Venetian Red Notebook: Othon Friesz’s Chromatic Fervor
By LIZ HAGER
Othon Friesz, Paysage (Le Bec de l’Aigle, La Ciotat), 1907
oil on canvas, 25 3/8 x 32″ (courtesy SF MOMA)
It would be easy to overlook Othon Friesz’s Paysage (Le Bec de l’Aigle, La Ciotat) in the upstairs gallery of works on permanent display at SF MOMA. Tucked just inside the entryway on the right, this gem of chromatic fervor is not directly in sight. With the far wall beckoning, one is tempted to make a bee-line across the room, ignoring the wall on which The Eagle’s Beak hangs.
That would be a shame, because the painting is just about as good an example of Fauvism—that fleeting but influential movement—as exists in the museum’s collection.
If his mother had had her way, Othon Friesz (1879-1949) would have become a musician. But, Friesz, born into a prominent shipbuilding family in Le Havre, convinced her that art was his true calling. Friesz studied at the École des Beaux-Arts (Le Havre) under neo-classicist Charles-Marie Lhuillier. There he met Georges Braque and Raoul Dufy, who would become lifelong friends, as well as fellow Fauves.
In 1898, Friesz moved to Paris to study at the Beaux-Arts under Academic painter Leon Bonnat.
Despite the academic styles of of teachers, Othon Friesz’s work this period shows the hallmarks of Impressionism—painting directly from nature, interest in the effects of light
In the first years of the new century, however, Friesz sought to break away from Impressionism. In Paris he met Henri Matisse and came under the spell of the emotional force of colors and the power of the flattened picture plane that defined the Fauvist painters. In 1905, he exhibited with the other Fauves at the seminal Salon d’Automne and again in 1906 at the Salon des Indépendants.
Like Matisse, Derain and the other Fauves, Friesz’s style owes much to Cézanne’s innovations in composition, color and brush technique. Freisz pushed color and line into the realm of the decorative, to great effect. Though the compositional lines of this painting swirl with harmonious movement, curiously Le Bec feels like an unrushed effort. It’s less like a plein air work and more deliberately thought out, more embellished as a result of the thinking.
As critic Clive Bell observed in 1921: “… Friesz has a reaction as delicate and enthusiastic as that of an English poet. Only, unlike most English painters, he would never dream of jotting it down and leaving it at that. Such hit-or-miss frivolity is not in his way. He is no amateur. He takes his impressions home and elaborates them; he brings his intellect to bear on them; and, as the exhibition at the Independent Gallery shows, without robbing them of their bloom, makes them something solid and satisfying. .” (Burlington Magazine, June 1921, p.281)
In Le Bec, Friesz has succeeded in revealing the essential character of Le Bec, a most unusual natural form. Equally important through his distinctive color palette—warm yellows and reds—he has expertly evoked the afternoon light of the Mediterranean.
By 1908, a revived interest in Paul Cézanne’s vision of the order and structure of nature had led many of them to reject the turbulent emotionalism of Fauvism in favor of the logic of Cubism. (Braque to substantial success.) And yet, the Fauves released generations of subsequent painters from the restraints of “local” color.
Le Bec stands as our own local testament to this brief, luminescent moment in the history of art.