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:

If an isolated individual filled with rage takes his revenge on a society which brought him up badly, fed him badly, advised him badly, what can I say?… To take sides against the unfortunate man, and so justify, however indirectly, the system of humiliation and oppression that weighs on him and millions of his fellow men—never!8

Fénéon certainly went further than this. Did he go so far as to carry out a bomb attack himself? Joan Halperin believes that he did. On April 4, 1894, a bomb exploded in the Restaurant Foyot near the senate, an establishment much frequented by the legislators. No one was killed, but Laurent Tailhade, a well-known poet and himself a leading anarchist, was injured and lost an eye. There were several suspects: the police believed that the criminal was a barber called Armand Matha who had just returned from England, where he had fled to avoid prosecution for seditious articles he had written. He was a friend of Emile Henry and claimed to have tried to persuade him to abandon his plan of bombing the Café Terminus, but he had removed bomb-making material from Henry’s room after his arrest.

Another possible suspect was Paul Delesalle, a young anarchist mechanic later to become a prominent syndicalist. More than forty years later the socialist lawyer and historian Alexandre Zévaès produced evidence that suggested that it was in fact Delesalle who had placed the bomb; but this was strongly—and convincingly—denied by Delesalle’s widow, and at the time he avoided the attention of the police.9

Then there was Félix Fénéon. The police had opened a file on him two years earlier (it was to be kept up until the end of the Third Republic in 1940), and on April 17 he was arrested and interrogated about the Foyot bombing. The police were unable to produce adequate evidence to charge him, but he was held in prison and then, after the murder of President Sadi Carnot in June, he was accused of criminal conspiracy and became one of the defendants in the famous Procès de Trente, the trial of thirty anarchists, including several prominent intellectuals as well as several common criminals. Here again the police were unable to make the charges stick, and all the defendants were acquitted except for three burglars. Fénéon had given an impressive display of sang-froid and wit during his cross-examination. An extract from his evidence is typical of the way in which he treated the proceedings:

Judge: Eleven detonators and a phial of mercury were found in your office. Where did you get them?

Fénéon: I found the mercury and the little tin tubes in my father’s bedroom after he died in March.

Judge: When your mother was interrogated, she said your father found the detonators in the street.

Fénéon: That is possible.

Judge: That is not possible. One does not find detonators in the street!

Fénéon: And yet…the examining magistrate said to me one day “You should have thrown those detonators out the window!” So you see one can find such objects on the public way. (Laughter).

Certainly Fénéon’s possession of the detonators was never adequately explained. Perhaps he had taken them from the room of a friend which was in danger of being searched by the police: perhaps he had them for a more sinister purpose.

Professor Halperin clearly believes that he was quite ready to use them himself. She opens her book with a graphic account, rather out of keeping stylistically with the rest of the work, of precisely how Fénéon placed the bomb in the Restaurant Foyot. Yet the evidence for this doesn’t seem wholly conclusive. The poet and critic André Salmon stated (when and to whom? Halperin just says, “It was passed on to the author”) that the wife of Fénéon’s Dutch anarchist friend Alexander Cohen told him that in old age Fénéon “disclosed his role in the bombing” to the Cohens. It’s hard to know how to evaluate this third-hand evidence; and even if Fénéon did say something to the Cohens, might it not have been just another typical piece of Fénéonesque mystification?

Certainly Mallarmé in his evidence at the trial found it hard to reconcile his own impression of Fénéon with an act of cold, pointless terrorism:

I know Félix Fénéon. He is beloved by all. I have pledged him my friendship because he is a gentle and an upright man, and a very fine intellect…. I have never, nor has any of my guests, heard Fénéon discuss a subject alien to art. I know he is above using anything, other than literature, to express his thought.

But perhaps this tells one more about the atmosphere of Mallarmé’s salon than about Fénéon’s views. One has to be careful before assuming innocence, even if Professor Halperin’s argument isn’t wholly convincing. It seems very likely from the researches of Dr. Joaquin Romero Maura that another even more famous theoretical anarchist, the Spanish educationalist Francisco Ferrer, who was executed in 1909 in spite of vigorous international protests, was probably far more involved in terrorist plots, including one to murder the king and queen of Spain, than was believed at the time or subsequently.10

The borderline between theoretical anarchism and “propaganda by the deed” is hard to discern. The sources are not always reliable and police records are especially difficult to handle: police officers tend to overestimate the strength of revolutionary movements and the determination of their members in order to show how efficient they are being in combating them. They rely on informers whose information is often dubious.

