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She Scoured the Landscape for Fauve Art : Like a detective in a whodunit, curator Judi Freeman followed every clue that might lead her to paintings by 'the wild beasts,' and the result of her four-year quest is on display at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art

November 25, 1990|NANCY KAPITANOFF | Kapitanoff is a Los Angeles writer.

Judi Freeman has been pondering the meaning of landscapes in paintings for a long time. Ten years ago in a graduate course on Impressionist landscape at Yale University, she wondered if landscape paintings might contain content other than what is seen on a canvas. She went so far as to write a paper suggesting that the houses in Cezanne's paintings really represent a face, perhaps Cezanne's alter ego.

That paper raised the eyebrows of her faculty adviser, but he could not have known that Freeman's unusual investigation into landscape painting would lead to the stunning Fauve Landscape exhibition at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

"Seeds for this exhibition were sown in that graduate seminar," said Freeman, an associate curator of 20th-Century art at LACMA and exhibit organizer. "I wanted to extend that kind of inquiry into the Fauve artists, to explore what's the meaning of that art. I felt something spectacular could be done if their work were treated seriously."

"The Fauve Landscape" features more than 170 paintings created by French artists such as Henri Matisse, Georges Braque, Andre Derain, Maurice de Vlaminck, Raoul Dufy and others between 1904 and 1908. It is an art exhibition and a social history of the artists and their time.

The Fauves connected informally through their friendships. They painted outdoors, often in pairs, positioning their easels side by side. Using vibrant, saturated colors and vigorous brushwork, their paintings presented a daring new way to depict nature.

The paintings shocked the public and earned the artists the name les fauves (the wild beasts) from an art critic of their day. The name stuck, and by the time the Fauve period came to a close, the young painters had profoundly influenced the subsequent development of painting in the 20th Century.

Freeman worked on the exhibition for nearly four years, about as long as the Fauve period itself. "We spent longer on the paintings than they did," she said with a hearty laugh. When she started her research, she was aware of about 65 paintings that fit within the concept of the exhibit. Determined to find every Fauve landscape painting that still existed, her meticulous search took her all over the world.

Freeman began her quest by scouring books and magazines for pictures of Fauve landscapes. She scrutinized records at Sotheby's and Christie's auction houses in New York and London for information on the whereabouts of paintings. She amassed notes on more than 800 paintings.

"We tried to trace every one of those paintings, and found at least 500 of them," she said with some pride. "I found paintings everywhere, from Japan to South America, Israel, the Arab world and the Soviet Union."

One of the paintings Freeman could not get is in Iran. Derain's "The Golden Age" was last seen at the Museum of Modern Art in Tehran.

"I did call the State Department, but they said, 'Forget it, sweetheart.' "

Like a detective in a whodunit, she followed every clue that might lead her to Fauve landscapes. In Paris, and armed with just the family name of a man who had been given Fauve paintings in 1905 by his father-in-law, she took out the Paris phone book and called everyone with the same last name.

"I finally got this one couple who said, 'How did you get our name?' and I told them, going through the telephone book. I always started out with the positive, 'I hear you have a painting. . . .'

"They said if I could come over in 10 minutes I could see the painting. I ran over to their place. They opened the door to this very elegant, dark apartment and walked me down the hall. There was nothing on the walls, and all these doors were closed. It looked like the apartment had been ransacked.

"They opened one door, and it was to the bathroom. They had one painting sitting on the toilet waiting for me to see. That was it. They weren't going to let me see anything else in the apartment. They said I could not borrow the painting and I could never say where I saw it. It was a terrible tease, but at least they let me see it. It was a stunning painting." The painting was a small landscape by Derain.

By the time Freeman quit wandering the globe, she had seen about 90% of the paintings that were loaned to LACMA for the exhibition. She had also traveled to all the locations where the Fauves had painted--Saint-Tropez, L'Estaque, Collioure, to name a few--to see the actual landscapes and to talk with city historians and the oldest residents in the towns. Funding for her travels came from the Ford Motor Co. and the National Endowment for the Arts.

For Freeman, though, the soul of the Fauve period is the interaction among the artists.

"The paintings are not going to talk to you about that. People are."

Her desire to "get inside the artist's head" took her beyond the published interviews with Matisse and the autobiographies of Vlaminck to the artists' families.

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