The Rest Is Silence

FÉLIX FÉNÉON: THE ANARCHIST AND THE AVANT-GARDE BY ET AL. AND PHILIPPE PELTIER ISABELLE CAHN BY STARR FIGURA. NEW YORK: MUSEUM OF MODERN ART. 256 PAGES. $65.

The cover of FÉLIX FÉNÉON: THE ANARCHIST AND THE AVANT-GARDE

Two portraits of Félix Fénéon bookend his wide-ranging life and deeds. One, a highly stylized canvas by Paul Signac (1890) of the man as art critic, shows a “decorative Félix,” in gangly, goateed profile, proffering a lily against a background of swirling psychedelic colors. The other, a mug shot taken four years later, captures him as a prime suspect in a restaurant bombing. These twin personas, the aesthete and the activist, conspired to produce one of the truly unusual personalities of the French fin de siècle.

Among the most influential critics, journalists, editors, and gallerists of his era, Fénéon was a study in contrasts: a committed anarchist who worked for both the French War Ministry and the conservative newspaper Le Figaro; a communist who wooed rich collectors as a commercial art dealer; an indefatigable impresario who nonetheless kept to the shadows; a prolific writer who greeted a publisher’s offer with the lapidary rebuff “I aspire only to silence.” His conspicuous appearance, which Hilary Spurling has described as “tall, desiccated, austerely elegant . . . like a cross between Uncle Sam and the boneless music-hall performer Valentin le Désossé,” exacerbated the disorienting strangeness of his perceptions. Though Félix Fénéon: The Anarchist and the Avant-Garde, the catalogue to a major exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, tries heroically to craft an in-the-round picture of the man, it falls short of conveying just how deeply weird and singular Fénéon was, even for an age that produced its share of great eccentrics.

Born in Turin to a French family in 1861, Fénéon moved to Paris at the age of twenty to take a job at the War Ministry, having placed first on the competitive employment exam. Though he’d taken the test merely as a lark, he soon rose to the position of chief clerk and was considered a “model employee.” At the same time, he moved in the most advanced artistic and literary circles, frequenting Stéphane Mallarmé’s celebrated Tuesday soirees, and wrote about art, literature, and politics for numerous left-leaning periodicals. He helped produce the first publication of Arthur Rimbaud’s Illuminations (the poems, entrusted by Rimbaud to Paul Verlaine and having survived an embargo by Verlaine’s ex-wife, eventually landed with the magazine editor Gustave Kahn, who commissioned Fénéon to turn them from a sheaf of loose pages into a manuscript). Fénéon would go on to publish early work by Proust, Alfred Jarry, Guillaume Apollinaire, and Léon Blum, as well as the first French translation of James Joyce. As editor of the esteemed literary periodical La revue blanche, he ran music criticism by Debussy, book reviews by Gide, and illustrations by the likes of Édouard Vuillard, Félix Vallotton, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, and Pierre Bonnard. If a cutting-edge figure was emerging in the arts, somewhere in the background Fénéon was likely to be pushing him forward.

Alphonse Bertillon, Fénéon. Félix. (detail), 1894, albumen silver print, 4 1⁄8 × 2 3⁄4". The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York/Gilman Collection
Alphonse Bertillon, Fénéon. Félix. (detail), 1894, albumen silver print, 4 1⁄8 × 2 3⁄4". The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York/Gilman Collection

Fénéon’s main public activity, and no doubt the reason for the MoMA show, was as an art writer and promoter. It is largely to him that figures such as Signac, Georges Seurat, and Henri Matisse—and movements like the Nabis and the Fauves—owe their prominence. He coined the term “neo-Impressionism” in 1886 to distinguish the dot-and-dab technique of pointillists like Seurat (whom he championed enthusiastically) from the gauzier productions of orthodox Impressionists like Monet, whose work Fénéon dismissed as “a brilliant vulgarity.” His writings about neo-Impressionism rely heavily on the scientific color theory in vogue at the time and contain enough jargon, neologism, and stylistic convolution to give October a run for its money. Explaining mathematician Charles Henry’s concept of linear affect, he writes: “We will thus symbolize agreeable or dynamogenic excitations by directions from low to high and from left to right; the disagreeable or inhibitory, by directions from high to low and from right to left”—an elucidation that likely left his readers as completely in the dark as when they began.

