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The Gist: Why Fauvism Is the Art World’s New Impressionism

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You might not think so when you read headlines about a Van Gogh failing to sell at auction, but Impressionist and modern art are booming alongside contemporary art. So much so that good Impressionism is harder to come by these days—and collectors have moved toward a group of Expressionist artists who are not as recognizable as the Impressionists.

How high have Expressionist works gone?
In 2007, Sotheby’s sold paintings by Lyonel Feininger and Franz Marc for more than $20 million each. Next week in London, the auction houses are offering pictures by Expressionist Ernst Ludwig Kirchner and Fauvists Alexej von Jawlensky and Kees van Dongen.


Anita aux Fleurs  

Kees van who?
Van Dongen. His work appeared alongside Matisse’s in the 1905 exhibition that gave Fauvism its name. (A critic referred to the artists as “wild beasts,” or fauves, for their use of garish colors.) On February 4, Christie’s is selling one of his paintings, Anita aux Fleurs (1905), estimated at between $2.4 million and $3.5 million. To the untrained eye, it’s hard to tell the difference between this Van Dongen and a Matisse from the same period.

What exactly is Fauvism? And how’s it related to Expressionism?
“I would use Expressionism as a broader term that begins in the 1890s,” says Sotheby’s Impressionist and modern expert Simon Shaw. “It includes Van Gogh, Fauvism, and both German and Austrian Expressionism. It emphasizes emotion rather than intellect—and color rather than form. It attempts to externalize what’s interior.”


Schokko mit Tellerhut  

Name a major Fauvist work.
Alexej von Jawlensky’s Schokko mit Tellerhut (circa 1910), which goes on sale at Sotheby’s on February 5. Bought for more than $8 million in 2003, now it’s estimated at between $12.7 million and $16.6 million. Pronounced “Yav-len-sky.” Bonus fact: Friend of Kandinsky and Matisse.

If you’re that rich, why not just get a Pissarro?
“You could pay $15 million to $20 million for an A-plus Expressionist painting versus the same money on a B-plus Impressionist picture,” insists Guy Bennett, head of Christie’s Impressionist- and modern-painting department. And some collectors have a new take on the story of twentieth-century art. Once seen as a period at the end of Impressionism, Fauvism is now thought to foreshadow everything from Rothko’s use of color to Basquiat.

And it’s easy to decorate with, too.
Well, yes. “It’s not a period that makes great intellectual demands,” says Shaw. “It is equally understandable whether you hang it in Taipei or Moscow.”


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