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.”…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account.