As he was proselytizing for a new art, Fénéon was quietly laboring to emancipate French society from what he saw as crippling authoritarianism, believing—as the Surrealists later did, though Fénéon would have little contact with them—that a disruptive aesthetic was essential to any meaningful social upheaval. To get his message across, he wrote not only for art journals but also for the anarchist press, toggling between the academic density of the former and the “proletarian” patois of the workingman’s tabloid: “Day’ll come, Goddam, when art will fit into the life of ordinary Joes, just like steak and vino . . .” (Fénéon’s stabs at prole-speak are not well served by the translations in this book.) He called for a fire to “cleanse” the stodgy French museums, declaring that “anything really new . . . to be accepted, requires that many fools die.” But the radicals turned out to be a tougher audience even than the bourgeois, and in one of his notes, Fénéon admitted that “these political revolutionaries” were “not very revolutionary in art.”

It wasn’t only in writing that Fénéon ex-pressed his ideals. Practicing “propaganda by deed,” he helped the anarchist Émile Henry commit one of his bomb attacks, lending him his mother’s dress as a disguise, and in 1894 he was tried for the bombing of the Foyot restaurant. Mallarmé was called as a character witness, though Fénéon seems to have needed little help. Reports in the press show him verbally outmaneuvering the prosecution at every turn: “The judge observed, ‘It has been established that you surrounded yourself with [anarchists] Cohen and Ortiz.’ Fénéon responded, smiling, ‘One can hardly be surrounded by two persons; you need at least three’—repartee that provoked an explosion of laughter in the room.” Despite the evidence against him, he was acquitted, though the scandal of the affair cost him his job at the ministry after thirteen years of exemplary service. As it happened, Fénéon most likely had planted the bomb at Foyot, which injured one person: his friend and fellow anarchist Laurent Tailhade, who was romancing his mistress there that day.

In 1906, Fénéon joined the gallery Bernheim-Jeune. All the while retaining, in the words of one catalogue author, “his literary sensibility and the sulfurous scent of his anarchism,” he proved to be a shrewd and opportunistic businessman, enticing Matisse and Kees van Dongen away from rival galleries and attracting the paying public to shows of little-known artists. At the same time, his commercial instincts were tempered by personal ethics, as when he dissuaded an eager couple from buying a Matisse, explaining to the miffed artist: “But, my dear friend . . . you surely did not want your beautiful compositions to go live with those stuffy people!”

Despite his copious writings, Fénéon never emerged as a literary figure during his lifetime; most of his work was published anonymously or under pseudonyms, and no book appeared under his name until after his death in 1944. In English, virtually the only work by him is Luc Sante’s 2007 translation of his human-interest pieces, Novels in Three Lines. These unsigned news fillers, written for a Paris daily over the course of several months, distill all the black humor of the “morbidly ill” Third Republic into mere sprinkles of words: “Mme Fournier, M. Vouin, M. Septeuil, of Sucy, Tripleval, Septeuil, hanged themselves: neurasthenia, cancer, unemployment,” goes one; and another: “Finding his daughter, 19, insufficiently austere, Jallat, watchmaker of Saint-Étienne, killed her. It is true that he has 11 children left.” Perhaps more than any other of his works, these micro-slices of life, around twelve hundred of them in all, showcase Fénéon’s gift for astringent hilarity and unconventional observation, and constitute one of the most disconcerting histories ever produced of bourgeois society.

Given the paucity of material in English, Félix Fénéon: The Anarchist and the Avant-Garde offers a rare opportunity to broaden our awareness of this polymath. The book covers the ground reasonably well, and in some ways too well: Its old-school catalogue approach, with many short essays parsing wafer-thin topics, makes for an exhaustive picture but also a fair amount of repetition. We learn several times that Fénéon’s activities represented a “milestone in the history of modernism” (the phrase itself gets repurposed); that Fénéon disliked Signac’s “decorative” portrait of him; that he was tried for the bombing, edited La revue blanche, worked at Bernheim-Jeune; and so on. One can take this as dabs of color coalescing into a nuanced likeness, or as simple redundancy. One can also find certain of these essays, especially those that discuss, say, the minutiae of museum acquisitions, rather tedious. Fortunately, Fénéon’s acerbic, enigmatic personality mostly carries the day.

Shortly before his death, Fénéon destroyed his unpublished manuscripts, possibly including complete literary works. “It was pathetic, and yet admirable,” the art historian John Rewald memorialized, “to see his efforts to leave nothing behind him but admiration in the hearts of those who had known and loved him. Perhaps he would have wanted to destroy that admiration too if he knew how.” As a final bid against posterity, this was one aspiration to silence that ultimately failed.

Mark Polizzotti’s books include Revolution of the Mind: The Life of André Breton (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1995) and Sympathy for the Traitor: A Translation Manifesto (MIT Press, 2018). He lives in Brooklyn.