If it was not for Félix Fénéon, perhaps we would never have heard of the Neo-Impressionists (Seurat and his followers). Who was he? Fénéon was a very colourful character, an art critic, writer, collector, publisher and promoter of art. The exhibition currently on display at the Musée de l’Orangerie is the first ever exhibition dedicated to him. Some of the key modern art figures are explored in the context of his life. The visitors even physically walk ‘through’ Fénéon as they enter the galleries.
Having discovered Georges Seurat who used the innovative technique of pointillism (Seurat called his technique divisionism), Fénéon became an ardent promoter of the artist and other Neo-Impressionists (a term Fénéon coined), such as Paul Signac, Henri-Edmond Cross, Maximilien Luce, and Théo Van Rysselberghe. He also championed the Fauvists (André Derain and Henri Matisse), the Futurists (such as Carlo Carrá, Umberto Boccioni and Giacomo Balla) and other exciting new artists including Pierre Bonnard and Amadeo Modigliani.
Félix Fénéon (1861-1944) was born in Turin, Italy. In France he began his career as a clerk in the French Ministry of War. In his spare time he wrote for various papers including La Revue Blanche and Le Figaro, as well as anarchist papers. He was an anarchist and even spent time in prison. In 1894 he was arrested as he was allegedly involved in bomb attack, which took place opposite the Senate in Paris. During the ‘Trial of the Thirty’ in the same year he was acquitted, although he had to leave his post at the Ministry.
In his review of Novels in Three Lines by Félix Fénéon, (translated by Luc Sante, NYRB, 2007), Julian Barnes quotes a very witty answer given by Fénéon to the presiding judge during the trial:
‘When the presiding judge put it to him that he had been spotted talking to a known anarchist behind a gas lamp, he replied coolly: ‘Can you tell me, Monsieur le Président, which side of a gas lamp is its behind?’’
In 1908 Fénéon was appointed the Artistic Director of the Bernheim-Jeune Gallery in Paris, where he remained until his retirement in 1924. In 1912 he organized the first exhibition of Italian Futurists in France. It’s worth mentioning that the Futurists were and remain controversial for their radicalism and the exhibition even involved a scandal (a fistfight in the gallery). Some of the ideas professed by Futurists were close to Fénéon’s own anarchistic views. In contrast to the Futurists, who were associated with extreme nationalism in Italy, Fénéon was an anarchist pacifist and anticolonialist.
Apart from collecting contemporary art, during his time at the Bernheim-Jeune Gallery Fénéon began collecting art from Africa and Oceania, not so much out of ethnographic interest, but because he saw them as great pieces of art. He called them ‘art from remote places’. Fénéon’s term describing the art of anonymous indigenous artists has a much more positive feel than more commonly used terms, ‘Non-Western’ art or ‘Non-European’ art. His collection of ‘art from remote places’ at its peak listed over 450 objects, mostly from Africa and Oceania.
Although his writings do not explain why he decided to collect those items, from his scientific-sounding catalogue descriptions we can gather that he was not interested in the ethnographic aspect of those objects (Here is an example – ‘Black mask with horns clasped by a tattooed woman with a beige body and black nipples, standing, on the sinciput of the mask’ ). While many modern artists emphasised the ‘primitive’ and ‘naïve’ appeal of those artworks, and used them as inspiration in their own art, (most notably Picasso), it seems that Fénéon did not share this approach. He saw them as pieces of art which equalled the art produced in Europe.
A particularly interesting item from Fénéon’s collection is the mask made by an unknown artist from the Bobo people of Upper Volta (Burkina Faso). When compared with photographs of Fénéon with his characteristic goatee, we notice that the mask bears uncanny resemblance to its owner.
The exhibition brings together works from Fénéon’s own collection and other works of his contemporaries which shed light on this enigmatic figure and his times. Fénéon appears throughout the exhibit in archive photographs and works by Félix Vallotton and Maximilien Luce.
Perhaps the best known portrait of Fénéon is the wonderful tribute by Paul Signac with delightfully specific title Opus 217. Against the Enamel of a Background Rhytmic with Beats and Angles, Tones and Tints, Portrait of M. Félix Fénéon in 1890. Fénéon is shown here as the magician, the maverick, the star of the show, although in real life he preferred to stay away from the spotlight. Ironically, Fénéon disliked this portrait and even said that it was ‘the least successful work painted by Signac’.
Félix Fénéon Modern Times, from Seurat to Matisse is at the Musée de l’Orangerie, Paris from 16 October 2019 to 27 January 2020.
The exhibition was organised by the Musée d’Orsay and Musée de l’Orangerie, Paris, the Musée du quai Branly – Jacques Chirac, Paris, and the Museum of Modern Art, New York. It was curated by Isabelle Cahn, chief curator at the Musée d’Orsay and Philippe Peltier, curator at the Musée du Quai Branly – Jacques Chirac.
Isabelle Cahn talks about Fénéon and the exhibition in this short video https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VkKbTUEx4vQ
Exhibition website: https://musee-orangerie.fr/en/event/felix-feneon-modern-times-seurat-matisse
 Gallery label
Photographs: Ground Impressions