For a while, before the Museum of Modern Art’s most recent expansion fractured the story it told of the evolution of adventurous art over the past century and a half, one of the first things we saw on entering the permanent collection galleries was a bold, puzzling image of a strong-featured, bearded man against a wild, proto-psychedelic background of swirls, stars, spots, and dots of brilliant hues. Shown half length, in profile, wearing a yellow coat, the protagonist held a sinister looking flower in one extended hand, a top hat and a cane in the other, everything conjured up with a flurry of tiny dots. Who was he? An aesthete? Flâneur? Performer? Showman? Painted by Paul Signac, this strange work rejoiced in the equally strange title Opus 217. Against the Enamel of a Background Rhythmic with Beats and Angles, Tones and Tints, Portrait of M. Félix Fénéon, 1890. Why was the painting where it was? Because Fénéon (1861–1944) was one of the first critics to champion many of the artists in moma’s collection of early modernism. He was a fan and supporter not only of Signac, but also of Georges Seurat, Pierre Bonnard, Edouard Vuillard, Félix Vallotton, Henri Matisse, Amedeo Modigliani, and the Italian Futurists, among others; he was, as well, a connoisseur and collector of African, Oceanic, and Native American sculpture. It turns out, however, that there was a great deal more to Fénéon than even that impressive list suggests. Now, “Félix Fénéon: The Anarchist and the Avant Garde—from Signac to Matisse and Beyond,” one of a trio of exhibitions jointly organized by curators from moma, the Musées d’Orsay et de l’Orangérie, and the Musée du quai Branly–Jacques Chirac, Paris, gives us a portrait far more complete than Signac’s profile.1

That the show is wide-ranging, unpredictable, and thought-provoking is hardly surprising. The wall text describes Fénéon as an “art critic, editor, publisher, art dealer, collector, anarchist,” to which we might add “wit, satirist, coiner of neologisms, and workaholic.” Raised in Burgundy, he moved to Paris at twenty, taking first place in the exam for a position at the War Office and soon becoming its chief clerk. He plunged just as rapidly into the heady world of the avant-garde, joining vanguard art and literary circles. While still in his twenties and early thirties, he founded several short-lived journals and wrote art and literary criticism, often anonymously, for numerous publications, reviewing the Impressionists’ exhibitions in the 1880s and coining the term “Neo-Impressionists” to describe the younger painters who took a more scientific, less intuitive approach to divided color than their older peers. While working for the War Office, Fénéon was also secretly active in literary and artistic anarchist circles. In 1894, after the bombing of a Paris restaurant frequented by members of the government, he and twenty-nine fellow anarchists were arrested. He was briefly imprisoned and eventually acquitted, although, we are told, his role in the affair remains an open question. Dismissed, not unexpectedly, from the War Office, Fénéon became the editor-in-chief of the vanguard journal of art, literature, and politics, La Revue Blanche. He ceased writing art criticism, but he was now in even closer touch with the artists associated with its publisher, Thadée Natanson, and his wife, Misia—a group that included Bonnard, Vuillard, and Vallotton, then loosely associated as “the Nabis,” among others. (Vallotton had been an anarchist before he married into the bourgeoisie—but more about that later.) At the beginning of the twentieth century, Fénéon became the artistic director of the Galerie Bernheim-Jeune, transforming the distinguished institution’s program into a showcase for such progressive artists as Matisse and the Futurists.

Fénéon’s diverse roles are brought to life at moma by a generous selection of paintings, drawings, and prints, as well as fine African, Oceanic, and Native American sculptures. Once again, as in the “old” moma, the first thing we see on entering this exhibition is Signac’s uncanny portrait. Just about everything in the exhibition, much of it emblematic of modernism as we conceive it, was owned, promoted, or written about by the portrait’s apparently indefatigable subject. This impressive selection is contextualized by posters, copies of publications, quoted writings, and photographs, including the mug shot taken when Fénéon was arrested after the bombing. (He looks just as enigmatic and craggy as he does in Signac’s portrait.) The documentary material is fascinating. Who knew that La Revue Blanche published translations of Jane Austen? There are dazzling paintings and spectacular drawings that support the contention that Fénéon is the essential, albeit largely unsung, hero of the course of European modernism. There are, as well, some works that could make us question his judgment, but as the hero is quoted as saying, “Anyone can err, especially a critic. But to express without frivolity or insincerity what one feelsI admire that.”

