Les Fauves was a title that was rather cynically given by art experts to a group of youthful painters such as Henri Matisse, Albert Marquet and Henri Manguin — to name just a few at the moment — who worked together, often under a blue sky, on the streets of the Montmartre hill of Paris in the 19th century.
The French expression means ‘The Wildcats’, because of the unusual styles and offbeat behaviour of this group, painting most of the time in the open air. The Montmartre Museum has currently dedicated an entire exhibition to the works of the wildest of these wildcats, a painter named Charles Camoin, who never hesitated from splitting into bits and shreds, axe in hand, a large number of his own creations that did not reach the artistic echelon he had set for himself.
This certainly takes us far, far away from the present-day art world, where people like Andy Warhol spread a black-and-white photographic print of Marilyn Monroe’s face on the table, put a few touches of pink, purple and yellow on her eyes, lips and hair — the whole adventure taking no more than about 15 minutes — then sold it for 195 million dollars!
To come back to Camoin, his earliest inspirations, while still a teenager, were works by well-known painters of the period, such as Eugène Delacroix, Jean-Honoré Fragonard, Antoine Watteau or Jean-August Ingres.
The Montmartre Museum in Paris is hosting an exhibition by a very unique artist
But he quickly decided to stop copying their styles and follow his own motivations, by concentrating on his favourite subjects such as seashores (he was born in the Mediterranean city of Marseilles), the famous landmarks of the Montmartre neighbourhood where he lived and worked (many paintings of the Moulin Rouge are an example), nudes and many, many portraits, including those of his own self.
In the year 1901, when Camoin turned 21, he had to join the army, as the law required. But even as a soldier, he kept involved in his artistic exploits, painting but also buying works like Van Gogh’s portrait of Dr Rey, which he later sold for 150 francs to an art dealer.
While posted by the army in the southern city of Aix-en-Provence, he would encounter a much older Cezanne, who immediately recognised his talent and advised him never to keep his emotions at a distance while painting. Camoin would stick to this principle till the end of his life.
His career as a mature artist actually began after leaving the army in 1903 and joining the Fauves group of Henri Matisse, Henri Manguin, Albert Marquet and Jean Puy at the Montmartre hill. They would have their first exhibition together a year later, which proved to be a big success. In order to enrich his visions, Camoin tirelessly travelled for the next many years to his native land of southern France, but also to Capri Island, Rome, Naples and Venice.
His recognition by art experts of the era finally came in 1908, when Camoin held his first solo exhibition in a well-respected gallery in Montmartre where he had by now definitively settled down. This exploit was quickly followed by his works being shown in exhibitions in Moscow, Prague, Brussels, Cologne and even New York.
His encounter with another genius of the era, Auguste Renoir, took place in 1918, following which he brought to his creations the rudiments advised by the old master that Camoin described as “sensitive, voluptuous and spontaneous perceptions, deprived of any intellectual pretentions.”
An enthusiastic traveller throughout his life, Charles Camoin put an end to his voyages after a brief trip to the United States in 1961. He would explain to an art writer that there was, “Too much work, no time for travelling!” True to his words, the wildest of Wildcats died working late at night in his Montmartre studio on May 20th 1965, at the ripe age of 86 years.
‘The Wildcat at Liberty’ will remain exhibited at the Montmartre Museum in Paris until September 11th 2022
The writer is an art critic based in Paris.
He may be reached at email@example.com
Published in Dawn, EOS, July 10th, 2022
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