It is difficult to imagine a time when André Derain might have been considered underrated or even misunderstood, but in the 1960s, American audiences might have been familiar only with the French painter’s landscapes. Leland Bell, an American artist, felt that Derain deserved a better reputation. On the occasion of two monographs being published, Bell wrote an essay about Derain’s work for the May 1960 issue of ARTnews. “His qualities are pushed aside, they’re not seen in their true proportion because of the esthetic bias of our times,” Bell wrote. Republished on the occasion of a Centre Pompidou show that focuses on one decade of the Fauve’s career, between 1904 and 1914 (“la décennie radicale,” the radical decade, in the curators’ words), Bell’s essay follows in full below. —Alex Greenberger
“The case for Derain as an immortal”
By Leland Bell
There have been many self-portraits in the past fifty years, but for me there is none with the persistent fascination of the one Derain did in 1953, a year before he died. It exists in a state of buoyancy. Nothing is forced or exaggerated. A cheekbone, an ear lobe, the smallest element of wrinkle—Derain sustains an unflagging love for each part. There is virtuosity without self-interest—virtuosity conquered. Everything follows through; every detail is relevant to the whole.
I found it impossible to grasp its unpretentious and restrained style. There are the points, proof of the security of the work’s angles, asserting the sharpness of locations in space (in the sense of Giacometti’s sharpness) and the rotundities whose curves are caressed and released in surprising sequences. The mysterious play between point and roundness seems to exalt the volumes of the head. Drawing it was like trying to draw my own head. It completely eluded me.
Despite his fame, Derain is a little-known painter. In the thirty-seven years between 1917 and his death in 1954 he had only four exhibitions in Paris! The bulk of his work remains unknown, even in reproduction. Had he exhibited regularly and been accorded the publicity which other modern masters received from the ’thirties on, would he have been nailed with the legend of his “uneven” works? His qualities are pushed aside, they’re not seen in their true proportion because of the esthetic bias of our times.
How can I begin to express my feelings about Derain’s work?
It is impossible to get to the bottom, there is always something going on underneath. Whether it is one of his best or one of his minor efforts I get the feeling that he is trying something far out. This intention, always serious and without self-interest, moves me tremendously.
Whether he paints three pears on a plate or a society portrait, he stops me. Because he was able to paint superbly blinds people to his purpose of adventure. Virtuosity meant nothing to him, was never his end. What does it mean in the portrait of Marie Harriman? The passage from the twist of a cloth through the twist of an arm—cloth and arm keeping their own entities yet each expressing the twist proper to their own nature? The long gliding swoop of the thigh and the whip crack as the arm resting on the kee launches its hand holding flowers?
Are these brought about through virtuosity or through Derain’s total involvement with the act of pure painting as he seeks to recreate his vision of the subject? Derain is so alert in a painting; he keeps trying so many things, both possible and impossible; and he never advertises the, His art continually escapes the orthodoxy of modern painting and yet he is fully contemporary. Like one of Pierrots—arrest with his hands on the strings of his instrument—Derain was suspended in time, standing alone, letting it flow around him and meditating on the mystery of reality. Giacometti’s attitude towards tradition is an open question, free, so that Watteau’s Shop Sign of Gersaint remains as contemporary for him as Mondrian’s Trafalgar Square, or more so; Giacometti’s viewpoint clearly relates to Derain’s independence from his time. And in Derain’s own generation, Rouault wrote of him in 1931: “He is an artist of perfect detachment and with a care for pictorial justice that is far from theories of anti-modernism or modernism.” Which brings to mind Apollinaire’s praise in 1916 of Derain’s “complete disinterestedness.”
After 1912 Derain set off on a solitary road to discover Portrait of Iturrino (1914), Seated Woman (1913), Self-Portrait (1914), Two Sisters (1914), works with a vertical fragrance which was mistaken by the critics—with the beautiful exception of Apollinaire—for archaism. How fresh and complete they remain! The import of Iturrino is that of the entire man. The head, anxious from a great distance above; and below, far below, the hands occurring on either side of chasm—each hand a complete portrait in itself.
Everything, all the wonderful appearances, the unique reality of things around him, had its place, had affinity and sense. Derain, in the Kitchen Table (1924) and Amiens (1946), tried to see how far he could go toward embracing the real. The copy after Brueghel’s Massacre of the Innocents (1945-50), the portraits of his son André (1942) are works illumined by a humility rare in modern painting. He wrote in 1943: “Nothing really belongs to us, neither our emotions nor our sensations nor any of the gifts which are furnished us by nature. Why pride ourselves on our so-called originality?” and quotes the saying of a Chinese philosopher: “I do not innovate, I transmit,” with the comment, “there was a wise man.”
