Félix Fénéon, the collector anarchist who was Seurat’s first champion
The sympathetic and brilliant Félix Fénéon (1861-1944) is the ideal subject for such a show, as he was one of the busiest and most fascinating actors in Parisian cultural circles in the decades around the turn of the century. As a staunch dandy, he worked as a critic, editor, translator, curator, journalist, publisher, gallery owner, private trader and forward-looking collector not only of the French avant-garde, but also of non-Western art, especially African sculpture, whose aesthetic value he was early on detect. And like many artists and writers of his generation, he was a self-proclaimed anarchist who was monitored by the police and once arrested. In short, just reading the detailed chronology in the exhibition’s catalog can be exhausting.
The current exhibit was just set up when the lockdown began and will be on view for the first time when the museum reopens on August 27th. An amazing exhibition created as a collaboration between Isabelle Cahn, chief curator of the Musée d. began ‘Orsay, and Philippe Peltier, a former department head at the Musée du quai Branly-Jacques Chirac in Paris, where a much larger group of non-Western material was exhibited. The presentation of The Modern – organized by Starr Figura, curator for printmaking and drawing, in collaboration with curatorial assistant Anna Blaha – brings together the exhibitions.
The cleverly designed mixture of art, artefacts, publications and archive material traces Fénéon’s life and times. We see him in photographs and portraits, along with examples of the art he has sponsored, including numerous pieces from his own collection. These include two impressive groups: 18 drawings and paintings by Georges Seurat, the artistic passion of his life, and 18 sculptures, mainly from Central and West Africa.
Judging from the photos here, Fénéon had a supernatural sense of modern cool. He was tall and elegant, never less than impeccably dressed. His distinctive profile and small goatee evoked both Uncle Sam and the devil, which earned him the nickname Yankee Mephistopheles.
As the son of a Swiss teacher and a French businessman from Burgundy, he won prizes in school and worked as an apprentice reporter in his youth and wrote unsigned articles for a local newspaper. After a year of compulsory military service, he came to Paris at the age of 20, after having passed an examination for positions in the War Ministry. There he was considered an exemplary employee who quickly rose to become chief clerk, even if his anarchist sympathies deepened.
Until 1883, Fénéon wrote art and literary criticism for small publications, some of which he co-founded. He also contributed unsigned tracts railing against the repression by the Third Republic. By the next year he had stated in his letter that “the purpose of all governments should be to make governments unnecessary”. In April 1894 he was arrested with 29 others and charged with conspiracy to bomb a restaurant. Imprisoned for four months – in anticipation of the so-called Trial of the Thirty – he taught himself English and translated Jane Austen’s “Northanger Abbey” into French. His witty replies on the witness stand, which were reported in the press, may have contributed to his acquittal.
Fénéon is perhaps best remembered today for his critical insights, published in 1883. His career as an art critic largely ended with the fame of the Trial of Thirty, after which he distinguished himself as senior editor of the literary magazine La Revue. blanch off. He was the discoverer of Georges Seurat and coined the term Neo-Impressionism for the art movement that Seurat led with Paul Signac and the former impressionist Camille Pissarro. That was in 1886, the year Seurat’s great masterpiece “Sunday Afternoon on La Grande Jatte” was exhibited for the first time. Satisfied with Fénéon’s works, Seurat presented him with the final study for “La Grande Jatte”, which opens the exhibition, on loan from the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
For Fénéon, the Neo-Impressionists’ use of the latest scientific theories on light and color and their simple dotting technique represented an advance on the messier, more intuitive use of Impressionist colors. Her style played down the artist’s emotions and bravado and increased the autonomy of the art object, a fundamental concept of Western modernism. Autonomy was also a cardinal principle in his political views. Art and society developed in parallel for him, but both required radically new ideas for progress.
