André Derain: The Turning Road, L'Estaque


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While in art school we were virtually indoctrinated into the belief that “illustrative”, “narrative” and “decorative” elements in art were the sure sign of weak thinking and the path toward total “kitsch”. At the time I questioned such thinking. Today I reject it outright.

Many of the greatest… and many of my favorite works of art can surely be defined as “illustrative”, “narrative”… and “decorative”. Botticelli’s Primavera


Fra Angelico’s Annunciation


Simone Martini's Annunciation...


And even Michelangelo's Sistine Ceiling...


… are nothing if not “decorative”.

In spite of the certain Modernist theorists and critics, Modernism did not spell the doom of decorative art. There are more than a few decorative masterpieces from the period.


André Derain’s large, brilliantly colored painting, The Turning Road, L'Estaque is surely one of the great paintings of Modernism, and a brilliant example of the poetry of decorative painting.

Permanently on display in the Beck Collection at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, this monumental landscape represents the French village of L’Estaque, where Paul Cézanne had painted earlier. Derain made his way to southern France in 1905, joining Henri Matisse in developing the essential aspects of a new style together. This new style was characterized by a juxtaposition extreme colors, broad powerful brushwork, and a freedom from the need for any attempt at reproducing the objective world.

Paintings from L’Estaque by Matisse and Derain were exhibited in the infamous Salon d'Automne or 1905 where the artists (and their cohorts) earned the disparaging title of “les Fauves” or the “wild beasts”.


The Turning Road, L’Estaque is Derain’s masterwork… and one of the greatest achievements of Fauvism. The canvas glows with intense colors: trees burst forth in flaming red, orange, and blue. Yellow, the color of sunlight, is everywhere.



Human figures that are dispersed throughout the painting have no exact features. They are rendered in the most rudimentary manner. The heads, for example, are faceless circles. Derain's freedom from the constraints of the “real world” is celebrated in this image. It is a fantasy in color, a place where reality is overrun by the decorative impulse. The painting is every bit as audacious and brilliantly poetic as Matisse’s Le bonheur de vivre (The joy of Life), painted the same year:
The only thing, I might reject, or, I wouldn't call it "rejection" really, is when I see something someone calls "abstract" that I would personally call decorative. That does not mean it isn't art, or even fine art, it's just not exactly pure abstract to me, but I couldn't tell you where I draw that line, so it's not a hard fast rule or anything. It's a kind of on a piece by piece basis, and sometimes there are decorative aspects of an abstract when it's not solely abstract. Just like there can be some slight representational aspects in work that isn't exactly wholly representational or abstract. It's more about describing the thing than it is about categorizing it.
Abstract Expressionism rapidly became the Modern corporate decorative art de rigour. Being non-objective, it couldn't really offend anyone. At the same time, it lent the illusion that the company owning and displaying such art was up-to-date and progressive.


I don't imagine that Pollock was offended in the least by such use of his paintings. More exposure = higher prices. Rothko, however, was a true purist and would have lost his mind. He went bat-shit crazy when his gallery started hanging Pop Art in the same room with his paintings.
Yes, I tend to have a bit of brainwash when it comes to Rothko's philosophy sometimes. Not a great way to look at art across the board actually.
Sean Scully felt Rothko's paintings were non-denominational religious paintings. I can appreciate the idea. Perhaps if I were painting a tragic Crucifixion I wouldn't want it hung next to an Andy Warhol soup can or a Tom Wesselmann "Great American Nude". But at the same time, you can't assume that your pure approach to Art is the only valid one.
Yes, exactly. You can not control how your audience is going to interpret your work, ever. Your philosophy about creating your work is completely different than what it becomes after you finish it and release to the world. Completely. In fact, it no longer belongs only to you anymore, if at all. Not as a concept anymore.
There is truth here and labels are irrelevant.
I must try to get to Houston.
A Great post. Thanks.
I sat in the Chapel in Houston for a long time and as big of a fan as I am of Rothko, I have to admit I was not as impressed as I thought I'd be. But that's me. I wanted to be. I really did. It made me a little sad, and it was ominous. I'll give it that.
I wouldn't be surprised. Robert Hughes, who was certainly an admirer of Rothko spoke of the paintings in the Rothko Chaple as having the look of "having the life all drained out of them." I felt something akin to this in seeing them in reproductions. On the other hand, I did feel something more along the lines of Scully's "non-denominational religious art" upon seeing the Seagram's paintings in real life. They were on temporary display at the National Gallery of Art in Washington. It had been a long day touring first the Hirschhorn, and then walking across the mall and then through the whole of the National Gallery. I sat down in the room where the Seagram's paintings were on display... and I had to admit there was something there... something that I felt at the time was not unlike spending time in a Japanese garden... and something that only revealed itself slowly. In the next room, there were several Andy Warhol paintings. These gave up their "secrets" in a flash: Boom! And you felt all there was to them. The Rothko paintings were of a different ilk altogether. Were they as moving as the Rembrandts or Vermeers in the National Gallery. Well, let's not lose our heads, now. 😆
I might as well throw my hat away. The National gallery, in London, had a Scully exhibition on last year. It was great, escaping the throng, and all those scenes of centuries past, to enter the quiet tranquility of the Scully exhibition. I felt slightly cheated that the small squares inside the larger squares were inserts. A minor gripe.


You will never believe my surprise when, breaking through a crowd, I saw what they had been gawping at. It was one of our kitchen chairs!