Félix Fénéon, The Anarchist Who Gave the Avant-Garde a Big Push

August 29, 2020

When we talk about the art of a certain era, we mostly focus on the leading masters and their stylistic approaches of choice. However, the art world as we know it started forming more than a hundred years ago, and thanks to the patrons and collectors, certain art practitioners got a chance to stand out and show the world their bold ideas.

The leading 19th-century figure who truly enforced the development of modern art was the French art critic, dealer, collector, editor, and publisher Félix Fénéon (1861–1944). Throughout his life, he promoted art and artists while being actively engaged in incognito as an anarchist. This double position, which will be emphasized further in the text, shows how much Fénéon was dazzled with the emerging creative impulses of his time as he kept observing and interpreting art regardless of the changing life circumstances.

To find out more about his legacy and the way he intuitively supported masters of modernism such as Georges Seurat or Henri Matisse, the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York decided to organize the exhibition titled Félix Fénéon: The Anarchist and the Avant-Garde - From Signac to Matisse and Beyond, that features around one hundred and fifty artworks affiliated with this notable art critic.

Georges-Pierre Seurat - Seated Woman with a Parasol (Study for La Grande Jatte). 1884–85. Conté crayon on paper. 18 3/4 × 12 3/8 in. (47.7 × 31.5 cm). The Art Institute of Chicago. Bequest of Abby Aldrich Rockefeller, 1999

The Influence of Félix Fénéon

Although very discrete throughout his lifetime and barely known today, Félix Fénéon was a crucial figure in the launching of careers of many influential artists. Therefore, this exhibition tends to unravel how his entrepreneurship helped artists via his acquisitions, reviews, and exhibitions; his devotion to anarchism; his literary contributions; and his appreciation of non-Western art.

The visitors are encouraged to discover the significance of his activity on the development of modernism in the late 19th and early 20th centuries with a selection of major works that this notable art critic admired, championed, and collected, alongside various documents, letters, and photographs.

Paul Signac - Opus 217. Against the Enamel of a Background Rhythmic with Beats and Angles, Tones, and Tints, Portrait of M. Félix Fénéon in 1890. 1890. Oil on canvas. 29 x 36 1/2″ (73.5 x 92.5 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Gift of Mr. and Mrs. David Rockefeller, 1991. Photo by Paige Knight. © 2019 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris

The Anarchist and the Avant-Garde

The exhibition spreads across a few galleries organized as thematic chapters in Fénéon’s multifaceted career. Interestingly so, for a long time the art critic worked as a clerk in the War Office in Paris, although he was illegally affiliated with the anarchist circles. After the bombing of a Parisian restaurant in 1894, he was arrested, imprisoned, and trailed on the suspicion of conspiracy for that event, as well as for the alleged connection with the assassination of the French President, Sadi Carnot. This period is covered with paintings, photographs, and prints that show his simultaneous connection with the artistic and literary circles of the time.

After he did his time, Fénéon started working as editor-in-chief of La Revue Blanche, a prominent journal of art and politics. This was is when he championed the artists such as Pierre Bonnard, Félix Vallotton, and Édouard Vuillard, who formed the art group Nabis. One of the exhibition highlights is the work Félix Fénéon at La Revue Blanche (1896) by Félix Vallotton, that features the editor while preparing the manuscripts under the lamplight.

The whole installation is centered around the painting Opus 217. Against the Enamel of a Background Rhythmic with Beats and Angles, Tones, and Tints, Portrait of M. Félix Fénéon in 1890 (1890) by Paul Signac, that practically acts as an icon of Neo-Impressionism, the style heavily promoted by Fénéon. This particular portrait shows the art critic’s signature look characterized by dandy attire and goatee. The background spirals evoke the Neo-Impressionist's innovative painting technique of Pointillism based on tiny dots. As a matter of fact, Fénéon was the first one who came up with the term “Neo-Impressionism” in 1886, to recognize describe the new painterly tendency pioneered by Seurat and Signac.

At the beginning of the 20th century, Fénéon started working as the artistic director at Galerie Bernheim-Jeune. Thanks to his enormous efforts, the gallery quickly gained notoriety for its exquisite program, negotiating including Henri Matisse’s solo exhibition, and the first presentation of the Italian Futurists in Paris. On display are both works from the early Matisse exhibition and a group of paintings from the landmark 1912 Futurist exhibition titled Funeral of the Anarchist Galli (1910–11) by Carlo Carrà and Revolt (1911) by Luigi Russolo.

Luigi Russolo - The Revolt, c. 1911. Oil on canvas. 59 3/8 × 90 13/16″ (150.8 × 230.7 cm). Kunstmuseum Den Haag

Félix Fénéon at MoMA

Finally, the current MoMA exhibition thoroughly analyzes Félix Fénéon’s contributions to art history not only as a passionate collector, but also as an interpreter and mediator; after all, the person responsible for the disruption of the Western artistic canon. His collection did not just include the masterpieces by the European modernists, but the sculptures from Africa and Oceania, including artifacts acquired from Cameroon, Congo, and Ivory Coast as well, the majority of them displayed on this occasion.

An extensive illustrated catalog including critical essays by French and American scholars and the chronology of Fénéon’s life and career will accompany the exhibition along with the series of public programs.

Félix Fénéon: The Anarchist and the Avant-Garde - From Signac to Matisse and Beyond will be on display at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City until 2 January 2021.

Félix Fénéon: The Anarchist and the Avant-Garde—From Signac to Matisse and Beyond | MoMA Exhibition 

Featured images: Installation views of Félix Fénéon: The Anarchist and the Avant-Garde - From Signac to Matisse and Beyond, The Museum of Modern Art, New York, August 27, 2020–January 2, 2021. Digital Image © 2020 The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Photo by Robert Gerhardt. All images courtesy of the MoMA.