Nothing is less comprehended today than the painting of reality, of actual things, what I might call the figurative tradition. Chardin, in his speech to the Academy, said: “The eye must be taught to look at nature; and how many have never seen and will never see her! This is the anguish of the artist’s life.”
In this sense Derain was the painter of doubt, of anguish. He felt the despair of one who attempts to penetrate the mystery of absolute reality—reality of skin, of sky, of face. Will it ever be understood that this passion has nothing to do with a literary or “photographic” painting? The atmosphere of luminosity in The Model, 1919, is certainly not arrived at through a mere copying of an effect. It is not an effect and it can’t be copied. The luminosity is created by the play of proportions between colors, tones, weights and all the ebb and flow of those exchanges which allow each element, on the instant, to assume its just role. The luminosity is the perfected balance of the structure’s parts.
It is the radiance of that harmony which exists between the nude, the furniture and room.
Painting today gives the appearance of moving in a hundred different directions. Programs bristle all over. The artist who seems the most advanced is he who follows a program to its logic of extreme consequences. It is an intoxication with novelty.
There is a confusion about the word liberation, an obsession with breaking the rules in which the wish to be free of all authority, standards, values is taken in itself as proof of liberation. If it were only that easy! The works thus elevated are themselves not free. They are a reaction against the rigor and severity of earlier abstract art as well as against a mythical academy—they seem interchangeable and they proliferate.
Paul Valéry has written: “What I call ‘great art’ is merely an art which requires the use of all of a man’s faculties, and that appeals to all the faculties of other men . . . I believe that . . . a work of art should be the act of the whole man.” As in instance of an art where this wholeness is not present, I remember a large painting done in the ’fifties by Miró, a painter whose mastery and sincerity are evident to me beyond question. This painting had an arabesque of hand prints and the imposing title, Hope Returns to Us Through the Flight of Constellations. The painting came to my mind as I was looking at a twelfth-century Limoges plaque of Christ in Majesty at the Metropolitan. It struck me that the plaque, which is a few inches across, could contain the Miró, which is about a yard and a half long. I felt it could contain the Miró a thousand times over. But the Miró could not begin to contain the plaque. I had the feeling Miró had chosen the fragment in place of the whole. I was overwhelmed by the sensation that the hand in the Christ was free and the hand in the Miró, limited.
Derain’s art confirms the freedom of the Limoges plaque. The wholeness of his art is a response to the wholeness of nature. His art does not separate life into compartments: instinct here, intellect there. He didn’t paint with half of himself.
Where does true audacity lie? Derain presents an alignment of man and his space that does not involve exploiting a few synthetic devices. The Cubists shattered the object and rebuilt it arbitrarily from the debris. They impose a strait jacket within which they have achieved some of the masterpieces of the age. Poussin refers to “a certain specific and firm manner or arrangement, within which the thing preserves its own entity.” But in Cubism the arrangement triumphs—the thing is enslaved. There is a loss of liberty.
Derain’s 1939 Still-life with Fish and Frying Pan is a still-life which exists in freedom. Its dark night space contains the woodness of a table, the limpness of a cloth, the suppleness of fish. Flesh, wood, iron, cloth, earthenware are contrasting densities which sing together. There is a hierarchy of curves; fluid, smooth, abrupt, sharp, drooping, limp. Derain’s is the mysterious search for the subtlety and diversity of curves which would express the resilience of fish in contrast to the hang in the folds of cloth; or those other curves which rim the kitchen utensils or form the delicate envelope of the kidneys. He explores their degrees of difference and similarity as a range, a progression and a circulation.
Derain senses the virtue of these objects; they remain intact. He paints them as clear entities. He preserves the integrity of their appearance, of the “skin” that represents their interior being.
Their communal life, that “certain specific and firm manner or arrangement,” emerges suddenly, a complex whole with a free order. A table lunges through a nest of cloth. Its dark open drawer catapults two adjoining configurations into a flight of ovals. The drama of position disciplines the life of the objects and place the picture in its space.
With audacity Derain seizes this kitchen ritual on the wing, revealing a rhythm of relationships which is fresh and unexpected. It has the instantaneous effect of a thrust, yet Derain uncovers the unique order without abandoning or deforming reality. To risk liberty within tradition: that is truly Derain’s bottomless situation.
