Félix Fénéon (1861–1944) is best known today as the effete dandy—top hat, gloves and cane in one hand, the other delicately tendering a cyclamen—in what Paul Signac called a “painted biography” of his dear friend. Considered one of the Museum of Modern Art’s fin de siècle masterpieces, the portrait bears an ornate title: Opus 217: Against the Enamel of a Background Rhythmic with Beats and Angles, Tones, and Tints, Portrait of M. Félix Fénéon in 1890. Everyone who was anyone on the Paris scene would have recognized M. Fénéon, with his long face, prominent nose, and wavy goatee, here in stiff profile against a pinwheel background of pulsating shapes and colors. Seurat called the style Pointillist, one type of the chromatically “scientific” painting Fénéon named Neo-Impressionist in 1886.
Co-organized by MoMA and two Parisian institutions, the Musée de l’Orangerie and the Musée du quai Branly-Jacques Chirac, “Félix Fénéon: The Anarchist and the Avant-Garde—from Signac to Matisse and Beyond” (on view through January 2) features Opus 217 along with dozens of paintings, posters, and ephemera by artists whom Fénéon wrote about and promoted. Notable among them are Henri Matisse and Paul Seurat, in whose careers he was particularly enmeshed, as well as Pissarro, Vuillard, Bonnard, Toulouse-Lautrec, and Vallotton. The show also includes an impressive array of the African and Oceanic sculptures—works Fénéon preferred to call les arts lointains (“distant arts”) rather than the more common art nègre, thus conscientiously avoiding the language of colonialism, against which he railed. And so we have charismatic personages from very different worlds. The eccentric denizens of Toulouse Lautrec’s Moulin Rouge, La Goulue (1891), a poster so desirable it was torn off walls almost as soon as it was pasted up (Fénéon encouraged the illegal practice, which would allow people of no means to become collectors), share the display space with an eerie power figure from the Congo in wood studded with pieces of iron. Cases of elegant statuettes from the Ivory Coast are surrounded by glowing Pointillist and Fauvist landscapes. Many of the works may be traced to Fénéon’s own collections, auctioned after his death in 1944 and here impressively sleuthed; others passed through Bernheim-Jeune, the gallery where Fénéon was artistic director from 1906 to 1924. All were in one way or another touched by the man.
The exhibition documents Fénéon’s political activity and that of his radical associates. A Zelig-like character, dubbed celui qui silence (the silent one, or he who silences) by Alfred Jarry, Fénéon was ubiquitous yet discreet, operating mainly behind the scenes as an editor, art and literary critic, translator, journalist, dealer and collector. Paradoxically, given his position in tony circles, he was a lifelong anarchist, arrested in 1894 and narrowly acquitted of a bombing he likely committed. The show includes a famous mug shot of Fénéon on the eve of the notorious Trial of the Thirty, anarchists all, and samples of his largely anonymous political and journalistic writing. Especially delicious are examples of his Twitter-like “News in Three Lines,” brief, proto-surreal reports of crimes, published in Le Matin in 1906.
Fired from his position at, of all places, France’s Ministry of War, Fénéon was hired at La Revue blanche, probably the most famous of the dozens of petites revues circulating in Paris. He remained the chief editor until its demise in 1903. There he published covers and illustrations by his Nabis friends and writing by famous figures, from Jarry and Gide to Debussy and Thadée Natanson, one of the magazine’s founders, all of whom would drop by to chat. In the back office, Fénéon pored over manuscripts. There we see him, rapt, in portraits by Vuillard and Valloton, never suspecting he would become the perfect lens through which to refract those most intriguing times.