In France, as elsewhere, the police sometimes ran revolutionary organizations themselves. Laurent Tailhade, the poet who lost an eye in the Restaurant Foyot, is said to have believed the bomb was an act of provocation by the police. And it might be argued indeed that Tailhade himself can’t be wholly ruled out as a suspect even if he was an accidental victim. His comment on Henry’s attack on the Café Terminus has made him notorious: “Qu’importe les victimes si le geste est beau!” (The exact words have been variously reported, but the sense—“What do the victims matter if the gesture is beautiful”—is clear enough.) And in 1901 he was still calling, in an article that cost him a year in prison, for the assassination of the czar and the president of the Republic, and demanding that someone should strike at the heart of

the triumphant rabble of czars, presidents, ministers, officers and infamous clergy, all the exploiters who laugh at the misery [of the poor], live on their marrow, bend their spines, and pay them with empty words.11

Whatever the truth of the Foyot bombing and Fénéon’s part in it, after the Trial of the Thirty the anarchists in France turned away from individual acts of terrorism and for the most part adopted new tactics of revolutionary syndicalism and action through the general strike. And although the intellectuals continued to sympathize—Fénéon went on contributing money to anarchist causes for some years—the anarchist movement became once more a predominantly working-class affair; so that the average anarchist was neither an intellectual nor a member of the Lumpenproletariat on the margin of society, but a worker, in M. Maitron’s words “not much different from other members of the socialist family,” and in any case only a small fraction of the working-class movement as a whole. (Jean Maitron estimated that by 1914 there were 1,000 active anarchist militants, 4,500 supporters who bought an anarchist newspaper, and about 100,000 who felt vaguely sympathetic toward anarchist ideas.)

As far as Félix Fénéon was concerned, his life too began to change by the late 1890s. He lost his job with the war ministry and then worked for the Revue Blanche, which he edited until it ceased publication in 1903. After that he became an art dealer with the Galerie Bernheim Jeune, and seems to have been rather successful. He continued from time to time to write introductions to exhibition catalogs and to contribute to the newspapers his bleak “novels in three lines”—grim and ironical faits divers of which Halperin gives some examples:

On the outskirts of Noisy, Louis Delilleau, aged 70, fell down, dead, a sunstroke. Quickly, his dog, Fido, gobbled up his head.

As one reads a large number of these sardonic comments on contemporary life in his collected works, one can’t avoid the feeling that he remained haunted by his active anarchist past. Some of them indeed deal with explosives or the finding of bombs in the street:

Lead, gunpowder, and nails in a bucket with a fuse: device found near the home of M. Martin, a magistrate at Reims.

A maker of fireworks at Caen, M. Lebourgeois, was killed by a bomb he had made. M. Matrat and five other people were killed.12

Most of them deal with grotesque acts of violence or macabre accidents, as well as showing an obsession with the dangers of the automobile. It seems as though Fénéon was diligently reading the press in order to demonstrate the everyday horror and unconscious cruelty of ordinary life in the Third Republic.

By 1914 both Fénéon’s constructive years as a critic and destructive years as an active anarchist were over; and Ms. Halperin doesn’t tell us much about his later life, though she has aroused our interest sufficiently for us to want to know more—about, for example, his activities as an art dealer or his conversion to communism, which she mentions in passing. She tells us a certain amount about his private life—and quite odd some of it is—but for all her research, her insight, and her sympathy, Fénéon remains, as he would doubtless have liked to do, a mysterious figure at the center of some of the main artistic movements of the late nineteenth century and on the margin of the society in which they flourished.

Richard D. Sonn, in Anarchism and Cultural Politics in Fin de Siècle France, looks at the same scene but from a wider angle. Although anarchist militants were a minority among the avant-garde artists and writers in Paris in the 1890s just as they were in the revolutionary working class, their ideas and the spirit of revolt they represented spread far beyond their immediate circle. Sonn has set out to describe this world—and indeed literally to map it: he provides a map of Montmartre showing the location of anarchist meeting places, the anarchist newspaper offices, and the cafés and cabarets the anarchists frequented. He also gives the legal background of anarchism and shows how its spread was made possible by liberal measures, starting with the amnesty to the Communards in 1879, the new press laws of 1881, and the law of 1884 allowing the formation of trade unions. But then, in the 1890s, anarchist activities were curbed by what the left called the “lois scélérates,” the “villainous” laws enacted after the murder of the president of the Republic, which made private as well as public incitements to violence liable to prosecution.

Professor Sonn also suggests that, if we are to understand the milieu and its mentality, we must know something about its slang, especially as used in Emile Pouget’s tough and racy weekly Le Père Peinard. This excursion into metalinguistics I must admit I found heavy going, but perhaps I was in the same situation as some of Pouget’s readers, of whom Sonn writes, “It seems plausible to assume that lower-class anarchists similarly confused semantically logical categories.” It seems to me that the language of Le Père Peinard was an artificial construction owing as much to its bourgeois contributors’ idea of Montmartre slang as to the actual language of the workers. Pouget himself came from a middle-class family and, although he had to drop out of high school because his family lost their money, he had already started his journalistic career with a paper called Le Lycéen Républicain. Le Père Peinard is indeed a journalistic and literary tour de force that is undoubtedly effective even if it only had 476 regular subscribers.13

Professor Sonn finds it just as hard as the rest of us to isolate precisely the anarchist content of the art of the Nineties. He tends, as did the artists and writers themselves, to think of any art that challenged existing aesthetic and social conventions as being anarchist. Thus he quotes the critic Albert Thibaudet, who later wrote, comparing symbolism to the permanent revolution advocated by the socialist Auguste Blanqui, “Symbolism accustomed literature to the idea of an indefinite revolution, an artistic Blanquism.” Thibaudet was in fact echoing Remy de Gourmont, who had written in the Revue Blanche in 1892, “Symbolism translates literally by the word liberty and, for the violent ones, by the word Anarchy.”

