Félix Fénéon: The Anarchist and the Avant-Garde— From Signac to Matisse and Beyond
Through January 2, 2021
By NINA MDIVANI, November 2020
People of taste are always intriguing long after they are gone and cultural breakthroughs (they may have introduced) become part of the canon. Félix Fénéon is such a figure: an art critic, publisher, editor, collector, art dealer in addition to being an aesthete, a famous wit, and an anarchist. The current ongoing show at MoMA, Félix Fénéon: The Anarchist and the Avant-Garde—From Signac to Matisse and Beyond richly documents the legacy of this multifaceted, talented man through a vast array of superb paintings, sculptures, photographs and archival material. The show is reiteration of 2019 exhibition at Musée du Quai Branly-Jacques Chirac, Paris and is curated by MoMA’s Starr Figura in collaboration with Isabelle Cahn, chief curator at the Musée d'Orsay and Philippe Peltier, former Head of the Oceania and Insulindia Heritage Unit at the Musée du Quai Branly-Jacques Chirac.
This strong curatorial work provides a fresh perspective on movements that at some point were indeed revolutionary and the person who helped to crystalize them. This is achieved by combining choice pieces of Seurat, Signac, Bonnard, Toulouse-Lautrec, Vuillard, Matisse, Modigliani and Italian futurists from New York museums with works from Fénéon’s extensive collection. It is also interesting to consider how many of these artists were ardent political activists and how much of their art has been ideological, a fact somewhat forgotten now. Fénéon and his political engagement was important for reawakening political consciousness in his contemporaries. And some of his deep friendships with Seurat, Signac and others were solidified on these grounds. Yet, most importantly Fénéon was intuitively attuned to art and felt it on a deeper level. His striking 1890 portrait by Seurat gives a glance at this connection with intangible, sacral harmonies. John D. Rockfeller who owned this exact portrait and prominently displayed it in his office, must have felt inspired by it too.
Fénéon moved to Paris in 1880s in his early twenties, starting to work as a clerk for the Ministry of War and simultaneously plunging into a rich atmosphere of fin de siècle Paris, bubbling with exciting new ideas. Here Fénéon found his tribe and calling, responding sincerely and critically to what he saw, connecting with artists he championed throughout his life. He was to Seurat who David Sylvester was to Francis Bacon, introducing him to important critics, dealers, collectors and meticulously preserving Seurat's legacy after his early passing. Fénéon also used Seurat’s work as an example for the new term he proposed in 1887 essay. Contesting popular comparison to mosaics and tapestries, Fénéon rather insisted that Neo-Impressionism blended properties of “luminous matter …as if the craftmanship vanished; the eye now solicited by the very essence of painting.”
On view are wonderful works from 1880s and 1890s, period when Neo-Impressionism was finding its momentum. George Seurat’s study for iconic A Sunday on La Grande Jatte is hanging close to masterful Sunday by Paul Signac. The latter portraying loveless bourgeois couple turned away from each other uses pointillism to a degree of full naturalism. Other works here underline the connection between new scientific ideas associated with color and color combination and beliefs in an alternative political system. Paul Signac’s massive Demolition Worker, 1897-1899 and In the Time of Harmony: The Golden Age Has Not Passed It Is Still To Come (Reprise), 1896 are both testaments to Signac’s and Fénéon’s disillusionment with the existing inequality, adverse working conditions, proto-capitalism and yearning for a better tomorrow.
At the time Fénéon decided to not only write about his ideas in the politically divisive magazines and newspapers of the day, but also was actively involved with underground anarchistic groups. In April 1894 he was arrested in connection with series of bombings. He was imprisoned for three months and along with other anarchists judged in the Trial of the Thirty under charges of criminal association, suggesting public propaganda of anarchist ideas. Fénéon was supported by the outstanding symbolist poet Stéphane Mallarmé and eventually acquitted for the lack of evidence. The exhibition presents extensive documentation of the trial, its participants, illustrations from the current press.
After the trial Fénéon took up his most important job in the art industry, namely becoming director of renowned commercial gallery of Bernheim-Jeune, working with only contemporary artists. Among the artists who got their first representation through Fénéon were Kees van Dongen, Pierre Bonnard, who stayed with the gallery for thirty years, and Henry Matisse, who was little known at the time. Fénéon convinced Matisse to sign an exclusive contract with the gallery, giving the artist his first retrospective in 1910. Matisse remained with the gallery for the next twenty years. Along with helping these young, immense talents Fénéon was creating his own extensive collection, purchasing work from all noteworthy artists of the day. Several works by Matisse on view at the exhibition represent him at his best; fluid, simple, groundbreaking, and humane.
In 1912 Fénéon organized another important event of the time, The Italian Futurist Painters, presenting young Umberto Boccioni, Giacomo Balla, Gino Severini, Luigi Russolo, Carlo Carra to the Parisian public for the first time. Adding this new ideological, left-leaning force to the European avant-garde was most likely his lofty plan. On view are energetic works from these artists that to modern eye are too full of the failed communist aesthetic.
One important part of this multilayered exhibition is inclusion of few striking pieces from Fénéon’s extensive collection of ceremonial objects, figures, and masks of French Equatorial Africa, Oceania, the Americas. As a few other writers and artists of his time Fénéon extensively purchased and displayed objects from the colonies. As an art critic he advocated for a deeper enquiry into their aesthetic and ethnographic meanings and how the two coincide and differ.
At the time of his passing Fénéon amassed an extensive collection of art, all of it sold through several auctions rather than bequeathed to museums. “I aspire only to silence,” was Fénéon’s credo when it came to his collection. It seems appropriate for a person who was intuitive in his curatorial pursuit and who was able to see unusual where others failed. In sum, this exhibition does justice to this energetic and visionary figure as well as it does to the ambiguous time when art equaled politics. WM
Nina Mdivani is Georgian-born and New York-based independent curator, writer and researcher. Her academic background covers International Relations and Gender Studies from Tbilisi State University, Mount Holyoke College and Museum Studies from City University of New York. Nina's book, King is Female, published in October 2018 in Berlin by Wienand Verlag explores the lives of three Georgian women artists and is the first publication to investigate questions of the feminine identity in the context of the Eastern European historical, social, and cultural transformation of the last twenty years. Nina has contributed articles to Hyperallergic, Flash Art International, The Brooklyn Rail, JANE Magazine Australia, NERO Editions Italy, XIBT Magazine Berlin, Eastern European Film Bulletin, Indigo Magazine, Arte Fuse. As curator and writer Nina is interested in discovering hidden narratives within dominant cultures with focus on minorities and migrations. You can find out more about her work at ninamdivani.com