth (left), the colors remind Ghanaians of their national identity, but within the cloth they create a dynamic sense of spatial movement. The orange-yellow squares advance and - as the lightest tone - the yellow shimmers against the dark blacks, while red and green zigzag shapes compete with one another. The predominance of angled shapes creates staccato rhythms, making the cloth suitable for use in ceremonies distinguished by repetitive drumbeats and vigorous dancing. A restful pattern would be completely misplaced in performances that build to dramatic crescendos. When worn by rulers, the brilliant cloths attract visual attention, sustaining the concept of authority. The yellow-gold within the cloth is invariably repeated in the gold regalia carried by the ruler.
Raoul Dufy's Ambient Light
Raoul Dufy experimented with color even before the first Fauve exhibition in 1905. He did not exhibit with Henri Matisse and his group of Fauves at the first show, but he was excited by their creative use of color and drawing. He develops his own theory of couleur-lumiere, (heightened ambient color/light), which he uses throughout his career.
Jeanne with Flowers, Raoul Dufy, 1907. Recolored by Laura Joy Lustig, 2003.
Explore the colors in the following painting to see how Dufy's unique use of color affects your perception, and how other kinds of colorings transform the effect.
Dufy, born in Le Havre in 1877, enrolls at the local arts school at the age of 15. There, he meets Georges Braque. In 1900, the town of Le Havre awards him a grant to study art in Paris. His interest in color begins with the Impressionists, and he admires works by Claude Monet and Camille Pissarro. Like Braque, Dufy's hometown friend and fellow Fauve, Dufy experiments with Cubism begin in 1907, when he utilizes flattened space and an emphasis on form. Upon Dufy's death in 1953, Matisse proclaims, "Dufy's work will live."
Dufy's work as a designer, specifically for the couturier Poiret, should be noted. His decorative use of color revolutionized the picture surface. Dufy's landscape, The Wheatfield (1929), ignores traditional ideas on aerial perspective, an innovation of the Renaissance developed by Venetians like Giovanni Bellini (c. 1430-1516) and Tiziano Vecelli, known as Titian (c. 1488-1576). Please see the exhibit on "Bellini's Feast of the Gods" where the illustrations show how as objects recede, they become less distinct, less contrasted in tone, and bluer in hue due to the intervening distance and air. Painters strove to try and convey these effects, which were particularly noticeable in a city like Venice that was prone to mist from the surrounding water. Later, aerial perspective was perfected by the 17th century French painter Claude le Lorrain (1600-1682), and greatly admired by both JMW Turner and John Constable.
The Wheatfield, Raoul Dufy, 1929, Le Champ de ble
Dufy reversed aerial perspective: the bright colors used in the distance of The Wheatfield become a decorative pattern of colors. Yet upon stepping back, the spectator senses that Dufy sets up a tension between the surface of the canvas and the apparent "depth" (the three-dimensional illusion of depth). In other words, Dufy succeeds in leading our eye into the landscape while defying conventionally accepted methods of doing so. Artists such as Joan Miro (1893-1983) later followed Dufy's example in some of their landscapes. Likewise, Impressionists such as Monet also convey to the observer that he or she is looking at an artist's personal interpretation of a particular subject. (See entry on Impressionism).
Andy Warhol's Marilyn Prints
Andy Warhol (1928-1987) was a key figure in Pop Art, an art movement that emerged in America and elsewhere in the 1950s to become prominent over the next two decades.
In the 1960s, Andy Warhol created several "mass-produced" images from photographs of celebrities such as Marilyn Monroe, Elvis Presley and Jackie Onassis.
The Fauves used non-representational color and representational form to convey different sensations. Apply the same idea to the portrait of Marilyn Monroe below, using the controls to adjust the colors. How does the color affect the mood?
Unlike the Fauve colors, the non-representational colors of Pop Art do not depict the artist's inner sensation of the world. They refer to the popular culture, which also inspires Warhol to experiment with the technique of silkscreen printing, a popular technique used for mass production. In doing so, Warhol moves away from the elitist avant-garde tradition. Initially, many spectators received this new marriage between art and commodity culture with little enthusiasm.
Excerpt from a modern English translation of the Craftsman’s Handbook (Libro dell'arte) by Cennino Cennini — a treatise marking a transition between medieval and Renaissance concepts of art.
Warhol was fascinated with morbid concepts. Sometimes, however, the results are astonishingly beautiful, such as the resonating, brilliantly colored images of Marilyn Monroe. The Marilyn canvases were early examples of Warhol's use of silkscreen printing, a method the artist experimented with, recalling:
In August 62 I started doing silkscreens. I wanted something stronger that gave more of an assembly line effect. With silkscreening you pick a photograph, blow it up, transfer it in glue onto silk, and then roll ink across it so the ink goes through the silk but not through the glue. That way you get the same image, slightly different each time. It was all so simple quick and chancy. I was thrilled with it. When Marilyn Monroe happened to die that month, I got the idea to make screens of her beautiful face the first Marilyns.
Using photo-stencils in screen-printing, Warhol uses photographic images for his screenprints. The screen is prepared using a photographic process, and then different color inks are printed using a rubber squeegee to press the paint onto the painting through the screen.
Contemporary African Painting
Contemporary African painting is as diverse and complex as African art of the past. Its "African" identity is discernible in iconography rather than materials, techniques, or styles. Two artists whose two-dimensional work is characterized by vivid color are Cheri Samba (b.1956, Congo) and Zwelethu Mthethwa (b. 1969, South Africa). Both artists express responses to post-colonialism.
Le Secret d'un Petit Poisson Devenu Grand, Cheri Samba, 2002. Samba uses color contrasts to convey a positive message.
