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Art and Anarchy

Félix Fénéon: Aesthete and Anarchist in Fin-de-Siècle Paris

by Joan Ungersma Halperin, foreward by Germaine Brée
Yale University Press, 425 pp., $35.00

Anarchism and Cultural Politics in Fin de Siècle France

by Richard D. Sonn
University of Nebraska Press, 365 pp., $29.95

When in 1922 the Metropolitan Museum in New York organized an exhibition of modern French painting, the Paris Bulletin de la Vie Artistique reported that a “Committee of Citizens and Friends of the Museum” had published a protest:

We see in this so-called art one of the symptoms of the general revolutionary movement which is pursuing all over the world the subversion of all faith and the ruin of our social system.1

It is a familiar reaction; and the idea that artistic and political revolutions are closely associated is a common one. But when it comes to tracing the exact links between them, things become more difficult. Not only have many “advanced” artists held notably conservative political views—Yeats, Eliot, Stravinsky, for example—but there have also been suggestions that modernism was one of the sources of fascism, while it was common a few years ago to regard American abstract painting as a tool of American imperialism.

There is, however, one moment when the links between advanced art and revolution seem clear enough: in France at the end of the nineteenth century, when the anarchist movement was flourishing and a number of leading artists actively supported it. The subject has been much studied ever since Eugenia W. Herbert’s The Artist and Social Reform was published nearly thirty years ago;2 and from the anarchist side Jean Maitron’s definitive Le Mouvement Anarchiste en France3 has given us a vast amount of detailed information about the anarchists. A central figure connecting artists to the anarchist movement was the critic Félix Fénéon (1861-1944), and, even if he remains rather a mysterious figure, it is good to have Joan Ungersma Halperin’s detailed and scholarly study of Fénéon’s anarchist phase and of his relations with the Post-Impressionist artists who sympathized with anarchism. The book is the result of many years’ preoccupation with the subject, during which Professor Halperin collected Fénéon’s art criticism and other writings. Many of his anonymous articles have been identified by her and by John Rewald, who indeed as a young man was able to interview Fénéon.

Fénéon’s role as a champion of the new art of the 1880s and 1890s, and especially that of Seurat, was an important one. He was active as an editor and contributor to many of the innumerable little magazines that were characteristic of French intellectual life in the fin-de-siècle—La Libre Revue, La Revue Indépendante, La Vogue, La Cravache, and the most famous of them all, La Revue Blanche (Ms. Halperin has counted twenty-one in all). For thirteen years he worked as a clerk in the war ministry, apparently regarding the writing of reports in official administrative jargon as an exercise in style, much as, I suspect, he regarded the articles in Parisian slang that he contributed to the popular anarchist weekly Le Père Peinard. He seems to have been an exemplary employee: his immediate superior described him as “sensitive to marks of approval, even more sensitive to criticism, an excellent writer, rather uncommunicative.” From his salary he supported his parents: his father never made much of a success in business, and his mother, who had been employed by the post office, retired in 1885.

But at the same time he was leading a double, or perhaps triple, life. His writing was making him increasingly well-known and influential in advanced literary and artistic circles. He was not only supporting and publishing the “Neo-Impressionist” painters (it was he who gave them the name). He was also discovering new writers. He published Rimbaud’s Les Illuminations and many of Mallarmé’s poems and he was among the first to recognize the power of the writings of Jules Laforgue. At the same time he was openly supporting the anarchist movement, and possibly playing an even more active part in it.

What was it that attracted so many artists and intellectuals in France in the 1880s and 1890s to anarchism? No doubt its attractions weren’t very different from those that the revolutionary movements of the 1960s had for comparable people in the United States and Europe: they hated pompous hypocrisy; they were reacting against imperialist wars (the French were fighting in Indochina in the 1880s); they had a genuine sympathy for the victims of the capitalist system in a time of economic recession. It was, Professor Halperin suggests, only in 1890 that Fénéon’s involvement with the anarchists became an active one, but he was already publishing articles against French chauvinism, and writing, for example,

We protest with all our strength against this barbarian and Roman prejudice by virtue of which a man is an enemy—worse, a ferocious beast—because he happens to have been born on the other side of the river, the mountain or the emblazoned barrier planted on the road one fine day by a baker’s dozen of diplomats!

He was always an extreme libertarian, believing in total freedom of speech:

One could purely and simply abolish all laws against the press, and at the same time most of the other laws…. The purpose of all government should be to make government unnecessary.

(One is reminded of the journalist Henri Rochefort’s famous parody of the anarchist constitution: “Art. 1. Il n’y a plus rien. Art. 2. Personne n’est chargé de l’exécution du précédent article.”)

