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Every exhibition tells a story, usually about an artist or groups of them. Occasionally, however, some shows focus on non-artists: individuals who work as art dealers, curators, critics or collectors. Essential to a functioning art world, they don’t make things. They make things happen.
Such shows have been on the rise in New York lately, revealing the broader contexts of modern art. The latest is the bountiful “Félix Fénéon: The Anarchist and the Avant-Garde — From Signac to Matisse and Beyond” at the Museum of Modern Art. (Its immediate predecessors include last year’s “Lincoln Kirstein’s Modern” at MoMA and “Edith Halpert and the Rise of American Art” at the Jewish Museum.)
The suave and brilliant Félix Fénéon (1861-1944) is the ideal subject for a show of this kind, because he was one of the busiest, most fascinating players in Parisian cultural circles in the decades around the turn of the 20th century. A confirmed dandy, he worked as a critic, editor, translator, curator, journalist, publisher, gallerist, private dealer and prescient collector, not only of the French avant-garde but also of non-Western art, especially African sculpture whose aesthetic value he was early to recognize. And like many artists and writers of his generation, he was a self-identified anarchist, surveilled by police and, once, arrested. In short, just reading the detailed chronology in the show’s treasure of a catalog can be exhausting.
The current exhibition was just beginning to be installed when the lockdown began. It went on view for the first time Thursday when the museum reopened. An amazing show, it began as a collaboration between Isabelle Cahn, chief curator at the Musée d’Orsay, and Philippe Peltier, a former department head at the Musée du quai Branly-Jacques Chirac in Paris, where a much larger group of the non-Western material was exhibited. The Modern’s presentation — organized by Starr Figura, curator of prints and drawings, working with curatorial assistant Anna Blaha — unites the shows.
Its deftly laid-out mix of art, artifacts, publications and archival material retraces Fénéon’s life and times. We see him in photographs and portraits, along with examples of the art he supported, including numerous pieces from his own collection. Among them are two stunning groups: 18 drawings and paintings by Georges Seurat, the artistic passion of his life, and 18 sculptures, primarily from Central and West Africa.
Going by the photographs here, Fénéon had a preternatural sense of modern cool. He was tall and elegant, never less than impeccably attired. His distinctive profile and small goatee evoked both Uncle Sam and the devil, earning him the nickname the Yankee Mephistopheles.
The son of a Swiss schoolteacher and a French salesman from Burgundy, he won prizes in school and while in his teens worked as an apprentice reporter, writing unsigned pieces for a local newspaper. After a year of mandatory military service, he arrived in Paris at the age of 20, having placed first on a competitive exam for jobs at the Ministry of War. There he was considered a model employee, rising quickly to the position of 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 railed against the oppressions of the Third Republic. By the next year, he had asserted in his writing, “the purpose of all government should be to make government unnecessary.” 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.
Today, Fénéon is perhaps best remembered for his critical insights, which he began publishing in 1883. His career as an art critic largely ended with the notoriety of the Trial of the Thirty, after which he excelled as executive editor of literary magazine La Revue blanche. He was the discoverer of Georges Seurat and coined the term neo-impressionism for the art movement that Seurat spearheaded with Paul Signac and erstwhile impressionist Camille Pissarro. This was in 1886, the year Seurat’s great masterpiece, “Sunday Afternoon on La Grande Jatte,” was first exhibited. Pleased with Fénéon’s writing on his work, Seurat gave him the final study for “La Grande Jatte,” which begins the show, on loan from the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
For Fénéon, the neo-impressionists’ use of the latest scientific theories of light and color and their straightforward dotting technique represented progress over the messier, more intuitive paint handling of impressionism. Their style downplayed the emotions and bravura skills of the artist, increasing the autonomy of the art object, a concept basic to Western modernism. Autonomy was also a cardinal principle in his political views. For him art and society developed along parallel tracks, but both required radical new ideas for progress.
This show exudes a certain warmth of feeling. The works formerly in Fénéon’s collection attest to both the pleasure and the rigor he sought in art. They come together with striking clarity in Henri-Edmond Cross’ “The Golden Isles” (1891-92), a small painting that reduces an expanse of 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 creams and whites, including the pale figure nestling in the bedclothes.
The high regard that the artists he admired felt for Fénéon is evident in the portraits, most notably Signac’s depiction of him as an ascetic yet flamboyant ringmaster. Shown in profile, in a gold topcoat against a psychedelic pinwheel of patterns, he holds a top hat, cane and gloves in one hand, a single flower in the other.
The title rambles pretentiously, supposedly imitating those that scientists gave to their papers: “Opus 217. Against the Enamel of a Background Rhythmic 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 died in 1935.
In the late 1890s, Félix Vallotton and Vuillard painted portraits that paid homage less extravagantly. Both place Fénéon at the office of La Revue blanche, in a black frock coat, leaning fiercely into his desk, which is piled with papers. (The strict diagonal of his back confirms the military posture of his photographs.) True to their own sensibilities, Vallotton gives the office an austere, geometric rigor while Vuillard opts for an implicitly domestic softness.
In one of the exhibition’s most elaborate, if somewhat challenging stretches, various forms of printed matter surveying Fénéon’s publications, political activities and the Parisian watering spots where young artists and radicals often mixed. We see posters designed by the likes of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Théophile Steinlen and Pierre Bonnard for the city’s best-known cafes — the Moulin Rouge, Le Chat Noir, the Folies-Bergère. Among these are Vallotton’s stark black-and-white woodblocks of police officers charging street demonstrators, an anarchist being arrested, another going to his execution. Some material documents the Trial of the Thirty, including Fénéon’s unusually dapper mug shot.
The show’s second half concentrates primarily on Fénéon’s final employment: his 18 years as dealer of contemporary art at famed French gallery Bernheim-Jeune. It includes paintings by artists he brought to the gallery, like Henri Matisse, Bonnard and Kees van Dongen, as well as a small group of paintings by the Italian futurists, whose first Paris show Fénéon organized at the gallery in 1912.
There are unfamiliar knockouts, among them Luigi Russolo’s “Revolt” of 1911 with its screeching red chevrons from the Kunstmuseum Den Haag. Matisse’s 1905 study for “The Joy of Life,” from the National Museum of Art in Copenhagen, is better than the iconic final work in the Barnes Collection. It’s more robustly painted, and the curlicue figures are absent. In this final gallery, the non-Western pieces form a phalanx down the center; examples of European modernist paintings hang on the walls. It’s provocative — one of the most invigorating sights in a New York museum at the moment.
After La Revue blanche closed in 1903, Fénéon worked as a journalist at daily newspapers, first Le Figaro, then Le Matin. There, in 1906, in the months before he started at Bernheim-Jeune, 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.
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