THE early 20th-century canvases of the French Fauves, crammed with exuberant brush work, hallucinatory color, and picturesque landscapes have long been ripe targets for an exhaustive museum examination. The Los Angeles County Museum has taken the task to hand, mounting a comprehensive, in-depth look at French Fauve art, with special emphasis on the landscape genre as the common denominator of this loose group of painters.
Titled ``The Fauve Landscape: Matisse, Braque, Derain, and Their Circle,'' this labor-intensive traveling show stays here until Dec. 30 and includes over 175 Fauve paintings culled from a prestigious roster of museums and private collections in Europe, the United States, Russia, and Japan.
The French Fauves had their rather short- lived ``moment'' in the history of art between 1905 and 1908. These artists enjoyed the distinction of shuttling into the 20th century many of the 19th-century innovations that determined the character of modern art as we know it.
The thoughtfully chosen entries and a copious, high-brow catalog bring into realistic focus a group of painters known to us mostly by a famed association and an ill famed anecdote.
The famous association is, of course, with the stellar 20th-century master, Henri Matisse, who formed the aesthetic hub of the movement and whose early works were executed in the Fauve style.
The anecdote that served to more or less emblazon the Fauve identity into popular consciousness involves the art critic Louis Vauxcelles who, on viewing a classical sculpture exhibited alongside a room full of Fauve paintings, described the experience in a 1905 art review as ``Donatello among the fauves'' - fauves meaning ``wild beasts'' in French.
For nearly eight decades, this reference to the ``fauves'' has stuck. Not necessarily because wildness was an accurate or thought out description of the artists or their work, but rather because by 1905 a proper and programmatic degree of outrage by critics and public was (and remains) part of the avant-garde phenomenon.
On the basis of a hasty epithet codified by the turn of the century art press we have formed a conception of Fauve artists as raucous revolutionaries bent on making purposely outrageous art.
This exhibition lays that clich'e and a host of others definitively to rest. It astutely expands our exposure to the many artists working in the Fauve style, making it clear that Matisse may have formed the movement's nucleus but not necessarily its exclusive point of origin.
Alongside primary Fauves like Matisse, Andr'e Derain, and Maurice de Vlamink, the show treats viewers to a rare look at lesser-known, often equally inspired Fauves such as George Braque (who we tend to associate only with Cubism), Raoul Dufy, Charles Camoin, Othon Friez.
Further, excellent historical research in the catalog confirms what the paintings themselves boldly tell us. Most Fauve artists were not revolutionaries in spirit or in technique. They were a friendly, mainly bourgeoisie bunch that did not toil in dusty Paris attics. Rather, they traveled in convivial pairs or groups throughout France and Europe, painting side by side and joining middle class tourists in quaint vacation resorts.
The natural beauty of those places inspired the voluptuously hued sea scapes, village scenes, and harbor vistas documented in this show.
In addition to the sheer visual appeal of the canvases on view, the dominant theoretical impression conveyed by this exhibition is that Fauvism was a turn of the century watershed that functioned to preserve, synthesize, and reanimate all the modern art lessons and inroads that had come before.
In Derain's eerily provocative ``Dance,'' or ``Turning Road, L'Estaque,'' (as in all the stunning canvases by this inventive artist) we feel a thorough understanding of Gauguin's audacious, irrational color and his knack for conveying the primitive and unspoiled spirit of things.
In Vlamink's unique technicolor villages made from serpentine ribbons of dense paint, we can't help but see Van Gogh's legacy of sinuous, expressive brushwork and his intense connection with the land.
In Braque's puzzle-piece, hillside huts we find C'ezanne's dictum that the modern artist's task is not to slavishly copy nature, but rather to reinterpret and restructure reality into the new language of avant-garde painting, i.e. harmonious relationships between shape, color, and line.
FINALLY and almost without exception, every canvas in this show carries on and revitalizes the Impressionist notion that color and light formed the basis of what an artist saw and could depict.
By the early 1900s when the Fauves came into their own, many key players in the unfolding drama of modern art were fading fast; Seurat and Van Gogh were dead, Gauguin had retired to the Marquesas, Lautrec was ill, and Degas and Monet were both going blind.
The Fauves forged their art in the crucible of this fin de si'ecle vacuum and they set for themselves the not small, three-fold task of keeping alive to some extent the long French tradition of elegant, idyllic art, safeguarding the formal and expressive advances of modernism already in place, while also pioneering novel ground.
``The Fauve Landscape'' seems to indicate that they succeeded in this delicate enterprise. Whether they were capturing the quaint suburbs of Paris, the sun drenched sea ports along the Mediterranean shore, the bustle along London's Thames river or the quiet villages of Antwerp, these Fauve painters pull us precipitously into pictorial terrain that is both exotic and unchartered, yet warm and familiar.
After its debut here, the exhibition will go to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York (Feb. 19 to May 5, 1991) and then to the Royal Academy of Art in London (June 10 to Sept. 1, 1991).