Raoul Dufy’s true colors outshone many of his peers

by C.B. Liddell

Special To The Japan Times

No painter’s works look as good in a newspaper or advertising poster as they do when seen directly. Some painters works, however, suffer more from the process of being transferred to print than others. Raoul Dufy is one.

For the major retrospective of his work at Tokyo’s Bunkmura The Museum, the usual flyers and posters have been created, but they can only indicate his work rather than convey its full impact. Seen close-up, his paintings are awash in potent colors that not even the most advanced digital hi-definition technology can capture. Seen filtered through print, much of the magic is lost and the rather cursory linear elements are foregrounded. In other words, Dufy, more than most, is a painter dependent on the vibrancy of his colors.

Part of this is because he was first and foremost a Fauvist. This was an early 20th-century movement, whose name, like many other groups, started out as an insult before becoming a badge of honour. The term came from “fauve”: the French word for beast, because of the wild “animalistic” colors that the group favored.

This collective characteristic owed as much to technical breakthroughs by German chemists, who succeeded in producing much more vivid paint colors around this time, than to the artistic restlessness and hunger for innovation of the artists in the group, which included Henri Matisse and Andre Derain, among others. The possibilities that these richer colors opened up had a profound effect on art. The full ramifications of this can be read in Dufy’s work.

Already, the Impressionists had altered the traditional balance between line and color in academic painting. But the vibrant colors of the Fauvists meant that the lines or structural elements of painting had to mutate even more. Derain used contrasting patches of color to imply line, while Matisse moved toward strong melodious curves that could bend around, contain and caress his lurid hues. Over time he increasingly stabilized his colors by making them into solid blocks of color.

Dufy’s exploration of this great artistic problem followed a different path. In the earlier part of his career, he seems to have fluctuated rather confusedly between the approaches of Derain and Matisse. “Le Jardin” (1909-12) seems like a muddled version of Derain’s “coloristic hatching” with a hint of Cubism, while “Pecheur au filet” (1914), with its theme of a fisherman checking his nets, veers toward the kind of curvaceous stylization of Matisse.

It wasn’t really until the interwar years that Dufy managed to arrive at his own unique style, by which time the Fauvists had broken up as an effective artistic group. Dufy kept the immediacy and bright colors of Fauvism, but rather than imposing strong lines as Matisse did, he made the lines more casual and ironic, and simply “floated” them on top of his all-important colors.

A perfect example of this is his group portrait, “La Famille du docteur Paul Viard” (1927-33). The connection between line and color seems tentative at best; for example, the light blue from the wall in the background bleeds into the face of Madame Viard.

In paintings like this and “Nature morte au violin, homage a Bach” (1952), the linear elements exist merely as a loose framework to introduce us to the coloristic aspect. In a sense Dufy can be viewed as an early Color Field painter, but whereas the brutal abstraction of that movement was alienating, Dufy’s works draw us into a kind of intimacy with the colors.

This is even true of the large paintings of social or sporting events, such as “La Famille Kesseler a cheval” (1932), which shows an upper-class family gathering on horseback, or “Epsom, le defile du Derby” (1930), an invocation of the famous English horse-racing event. He was also fond of regattas.

The lightly sketched lines and figurative elements allow our eyes to range over these expansive works without too much effort, but without attempting to tie us in to realistic illusionism. This then allows the colors to work on us almost musically or subconsciously.

It is not surprising that Dufy’s artistic direction also led him toward the more decorative arts. The exhibition recognizes this by including examples of fabric patterns, chair covers, costume designs, and a remarkable folding screen depicting a dreamlike Paris.

Dufy is the quintessential artist of the interwar period, a peaceful interlude between horrific wars and also a temporary pause in the great march of modernity to the much more soulless art and society that followed. His painting playfully but profoundly combines elements of the classical and modern worlds in a way that suggests that perhaps the 1920s would have been a good place to stop.

“Retrospective: Raoul Dufy”at Bunkamura The Museum runs till July 27; open daily 10 a.m.- 7 p.m. (Fri., Sat. till 9 p.m.). ¥1,500. Closed July 2. The exhibition then moves to Osaka Aug. 5-Sept.28; and to Aichi Oct. 9-Dec. 7. For more information, visit: http://event.chunichi.co.jp/dufy/