This show exudes a certain warmth of feeling. The works that used to be in Fénéon’s collection testify to both the joy and the rigor he sought in art. They are combined with striking clarity in Henri-Edmond Cross’s “The Golden Isles” (1891-92), a small painting that reduces the surface of the sea to mostly regular dabs of blue. (Think Milton Avery and Alma Thomas.) Also from Fénéon’s collection is “The Folding Bed,” a rare nude by Édouard Vuillard, a study in cream and white tones, including the pale figure nestled in the bed linen.
The high esteem that the artists he admired for Fénéon is evident in the portraits, especially in Signac’s portrayal of him as an ascetic and at the same time extravagant circus director. Shown in profile, in a golden cloak in front of a psychedelic pinwheel of patterns, he holds a top hat, cane and gloves in one hand and a single flower in the other.
The title wanders presumptuously and allegedly imitates those who gave their work to scientists: “Opus 217. Against the enamel of a rhythmic background with beats and angles, tones, and tints, portrait of M. Félix Fénéon in 1890.” Fénéon did not like the painting but kept it on its walls until Signac died in 1935.
In the late 1890s, Félix Vallotton and Vuillard painted portraits that were less extravagant. Both put Fénéon in the office of La Revue blanche, in a black frock coat, leaning grimly against his desk piled with papers. (The strict diagonal of his back confirms the military stance of his photographs.) True to her own sensitivity, Vallotton lends the office a strict, geometric severity, while Vuillard opts for an implicitly domestic softness.
In one of the most elaborate, albeit somewhat challenging, sections of the exhibition, examine various forms of printed matter, the Fénéon’s publications, political activities and the Parisian pubs where young artists and radicals often mingled. We see posters designed by artists such as Toulouse-Lautrec, Steinlen and Bonnard for the most famous cafes in the city – the Moulin Rouge, Le Chat Noir, the Folies-Bergère. Among them are Vallottons bare black and white wooden blocks of police officers attacking street demonstrators, one anarchist is arrested, another is executed. Some material documents the process of the thirty, including Fénéon’s unusually chic mug shot.
The second half of the show focuses mainly on Fénéon’s last job: his 18 years as a contemporary art dealer in the famous French gallery Bernheim-Jeune. It includes paintings by artists he brought to the gallery, such as Matisse, Bonnard and Kees van Dongen, as well as a small group of paintings by the Italian Futurists, whose first Paris exhibition Fénéon organized at the gallery in 1912.
There are unusual knockouts, including Luigi Russolo’s “Revolte” from 1911 with its screeching red squares from the Art Museum in The Hague. Matisse’s 1905 study of “The Joy of Life” from the National Museum of Art in Copenhagen is better than the iconic final work of the Barnes collection. It is more robustly painted and the scroll figures are missing. In this last gallery the non-western pieces form a phalanx in the middle; Examples of modern European paintings hang on the walls. It’s provocative – one of the most invigorating sights in a New York museum right now.
After the closure of the Revue blanche in 1903, Fénéon worked as a journalist for daily newspapers, first Le Figaro, then Le Matin. In 1906, in the months before joining Bernheim-Jeune, he wrote hundreds of briefs for a column entitled “News in three lines”, several of which are exhibited here.
These capsule accounts of scandals, murders, accidents, and crimes of passion are exquisitely made. Their dry compression and unflexed prose terrify and delight, make the injustices of everyday life all the wilder and more shocking. In one he wrote: “Allat, the watchmaker of St. Étienne, found his daughter insufficiently strict and killed her. It’s true that he still has 11 children. ”They are the living ancestors of Cubist collage, the exquisite surrealists’ corpse drawings, and all kinds of 20th century poetry. In them the esthete Fénéon and the anarchist Fénéon meet, and the non-artist becomes an artist of lasting achievement.
Félix Fénéon: The anarchist and the avant-garde – From Signac to Matisse and beyond
Until January 2 at the Museum of Modern Art, 11 West 53rd Street, Manhattan; 212-708-9400, moma.org. The museum will reopen on August 27; Season tickets must be reserved online.