That Fénéon’s first love was for what he called Neo-Impressionism is made clear at the very beginning. He seems to have thought that an informed response to theories of optics and a disciplined application of divided color, as practiced by painters such as Signac, Seurat, and Henri-Edmond Cross, led to a sensation of permanence and calm, as opposed to the sense of the transience and flux provoked by the looser, more spontaneous approach of the Impressionists. Apparently, Fénéon, seeing Seurat’s scene of men relaxing on the banks of the Seine, Bathers at Asnières (1884, National Gallery, London), converted instantly to his cause. He later owned the painting, befriended the artist, and wrote frequently in praise and support of his work, unfortunately with little effect. After Seurat’s premature death, Fénéon worked to sustain his legacy, especially after retiring from Bernheim-Jeune in 1926, by tracking down the painter’s works and assembling information that formed the basis of all later research. At various times, Fénéon owned about fifty of Seurat’s paintings and 180 drawings.

Georges Seurat, Study for “A Sunday on La Grande Jatte,” 1884, Oil on canvas. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

The exhibition’s selection of works by Seurat, Signac, and their colleagues makes Fénéon’s enthusiasm palpable. It also makes clear the strengths and weaknesses of Neo-Impressionism. The systematic application of uniform touches of paint can suggest luminosity or turn into a mechanical, rather tricky type of rendering, in which supposedly radical means become subservient to traditional illusionism. Part of what makes Seurat’s Study forA Sunday on La Grande Jatte” (1884, Metropolitan Museum of Art), which Fénéon owned, so strong is its modest size. As in almost all of Seurat’s small works, the pats of pigment are relatively large in relation to the whole, except for in the fine-grained internal frame, so that the imagery, while fully recognizable, never seems literal or conventional. In Cross’s The Golden Isles (1891–92, Musée d’Orsay), which also belonged to Fénéon, the pared-down view from a pale foreground beach, across light-struck blue water, to a narrow band of distant land becomes almost abstractthink Alma Thomas avant la lettreso that we can mentally recapitulate the making of the painting, dab by dab, without being caught up in the artist’s cleverness in depicting something identifiable with an unconventional method. In Seurat’s glowing The Channel at Gravelines, Evening (1890, Museum of Modern Art), which Fénéon also owned, the simplification of the image into not-quite-frontal, not-quite-parallel bands of water, sky, and land subverts reference, turning the expanse of paint into shimmering seaside light, although the scene remains evocative of a very specific place on the northern coast of France.

The less fortunate effect of pointillism is demonstrated by a wall of large figure paintings by Signac and Maximilien Luce. One of the Signacs, Sunday (ca. 1888–90, Private collection), is an elaborate interior with a seated man and a woman looking out the window, both modishly dressed; a stiffly depicted cat crosses the foreground. (The exhibition label interprets the picture as a critique of repressive middle-class norms, citing the fact that the figures are turned away from one another. Maybe.) The Luce, Man Washing (1887, Association des Amis du Petit Palais, Geneva), depicts a subject at the opposite end of the social spectrum: a workman, stripped to the waist, bends over a washbasin in a minimally furnished room. Both paintings are unremarkable, almost academic, apart from the divided color employed to render form. But it gets worse. Signac’s enormous, heroic, pick-ax-wielding Demolition Worker (1897–99, Musée d’Orsay) is one step away from Soviet social realism. Absent the pointillist technique, that step would be even shorter.

Paul Signac, Demolition Worker, 1897–99, Oil on canvas. Musée d’Orsay.

Fénéon seems to have hoped that art could be for everyoneat least before he went to work for Bernheim-Jeune, urging those who could afford it to acquire high-quality paintingsso Signac’s and Luce’s workers might have appealed to him for multiple reasons. Luce was an anarchist, and so was Vallotton when he and Fénéon first met. A selection of Vallotton’s brilliant woodcuts, made between 1891 and 1894, leave no doubt about their author’s political leanings, dealing as they do with police brutality, a political demonstration, an anarchist, and an execution, all rooted in current events. As last year’s illuminating Vallotton exhibition at the Met made clear, these crisp, graphic imagesexplicit narratives reduced to striking essentialsestablished and still maintain his reputation. In 1899, however, Vallotton’s political allegiances seem to have changed. He married a wealthy young widow with small children, a relative of the Bernheim art dealing family, in one stroke assuring both his personal and professional comfort. Of course, only a few years later, Fénéon joined Bernheim-Jeune. Things change.

The exhibition’s selections from Fénéon’s own very large collection provide evidence of his warm relationship with the artists whose work he admired and espoused. His perceptive enthusiasm for Seurat, for example, is made plain by such intimate delights as the aforementioned Study for A Sunday on La Grande Jatte,” a trio of tiny studies of nude models (1886, all Musée d’Orsay), and some knockout conté crayon drawings. There are more “public” works as well, such as Matisse’s vibrant Fauvist image of his daughter Marguerite absorbed in a book, Interior with a Young Girl (Girl Reading) (1905–06, Museum of Modern Art), and one of the sexiest canvases the young Bonnard ever painted, Woman Dozing on a Bed (1899, Musée d’Orsay, Paris), with its open-legged nude, a cat curled up beside her, and its moody, crepuscular palette. Two textbook Modiglianis, a voluptuous sprawled nude made in 1917 and a seated portrait of his companion, Jeanne Hébuterne with Yellow Sweater (1918–19), all almond eyes and elongated neck, both now in the collection of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, remind us not only that Fénéon was closely connected to the artist, but also that when Guggenheim was first forming his own collection of modern art, he acquired twenty paintings and drawings, including these Modiglianis, from the critic/dealer’s personal holdings.

