A Rage for Clarity

Portrait of M. Félix Fénéon by Paul Signac
Museum of Modern Art /Paige Knight/© 2019 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/ADAGP, Paris
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

“Several friends had told me that he had died, others thought he might still be alive but hiding somewhere.” With those words John Rewald, the pioneering historian of Impressionism and Postimpressionism, opened a long essay on Félix Fénéon, an uncategorizable figure in French literary, artistic, and political circles who had died in 1944 at the age of eighty-three. Writing in the Gazette des Beaux-Arts in 1947, Rewald recalled how a decade earlier an acquaintance had suggested he look up Fénéon in the phone book. It hadn’t occurred to him that this ubiquitous presence in fin-de-siècle Paris, who had known artists and writers from Seurat and Verlaine to Matisse and Valéry, would be hiding in plain sight. But there was a telephone number. Soon Rewald was making the first of many visits to Fénéon’s home on the avenue de l’Opéra in the heart of Paris, where “an asthmatic elevator” took him “way up under the roof of a large, silent apartment house.” He was greeted by “a tall and bony man with a stern face on which he produced somehow an encouraging smile.” Fénéon’s apartment was chockablock with the extraordinary collection of art that he had built over a lifetime spent nourishing the hopes and dreams of the avant-garde. There were works, some of them masterworks, by Seurat, Toulouse-Lautrec, Modigliani, Bonnard, Vuillard, Signac, Renoir, and Degas, together with an important collection of African sculpture.

An argument can be made that Fénéon is still hiding in plain sight, although, however marginal his reputation has been in the United States, he has long had a following in France. In Paris last year, a two-part exhibition at the Musée du quai Branly–Jacques Chirac and the Musée de l’Orangerie brought Fénéon’s variegated achievements to the attention of a wider public.* In the United States, where his Novels in Three Lines, in a translation by Luc Sante, received a good deal of attention a decade ago, a version of the Parisian show was slated to open at the Museum of Modern Art. It’s not clear what will become of it, with MoMA’s plans, like those of every other cultural institution, in a holding pattern owing to the coronavirus. But whatever its fate in New York, where it has been called “Félix Fénéon: The Anarchist and the Avant-Garde—From Signac to Matisse and Beyond,” the catalog is now available. The current moment, when pressing social, environmental, and political concerns can leave artistic life looking beleaguered, seems right to examine his wide-ranging and sometimes incendiary artistic and political involvements.

Fénéon is not a simple case. In appearance he…

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