In a world without coronavirus, the Missus and I would be trundling down to the Big Town in the next week or two to go a-museuming. And one of the places we’d certainly have gone is the newly reopened Museum of Modern Art to catch Félix Fénéon: The Anarchist and the Avant-Garde—From Signac to Matisse and Beyond (through January 2).
Who was Félix Fénéon? The first exhibition dedicated to this extraordinarily influential but little-known figure explores how he shaped the development of modernism. A French art critic, editor, publisher, dealer, and collector, Fénéon (1861–1944) championed the careers of young, avant-garde artists from Georges-Pierre Seurat and Paul Signac to Pierre Bonnard and Henri Matisse, among many others. He was also a pioneering collector of art from Africa and Oceania. A fervent anarchist during a period of gaping economic and social disparities, Fénéon believed in the potential of avant-garde art to promote a more harmonious, egalitarian world.
Here’s a nice Fénéon primer from MoMA.
There’s also art critic Roberta Smith’s very favorable review in the New York Times the other day, which called the exhibit “bountiful.” She also duly notes that the day job of Félix Fénéon, anarchist, was chief clerk at the French Ministry of War when he got busted.
In April 1894, he was arrested with 29 others and accused of conspiracy in the bombing of a restaurant. Jailed 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 ripostes on the stand, reported in the press, may have contributed to his acquittal.
In a 2007 London Review of Books piece, Julian Barnes provides further details.
In 1894, he was arrested in a sweep of anarchists and charged under the kind of catch-all law which governments panicked by terror attacks stupidly tend to enact …
When the presiding judge put it to him that he had been spotted talking to a known anarchist behind a gas lamp, he replied coolly: ‘Can you tell me, Monsieur le Président, which side of a gas lamp is its behind?’ This being France, wit did him no disservice with the jury, and he was acquitted.
Smith also notes Fénéon’s production of about 1200 faits divers (news briefs) for the Paris daily Le Matin.
In 1906 . . . he wrote hundreds of briefs for a column called “News in Three Lines,” several of which are on display here.
These capsule accounts of scandals, murders, accidents and crimes of passion are exquisitely wrought. Their wry compression and uninflected prose startle and please, making the inequities of everyday life they highlight all the more savage and shocking. In one, he wrote: “Finding his daughter insufficiently austere, Jallat, watchmaker of St. Étienne, killed her. It is true he has 11 children left.” They are the living ancestors to Cubist collage, the Surrealists’ exquisite corpse drawings and all kinds of 20th-century poetry. In them, Fénéon the aesthete and Fénéon the anarchist meet, and the non-artist becomes an artist of lasting achievement.
As Luc Sante wrote in his introduction to the book Novels in Three Lines, “When Féneon wrote his column in Le Matin, Picasso and Braque were just six years away from starting to cut up Le Journal for their collages . . . Fénéon seems to stand Janus-like at the juncture between this coming modernism of machine-age simultaneity and the painstaking artisanal modernism gone by of Mallarmé and the Pointillists.”
In other words, Félix Fénéon contained multitudes.
P.S. The Missus owns a letter that Pierre Bonnard wrote to Fénéon on July 7, 1924.
My dear Felix
I did the cover for Queen of Joy. I don’t know of any other book by Joze besides the ones you mentioned. Things are good here except that we are tired because of the repair work being done. But it is almost done. Won’t you come down our way? The Thadees are staying at Christophe’s inn – – our neighbors – – and we have dinner with them. Lots of love to you and Fanny.
P.P.S. Bonnard’s Queen of Joy cover was featured in Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts recent Toulouse-Lautrec and the Stars of Paris exhibit.
P.P.P.S. “The Thadees” are Thadée and Misia Natanson, the It couple of Paris at the time. Here’s Bonnard’s depiction of the two.