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André Derain: The London Paintings

Feature by James Haddrell

André Derain: The London Paintings – Courtauld Institute of Art Gallery

IN March 1906, two years after Monet’s well known London paintings went on display in Paris, the French painter, André Derain, came to London to paint a similar series, a series specifically designed by his dealer to rival that of the acclaimed Impressionist.

Now, almost exactly a century later, 12 of the large scale works produced during that visit have gone on show at The Courtauld Gallery, London.

At the beginning of the 20th Century, André Derain was considered to be one of the most radical artists working in Paris.

Through a voracious interest in artistic development and collaborations with Matisse and Vlaminck, Picasso and Braque, he was present at the birth of several key movements in 20th Century art, and at the now famous 1905 Salon d’Automne he exhibited a body of work which advocated a whole new treatment of colour.

His garish use of celebratory non-naturalistic colour, exhibited alongside similar works by Matisse, saw the birth of a short-lived but influential new movement – Fauvism.

In 1906 the then controversial painter was sent to London by his dealer Ambroise Vollard to produce a series of London scenes, ostensibly to rival the acclaimed 1904 exhibition of London views painted by Claude Monet.

A century later, and a year after Tate Britain’s blockbuster exhibition of Monet’s London paintings, the Courtauld Gallery is rekindling the sense of competition encouraged by Vollard 100 years ago by unveiling twelve of Derain’s thirty large-scale London works.

If Monet’s scenes have earned a place in public memory through their poetic view of London’s smog and fog-laden landscape, Derain’s approach was far more explosive.

In one view of Westminster, Derain takes up an almost identical vantage point to Monet, but instead of Monet’s feathery brushwork Derain’s canvas is covered with thick dots and dashes of pure colour.

A technique pioneered by Seurat, Derain expands the impact by transforming Seurat’s pointillism with bright, other-worldly colours, creating a landscape more attuned to those tortured works of van Gogh than the measured scientific experiments of the pointillist.

The golden light that radiates from the sun over Derain’s Waterloo Bridge physically erupts from a golden centre, falling in heavy rays and shifting through pink and blue before merging with the solid green blocks of the river.

It was not simply through colour, nor solely under the influence of either Seurat or van Gogh that Derain worked. He was a fiercely experimental painter, and even within this relatively small series of works his styles and influences can be seen to fluctuate wildly.

Elsewhere in the exhibition, the dark clouds and flaming sky of Effects Of Sunlight On Water represent Derain’s response to Turner, whose work he studied at The National Gallery.

Later in the series, but painted within the same two year period, The Thames At Tower Bridge could not be less like a Turner skyscape, the bold foreshortening of two bright red ships asserting the painter’s command of bold, physical perspective. Later still, The Two Barges sees an aerial view of two boats reduced to almost abstract patterning on the surface of the canvas.

To add to the story a little, it is worth venturing beyond the dozen London paintings into the Courtauld’s permanent collection.

Here, a large scale jungle scene reveals Derain’s knowledge of the ethnographic curiosities just beginning to capture the interest of Picasso, and of the work of the naïve jungle painter Henri Rousseau.

In another room, the angular forms and dark browns and greens of Derain’s The Park of Carrieres Saint Denis anticipate Braque’s monochrome Cubist paintings. All of this points to an artist powerfully aware of the artistic debates raging around him at the time, an artist prepared to engage with any stylistic development in order to advance his own skills.

Recent research backs this up. Letters and sketchbooks from the period reveal that Derain did not stay in London for as long as was previously believed, using sketches done in London but completing the vast majority of the paintings in his Paris studio.

The dozen works on show at The Courtauld Gallery are not the hasty, exuberant jottings expected of the fauves, but rather the careful development and completion of earlier sketches, drawing on the work of artists as diverse as Seurat and Cezanne, Turner and van Gogh, to challenge the boundaries of contemporary art.

If Derain is lesser known in popular art history than many of his collaborators, it is simply because his voracious curiosity constantly led him from one style to another.

He was part of Picasso’s circle during the origins of Cubism, he worked alongside Matisse to liberate colour and lead the fauvist revolt, and after World War One he moved to the more traditional fringes of the avant-garde and revealed a deep admiration for the Old Masters.

With just 12 works on show, painted over a period of only two years in a handful of locations, André Derain: The London Paintings still succeeds in revealing the restless experimentation of one of the pioneering artistic talents of the 20th Century.

André Derain: The London Paintings
Until January 22, 2006
Courtauld Institute Of Art Gallery, Somerset House, Strand, London WC2R 0RN
020 7848 2526; www.courtauld.ac.uk
Open daily 10am-6pm
Admission: £5; concessions: £4
Free admission: Mondays 10am-2pm

Photo credit: Effects of Sunlight on Water, 1906-7
Musée de L’Annonciade, St Tropez