All sorts of art were regarded as expressing the same spirit of revolt: when Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People was being presented at the Théâtre de l’Oeuvre at the same time as a Gauguin exhibition at Durand Ruel’s gallery, the poet Charles Morice wrote, “At the Oeuvre and at Durand-Ruel, the same play was enacted.” Wagner was claimed as an anarchist because he had fought on the barricades alongside Bakunin in 1848, so that the anarchist Jean Grave, the dogmatic and doctrinaire “Pope of the Rue Mouffetard,” as he was known, published a translation of Wagner’s Art and Revolution in his anarchist review Les Temps Nouveaux, which had also published a lithograph of Signac’s utopian painting In the Time of Harmony.

Occasionally, perhaps, Sonn presses the point that all advanced art was in a sense anarchist a bit too hard, as when he writes, “Anarchism and japonisme were parallel and autonomous codes expressing similar cultural values.” “The Japanese aesthetic,” he goes on, “may be described briefly as sophisticated order.” It doesn’t seem that there is anything particularly anarchist about that, though it’s not entirely out of place if applied to some of the Neo-Impressionist painters such as Seurat. We are back with the paradox that anarchist painters don’t necessarily produce anarchist art, but that, all the same, everything they do can be seen somehow as an expression of anarchism.

It is also true that, as Sonn points out, a painter like Toulouse-Lautrec had conscious affinities with the artists of the Japanese “floating world” and at the same time painted pictures that implied social criticism, so that Fénéon in one of his Père Peinard pieces wrote, “There aren’t two like him to catch the face of the decrepit old capitalists with some girls seated on their knees, licking their muzzles to make them shell out.” (The original is more vivid but almost untranslatable: “Y’en a pas deux comme lui pour piger la trombine des capitalos gagas attablés avec des filasses à la coule qui leur lêchent le museau pour les faire carmer.”) If you moved in a world in which people were looking at Japanese prints you would have met some anarchists. If you frequented anarchist cafés you would have met some people who looked at Japanese prints, and the relation between them need not have been more than that.

Sonn quotes from the memoirs of Francis Jourdan, aged seventeen, in 1893, a remark that expresses the essence of the anarchist decade:

What dynamism and what dynamite! What bombs did we not intend to explode, charged with new explosives, new art…bombs that would be fireworks, banquets of light—

so that art and politics were linked in what Jourdan called “the obscure kinship between [Maeterlinck’s play] the Princesse Maleine and Ravachol.” This general unfocused sense of excitement, of the approaching millennium, not only linked artistic movements that now look very different from each other but also led politically to people moving from one camp to another. Maurice Barrès moved from the Boulangist movement of the 1880s, which talked of establishing a nationalist military dictatorship, to the libertarian anarchism of his group of culte de moi novels, and then back to an extreme conservative nationalism. The poet and dramatist Paul Claudel, later known for his Catholic faith and reactionary views, wrote of himself when young, “No one sniffed with more delight the good air of anarchy that we breathed in France in the 1890s.”14 Anti-Semites like the Marquis de Morès and royalists such as the Duchesse d’Uzès had plans for financing anarchist movements, while the Duchess offered to adopt the daughter of Auguste Vaillant, executed for throwing a bomb into the Chamber of Deputies.

Even the Dreyfus affair, which polarized French opinion, found people on unexpected sides. Politics could divide people whom art might have united: Degas refused to participate in a tribute to Mallarmé, who had died in September 1898, because it might mean associating with people on the Dreyfusard side. Félix Fénéon and the group around the Revue Blanche were passionate Dreyfusards, but this, as Ms. Halperin tells us, did not stop Fénéon, idiosyncratic as ever, from remaining a friend of Paul Valéry, a contributor to the subscription for a monument to Colonel Henry, who had forged a letter to prove Dreyfus’s guilt and had committed suicide when exposed.

Richard Sonn’s book brings out well the interactions among the many worlds of which intellectual and artistic life in Paris in the Nineties was composed, and he conveys a sense of the general excitement, though not in a very lively prose (he is not helped by rather mean looking typography). Both his book and Joan Ungersma Halperin’s show that the artistic life of the fin de siècle had a vitality that wholly contradicts the picture sometimes conveyed in that the Nineties were a period of decadence awaiting the new forces of twentieth-century modernism to liberate them.

This Issue

November 23, 1989