The suave and brilliant Félix Fénéon (1861-1944) is the ideal subject of such a spectacle, since he was one of the most active and fascinating actors in the Parisian cultural milieu of the decades at the turn of the 20th century. A confirmed dandy, he has worked as a critic, editor, translator, curator, journalist, publisher, gallery owner, private dealer and visionary collector, not only of the French avant-garde but also of non-Western art, notably African sculpture. whose aesthetic value it was early to recognize. And like many artists and writers of his generation, he was a self-identified anarchist, watched by the police and, once, arrested. In short, just reading the detailed timeline in the show’s treasure trove of a catalog can be exhausting.
The current exhibit was just beginning to be installed when the lockdown began and will be shown for the first time when the museum reopens on August 27. An amazing sight, it began with a collaboration between Isabelle Cahn, chief curator at the Musée d’Orsay, and Philippe Peltier, former head of department at the Musée du quai Branly-Jacques Chirac in Paris, where a much larger group of material non-Western was exhibited. The presentation of The Modern — curated by Starr Figura, curator of prints and drawings, in collaboration with curatorial assistant Anna Blaha — unites the exhibits.
Its skilfully curated mix of art, artifacts, publications and archival documents traces the life and times of Fénéon. We see him in photographs and portraits, as well as examples of the art he supported, including many pieces from his own collection. Among them, two astonishing sets: 18 drawings and paintings by Georges Seurat, the artistic passion of his life, and 18 sculptures, mainly from Central and West Africa.
From the photographs here, Fénéon had an uncanny sense of modern cool. He was tall and elegant, always impeccably dressed. His distinctive profile and small goatee evoked both Uncle Sam and the devil, earning him the nickname Yankee Mephistopheles.
The son of a Swiss schoolteacher and a French salesman from Burgundy, he won prizes at school and during his teens worked as an apprentice reporter, writing unsigned articles for a local newspaper. After a year of compulsory military service, he arrived in Paris at the age of 20, after having placed first in a competition for jobs at the Ministry of War. There he was considered a model employee, rising quickly to chief clerk, even as his anarchist sympathies deepened.
By 1883 Fénéon was writing art and literary criticism for small publications, some of which he co-founded. He also contributed unsigned tracts that denounced the oppressions of the Third Republic. The following year, he had asserted in his writings, “the aim of all government should be to render government useless”. In April 1894, he was arrested along with 29 others and charged with conspiracy in the bombing of a restaurant. Imprisoned for four months – awaiting what became known as the Trial of the Thirty – he taught himself English and translated Jane Austen’s “Northanger Abbey” into French. His witty retorts on the stand, reported in the press, may have contributed to his acquittal.
Today, Fénéon is perhaps best known for his critical reflections, which he began publishing in 1883. His career as an art critic largely ended with the notoriety of Le Procès des Trente, after which he excelled as editor of the literary magazine La Revue. white. He was the discoverer of Georges Seurat and coined the term Neo-Impressionism for the art movement that Seurat led with Paul Signac and former Impressionist Camille Pissarro. It was 1886, the year when Seurat’s great masterpiece, “Sunday Afternoon on the Grande Jatte”, was exhibited for the first time. Satisfied with Fénéon’s writing on his work, Seurat entrusts him with the final study of “La Grande Jatte”, which opens the show, the loan from the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
For Fénéon, the Neo-Impressionists’ use of the latest scientific theories of light and color and their simple stippling technique represented an advancement over the more messy and intuitive paint manipulation of Impressionism. Their style minimized the artist’s emotions and skills of bravery, increasing the autonomy of the art object, a fundamental concept of Western modernism. Autonomy was also a cardinal principle in his political views. For him, art and society developed on parallel paths, but both required radical new ideas to progress.
This show exudes a certain sentimental warmth. The works formerly present in Fénéon’s collection bear witness to both the pleasure and the rigor he sought in art. They come together with startling clarity in Henri-Edmond Cross’s “The Golden Isles” (1891-92), a small painting that reduces an expanse of sea to mostly regular brushstrokes of blue. (Think Milton Avery and Alma Thomas.) Also from Fénéon’s collection, “Le lit folding”, a rare nude by Édouard Vuillard, a study in cream and white, including the pale figure nestled in the sheets.
The high regard that artists he admired felt for Fénéon is evident in the portraits, notably Signac’s depiction of him as an ascetic but flamboyant ringmaster. Shown in profile, in a gold finish against a psychedelic swirl of patterns, he holds a top hat, cane and gloves in one hand, a single flower in the other.
The title wanders pretentiously, supposedly imitating those that scholars gave to their articles: “Opus 217. Against the enamel of a rhythmic background with beats and angles, tones and tints, Portrait of M. Félix Fénéon in 1890”. Fénéon disliked the painting, but kept it on his walls until Signac’s death in 1935.
At the end of the 1890s, Félix Vallotton and Vuillard produced portraits that paid homage with less extravagance. Both place Fénéon at the desk of La Revue blanche, in a black frock coat, fiercely leaning against his desk cluttered with papers. (The strict diagonal of his back confirms the military posture of his photographs.) True to his own sensibility, Vallotton gives the office an austere and geometric rigor while Vuillard opts for an implicitly domestic softness.
In one of the more elaborate, if somewhat demanding, parts of the exhibition, various forms of print travel through Fénéon’s publications, political activities, and Parisian watering holes where young artists and radicals often rubbed shoulders. We see posters designed by Toulouse-Lautrec, Steinlen and Bonnard for the city’s most famous cafes – the Moulin Rouge, Le Chat Noir, the Folies-Bergère. Among these are Vallotton’s black and white wooden blocks showing police charging at street protesters, an anarchist arrested, another going to his execution. Some documents document the Trial of the Thirty, including the unusually dapper snapshot of Fénéon.
The second half of the exhibition focuses mainly on Fénéon’s last job: his 18 years as a contemporary art dealer at 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 Parisian exhibition Fénéon organized at the gallery in 1912. .
There are unknown knockouts, among them Luigi Russolo’s ‘Revolt’ of 1911 with its screaming red chevrons from the Kunstmuseum Den Haag. Matisse’s 1905 study for ‘The Joy of Living’, from the National Museum of Art, Copenhagen, is better than the iconic final work in the Barnes collection. It is more robustly painted and the frills are absent. In this final gallery, the non-Western pieces form a central phalanx; examples of European modernist paintings hang on the walls. It’s provocative – one of the most invigorating sights in a New York museum right now.
After La Revue blanche closed in 1903, Fénéon worked as a journalist in daily newspapers, first Le Figaro, then Le Matin. There, in 1906, in the months preceding his entry into Bernheim-Jeune, he wrote hundreds of briefs for a column entitled “News in Three Lines”, several of which are exhibited here.
These vignettes of scandals, murders, accidents and crimes of passion are exquisitely crafted. Their ironic compression and uninflected prose surprise and delight, making the inequalities of everyday life they highlight all the more wild and shocking. In one, he writes: “Finding his daughter insufficiently austere, Jallat, watchmaker of Saint-Étienne, killed her. It is true that he still has 11 children. They are the living ancestors of Cubist collage, the exquisite corpse drawings of the Surrealists, and all manner of 20th-century poetry. In them, Fénéon the esthete and Fénéon the anarchist meet, and the non-artist becomes an artist of lasting accomplishment.
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 reopens on August 27; timed tickets must be booked online.