The impression Fénéon gave was that of a carefully constructed personality with distinctive dress and speech intended to turn him into an archetypal Baudelairean dandy, a detached, sardonic figure, yet at the same time, as a friend described him, “a great-hearted man, good, sensitive, who gives himself totally to eccentric individuals, to the downtrodden, to the very poor.” It was especially as an art critic that he was making his reputation in the 1880s. He was already treating the Impressionists as a historical phenomenon and distinguishing the various trends among their successors (Ms. Halperin gives an excellent account of the development and modification of his artistic tastes). His encounter with Seurat turned him into the spokesman and publicist for the Neo-Impressionists. It isn’t quite clear when they first met—perhaps in front of Seurat’s Sunday Afternoon on the Island of the Grande Jatte at the eighth Impressionist exhibition in 1886, perhaps earlier, as Joan Halperin suggests. He was fascinated by the apparently scientific basis for the new style and delighted in making analyses, complete with algebraic equations, referring to the theories of the American scientist Ogden Rood and of Fénéon’s friend the psychologist Charles Henry. An art historian has recently suggested that Seurat misunderstood the theories on which he thought he was basing his work;4 and one wonders how deep Fénéon’s own scientific knowledge went and how far it was just an expression of the rationalist view of the world that underlay both his aesthetic ideas and his vision of an anarchist utopia.

Of all the painters in Paris it was the Neo-Impressionists who were most attracted to anarchism. Camille Pissarro, Paul Signac, Maximilien Luce, and others all supported the anarchist movement, designing covers for periodicals and contributing financially to anarchist causes. How far Seurat himself was involved seems uncertain; he died in 1891 before the wave of anarchist “propaganda by the deed” shocked French society and obliged those artists with anarchist sympathies to take a public stand. But although some critics have seen in a painting like the Grande Jatte a social comment on the triste pleasures of the petite bourgeoisie or the differences between the classes at a moment when they were becoming increasingly mixed up with each other, Fénéon didn’t appear to do so. When the work was first exhibited he described its subject as “une dominicale et fortuite population en joie de grand air,” and then devoted the rest of his article to expounding the color theories on which it was based instead of drawing attention to its social content. 5

Fénéon’s relations with Seurat were somewhat troubled at the end of Seurat’s life—Fénéon had made the mistake of writing a monograph on Signac without mentioning the influence of Seurat—and when Seurat died Fénéon published a bare chronological account of his career that seems oddly cold, though Fénéon in fact remained faithful to Seurat’s memory for the rest of his life and did much to secure his reputation by cataloguing his works and supervising their disposal.

For the most part the anarchist painters were not particularly concerned with expressing their anarchist views in their art, though they were willing enough to contribute an occasional cover for an anarchist magazine and to illustrate anarchist propaganda with scenes of working-class life. In their more important paintings they seem to have shared the views of Paul Signac, the most politically aware of them, who was later to become a loyal member of the Communist party:

The anarchist painter is not one who will show anarchist paintings, but one who, without regard for lucre, without desire for reward, will struggle with all his individuality, with a personal effort against bourgeois and official conventions…. The subject is nothing, or at least is only one part of the work of art, not more important than the other elements, color, drawing; composition….6

What forced Fénéon and his friends to define their attitude toward anarchism more clearly was the series of acts of terrorism in France in the early 1890s and the attitude of the authorities toward them. There had been isolated examples of “propaganda by the deed” in France during the previous decade—a bomb in a music hall in Lyons, a bottle of vitriol thrown into the Paris stock exchange—but between 1892 and 1894 there were eleven major explosions in Paris, and in June 1894 the president of the Republic, Sadi Carnot, was murdered by an Italian anarchist while visiting Lyons. These episodes produced their own legendary anarchist heroes, like the man known as Ravachol, who was convicted of several brutal murders and bomb attacks and who was the subject of admiring songs and of a woodcut which Fénéon described in this way:

Comrade Ravachol—his head, proud, energetic and calm, and his naked chest are framed by the vertical posts and the triangular blade of the guillotine. In the distance crops are rippling, and the sun, as for a holiday ceremonial, is rising.

Emile Henry (no relation of Fénéon’s scientist friend Charles Henry), a young man of twenty-two who threw a bomb into the crowded Café Terminus near the Gare Saint-Lazare on the principle that, as he put it, “there are no innocent people,” was a friend of Fénéon, and Fénéon apparently approved his action. A year earlier when a bomb in Barcelona killed thirty people, Fénéon had expressed the same sentiment: “Thirty innocent people in Barcelona! J’ai de la méfiance.”7 And he believed that “the anarchist acts of terrorism have done a lot more for propaganda than twenty years of pamphlets by Reclus and Kropotkin.” Certainly the anarchist intellectuals had an ambiguous attitude toward terrorism, and most of them, even if unable to approve, at least refused to condemn it. Elisée Reclus, the eminent geographer and a leading anarchist theorist, wrote:

  1. 1

    Félix Fénéon, “Ku Klux,” Oeuvres plus que complètes, ed. Joan U. Halperin (Geneva: Droz, 1970). Vol. I, p. 401.

  2. 2

    Eugenia W. Herbert, The Artist and Social Reform: France and Belgium, 1885–1898 (Yale University Press, 1961).

  3. 3

    Jean Maitron, Le Mouvement Anarchiste en France (Paris: Maspero, 1975).

  4. 4

    Alan Lee, “Seurat and Science,” Art History, Vol. 10, No. 2 (June 1987), pp. 203-223.

  5. 5

    Oeuvres plus que complètes, I, p. 137.

  6. 6

    Robert L. and Eugenia W. Herbert, “Artists and Anarchism: Unpublished Letters of Pissaro, Signac and Others.” The Burlington Magazine, Vol. CII, No. 692. (November, 1960). See also Sonn, p. 149.

  7. 7

    Oeuvres plus que complètes, Vol. II, p. 925.

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