Samba, a self-taught artist from the Congo, has lived most of his life in an independent African state rife with civil war and corruption. His paintings, which often include text, comment on Congolese urban modernity, cultural contacts with the West, and the impact of consumerism on African society. After exhibiting small paintings locally, Samba was discovered by an international audience; he now works in Paris and Kinshasa on large canvases in acrylic. Le Secret d'un Petit Poisson Devenu Grand (2002) uses color contrasts (complementary orange-blue and red-green) to convey a positive message in his narrative of the small fish that has become large by listening to and trusting the voice of his own heart. Samba's painting implies that he has defied his modest origins and gained success in bigger seas.
Where Angels Fear to Tread IV, Zwelethu Mthethwa, 2001. Mthethwa uses primary and secondary colors to create tension.
In Where Angels Fear to Tread IV, Zwelethu Mthethwa's palette, also comprised of primaries and secondaries, creates tension. Living with apartheid and then with its social legacies, Zwelethu, an art school graduate and lecturer, uses color to sustain ideas about alienation and displacement. Mthethwa favors chalk pastel laid down in large, contrasting flat shapes. The red background in Where Angels Fear to Tread presses against the man and woman, becoming an existential force in the interior setting. The homely details of the boiling kettle and the mugs with Zulu designs contrast with the angels outside in the sky. The visceral quality of Mthethwa's color belies his deeply unsettling analysis of South African township life.
Cindy Sherman's Untitled Film Stills
Contemporary art often addresses conceptual concepts with political and social significance. Color and color contrasts can contribute to these conceptual meanings.
Untitled Film Stills # 21, Cindy Sherman, 1978. Sherman reveals gender as an unstable and constructed position, which suggests that there is no innate biological female identity.
The American feminist artist Cindy Sherman (1954) is famous for the Untitled Film Stills series (1977-1980) that consist of black-and-white photographs of the artist posing in different stereotypical female roles. Although she poses for her photographs, Sherman's pictures are not self-portraits in a traditional sense.
Modeling in several roles, she reveals gender as an unstable and constructed position, which suggests that there is no innate biological female identity. On the contrary, women adopt several roles and identities depending on their circumstances. Therefore, the roles in the Untitled Film Stills series vary from an immature schoolgirl to an attractive seducer and from a glamour diva to a caring housewife. Importantly, her work encourages self-reflection in the spectator. As Sherman argues, "I'm trying to make other people recognize something of themselves rather than me."
Untitled # 132, Cindy Sherman, 1984. With bright light and high-contrast color, Sherman focuses on the consequences of society's stereotyped roles for women — in this case as a victim of fashion — rather than upon the roles themselves.
In the 1980s, Sherman introduced bright light and high-contrast color to her work. Moving away from established female stereotypes seen in the Untitled Film Stills series, she begins to deal with topics such as eating disorders, insanity and death, focusing on the consequences of society's stereotyped roles for women rather than upon the roles themselves. Sherman's Untitled # 132 (1984) and Untitled # 138 (1984) represent a fashion victim. Exaggerating her facial gestures, she models in fashionable clothes by top designers such Jean-Paul Gaultier and Rei Kawakubo of Comme des Garcons. However, these clothes do not feel comfortable and attractive. The woman loses her self-confidence and cannot bear the pressure of her forced role.
Untitled # 138, Cindy Sherman, 1984. Sherman depicts a woman in designer clothes losing self-confidence who cannot bear the pressure of her forced role.
Compare Sherman's earlier series to her 1980s work. Do you think that the bright yellow and red or the contrasting black and white stripes of the dresses intensify the literality of Sherman's critical position? What is the role of the greenish background color? Sherman's choice of colors emphasizes the grotesque character of the woman. The colors depart from their original fashionable context, failing their original promise of happiness promoted by the fashion industry. Therefore, in this feminist context, colors suggest pain, frustration and even threat, signifying the meaning of the work.
Mona Hatoum's Installations
A single color can have multiple and shifting meanings. Mona Hatoum (1952) is a London-based artist of Palestinian origins. Hatoum uses color to emphasize the intensity of her experiences and to suggest wider political meanings beyond her personal experiences. The installation Light at the End (2002) consists of an iron metal frame and five electric elements. It represents a dark tunnel with red, orange and yellow light at the end. This colored light seduces the spectator, as it appears warm and appealing, in contrast to the hostile darkness of the tunnel. However, the seductive color is a trap. Only when the spectator moves closer does the colored light reveal its real character as electric and dangerous. The warmness of red is transformed into the violent redness of blood.
Light at the End, Mona Hatoum, 2002. Hatoum demonstrates that color can have multiple and shifting meanings.
The installation is a reflection of both Hatoum's personal experience and a more universal experience of living in exile. Hatoum's Palestinian parents had been forced to live in exile by the Arab-Israeli conflict. In 1975, war broke out in Lebanon and Hatoum, on a visit to London, found herself exiled in the United Kingdom, unable to return to her home country. In Light at the End, the multiple meanings of red, orange and yellow light that contrast with the darkness of the tunnel refer to the appeal of the home country and Hatoum's experience of living in exile, addressing the violent character and the instability of separation.
The Mexican Cage, Mona Hatoum, 2002. The friendly colors of the cage work in contrast with the unfriendly nature of the cage.
Hatoum's The Mexican Cage (2002) represents a colorful birdcage. The work suggests a metaphoric connection between a caged canary and the life of a Mexican factory worker. How does The Mexican Cage suggest tension? Do you think that the "friendly colors" of the work contrast with the object that is an "unfriendly" cage?