Henri Matisse, Interior with a Young Girl (Girl Reading), 1905–06, Oil on canvas. Museum of Modern Art, New York.

The Matisses provide a kind of capsule history of the artist’s relationship with Bernheim-Jeune, who represented him, thanks to Fénéon, from 1907 to 1926, essentially creating his reputation. The works on view, starting with such radiant Fauvist paintings as moma’s canvas of Marguerite reading and the enchanting Landscape near Collioure (study for “The Joy of Life”) (1905, Statens Museum for Kunst, Copenhagen), either belonged to Fénéon or were in Bernheim-Jeune exhibitions, including the retrospective organized in 1910Matisse’s first solo show in Paris, an ambitious gathering of sixty-five works. Periwinkles/Moroccan Garden (1912, Museum of Modern Art), with its glowing pinks and chalky greens, stands for the entire group of eleven paintings made during Matisse’s sojourn in North Africa in 1912 and 1913, which were exhibited at Bernheim-Jeune soon after his return to Paris. Hardly any of the works were available: most had already been spoken for by the painter’s devoted Russian patrons Sergei Shchukin and Ivan Morosov.Yet Fénéon’s canny presentation not only gave Parisians a glimpse of Matisse’s latest work, but also helped to demonstrate that he was in demand and therefore desirable.

Perhaps the most adventurous show Fénéon organized for Bernheim-Jeune was the 1912 Futurist extravaganza, which appears to have been an intensive introduction to the movement, a vivid demonstration of its take-no-prisoners attitude to modernity. The exhibit seems to have included such defining works as Giacomo Balla’s Street Light (ca. 1910–11), a paean to electricity; Umberto Boccioni’s The City Rises (1910), with its plunging horses and straining men; and Carlo Carra’s spiky, gloomy Funeral of the Anarchist Galli (1910–11, all Museum of Modern Art). (A representative selection is included in moma’s exhibition as well.) The Bernheim-Jeune exhibition is said to have secured the Futurists’ position as significant members of the avant-garde.

Fénéon was also an early and discerning collector of “art from exotic places,” as the exhibition’s fierce, sculpturally inventive African and Oceanic works attest. He seems to have responded to powerfully articulated, three-dimensional objects, such as a stunning Buffalo Helmet Mask (Kablé) from Burkina Faso (nineteenth to early twentieth century, Metropolitan Museum of Art), with its strong projections embracing space, or a group of robust heddle pulleys from the Ivory Coast.

Fénéon is a vivid presence in his deadpan photographs and in Signac’s zingy portrait, but perhaps even more tellingly in two paintings by Vuillard and Vallotton. Both show the lanky man of letters at his desk at La Revue Blanche, hunched over a pile of manuscripts, working, as he was famous for doing, through the night. Both artists had a fine time with Fénéon’s lapidary profile and with the contrast of the pale-gray and off-white interior, with its geometric cabinets, and the pale blue-green shade of the desk light. Vuillard’s portrait is more loosely painted, Vallotton’s more architectural, but both give us an unmistakable person. Excerpts from News in Three Lines, a daily column Fénéon wrote for Le Matin in 1906, offer glimpses of his sense of the absurd: “M. Jules Kezerho was president of a gymnastics club and yet he was run over trying to jump onto a streetcar in Reuil.” But it is Fénéon’s rapier-sharp responses to the judge’s questions during his trial for the restaurant bombing that really bring him to life. Fénéon and most of the other people arrested with him were, we learn, acquitted, mainly because of his wit:

Question: Your concierge claims that you welcomed a crowd of suspicious people.
Answer: Those suspicious people were painters or poets. My concierge is hardly qualified to judge them.

Question: You were seen talking to anarchists behind a lamppost.
Answer: Can you tell me, Your Honor, where behind a lamppost is?

Add this display of an agile, sharp mind to the evidence of Fénéon’s marvelous eye and enviable taste, and we leave the exhibition wishing we had known him. Fortunately, there is a first-rate, informative catalogue with contributions by the curators and other scholars that tell us an enormous amount about the man, his various careers, affiliations, collections, predilections, and relationships with artists. It’s the next best thing to sitting beside Fénéon at a dinner.

1 “Félix Fénéon: The Anarchist and the Avant Garde—from Signac to Matisse and Beyond” opened at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, on August 27, 2020, and remains on view through January 2, 2021.

This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 39 Number 2, on page 45
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