Those still-lifes, in particular the later ones in which, like a cue ball, Derain’s white point knocks the dimensions into place, tauten space like turning a key tautens a drum. Space, thus charged to a tremulous state, is alive to the slightest emanations from a figure or an object.
At this pitch, to expand a figure or object from within can have the most profound and inexplicable effect throughout the space of the picture. Derain sought in tradition that mysterious freedom by which an object can maintain its natural position and yet exist free and unfixed. It’s at this point that Giacometti is a true and self-acknowledged heir of Derain.
Derain attempts a kind of shorthand in his landscapes. He intends each element to be freely and easily present; to state, to see, to realize the life of tree, a mystery which he seeks to penetrate with the simplest means; both Poussin and Derain paint a total landscape. Poussin’s is a total landscape claimed for the gods. For Derain it is not a question of remaking Poussin from nature, but of claiming the total landscape for total man. A landscape in which Derain cherishes the small aperture os that it is not dwarfed and lost in an all-over insistence. A landscape to which every element—whether road, or cloud, hill, or house—has an inherent relationship which it would be a cataclysm to falsify. A landscape whose amplitude implies more elements, of brush strokes, colors, etc., than are actually present. A landscape in which every part is fresh and clear.
What is the space of such a landscape? What is the good of the current labels: “shallow,” “flat non-illusionist,” “old-fashioned,” “perspective”? Are there any words to define the fragrance of the youth and simplicity which is the space of those landscapes of delight, from 1943 to 1944, the spontaneous landscapes of Donnemarie and of the Loire?
How can I define the space of Amiens which is clear and mysterious at the same time?
And these Nudes in a Landscape and The Embarkation of Cythera which Derain painted in 1945, creating in these small canvases a black space that is palpable and immense. In the Embarkation, the ground swells. Lovers converge toward a boat. Sails. Clouds. Foliage. The rhythms of the landscape and the human rhythms. The lovers, here, separate—there they move and meet. They intertwine as garlands; they gesture farewell. Again farewell. The painting echoes farewell. Ebullient white flecks that situate space with the decision and wisdom of Arp, but it is space that can drive deeply into another dimension without loss of the surface rhythm. And the Nudes in a Landscape in which with the simplest elements he gets that breathtaking vastness of space: a round of space which pulsates. The figures remain on the ground, their true place, the trees are in their proper sphere. But at the same time they interlace, these dancers and their landscape. There is this space of backness in which I can move into the trees and then come forward again. I am filled with the sensation of completeness. I have the sensation of joy.
Poussin says: “The subject is not always presented in the same mode, [the painter] varies his manner according to the subject.” And here is one of the crucial points at wich the critics are blind to Derain’s intention which is above all to meet each subject on its own terms. I have described landscapes whose surfaces have a decided character of hook and swerve of movement, of action and impulse of line; in contrast I cite certain of the 1930 St. Maximin landscapes. In these Derain does not dwell on the sense of of the implications, but rather he eliminates almost all concern for this kind of action in order to dwell more intensely on the interior orchestration of the towers, rocks, trees, bushes, and their marvelous intra-adjustment as light-dark carriers of pictorial vitality. I can relate the dark tree elements of the foreground to the light tower elements in the distant monastery. Their verticality is an apparent two-dimensional relationship, but each stays in its zone and keeps to its proper function, a tree near, a tower far. Every rock and shrub throughout, all the elements keep their distance, they are in their true place and yet they are part of an intense circulation. They are not fixed, predetermined. There is no trace of rigidity. By assuming their proper role they are liberated.
Painters since Delacroix (except for Courbet) have retreated from the total nude. Perhaps it is their reluctance to fall into the Renaissance idea of the nude as an ideal for beauty that has led them to treat the nude as a sketch, as a landscape, but never as the integral figure. In the middle and late ‘30s Derain, who was free from the Renaissance preoccupation, painted several large nudes which go beyond his nudes of the ‘20s in attempting this totality.
In 1936-38 Derain worked on Nude with Cat, the vision of a recumbent nude whose clear and continuous contours reveal the compact volumes of the figure, giving birth to a deepened space. He arrives at a light which, streaming as a mysterious translucence from within the nude’s forms, gives each volume its ultimate realization. These volumes transcend the sense of weightiness.
Arp, great master of the absolute, form his buds and swellings into beautiful exact dreams which are “human concretions.” Derain’s “concretion” is this monumental nude which he has situated between the visible and the secret. A nude burned free of its dross.
Derain probes beyond the Isms of his day to open avenues neglected, misunderstood, even scorned and despised by the majority today and therefore all the more precious and meaningful to painters in the generations to follow.