Felix Feneon at l’Orangerie

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I thought I had heard of Feneon, but turns out, I was thinking of Fenelon, as one does, the 17th century French archbishop, theologian, poet and writer. But I digress. Here we are talking about Felix Feneon, the late 19th/early 20th century anarchist, art critic, editor, gallery director and art collector.

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The exhibition I saw in September was the first of two in Paris in Feneon’s honor.It was at the Quai Branly because Feneon was an early collector of African, North American and Oceanic art and objects. And unlike others, then and now, and this says heaps about Feneon, he didn’t call his collection ‘primitive art’ but rather ‘objects from distant places.’ Nothing demeaning or derogative, just open and receptive.  The guy was woke.

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This current exhibition focuses on Feneon’s collection of avant-garde art paintings he acquired from artists whose works he championed, like the Neo-Impressionists,

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 a word he coined and the Italian Futurists

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 The Orangerie was selected for this show because, according to the curators, the painting collection of Paul Guillaume, an early 20th century art dealer is permanently here. Guillaume, like Feneon, was a man of modest origins, Feneon’s father was a traveling salesman, Guillaume’s father was a tax collector. And both men collected African art and both men promoted and collected avant-garde art.

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Do you know the Musee de l’Orangerie in the Tuileries Gardens, next to the Place de la Concorde? It is a great museum because when you go, especially for a temporary exhibition, you are in for a triple treat – the temporary exhibition you have come to see, the Guilliame collection we have just been discussing and 8 large mural paintings by Monet, his Waterlilies. Simply put, you cannot go wrong with a visit to this museum.

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Feneon’s first job was in the Ministry of War, where he worked from the age of 20 to 33 (1881-1894), and eventually attained the rank of chief clerk. He needed the money, he took the job. But while he was at the Ministry, he was involved in anarchist activities and was the editor of, for example, Rimbaud. He probably could have continued juggling his life this way, but he got fired when he was arrested, tried and finally acquitted (after some months in prison) on suspicion of participating in an anarchist bombing of a restaurant popular with politicians.

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After the trial, Fénéon got a job at an avant-garde literary and art magazine La Revue Blanche. You may not have heard of that magazine, but if you get to the Grand Palais to see the Toulouse Lautrec show, you will see T-L’s delightful poster for La Revue Blanche.

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After that magazine folded in 1903, Feneon worked briefly for another journal, Le Matins for which he composed three line ‘fillers’. Thank goodness one of his mistresses saved those little gems, which one writer calls haikus, another calls proto-tweets. Here are a few examples from Novels In Three Lines (translated by Luc Sante, 2007):

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“There is no longer a God even for drunkards. Kersilie, of St.-Germain, who had mistaken the window for the door, is dead.”

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“A dishwasher from Nancy, Vital Frérotte, who had just come back from Lourdes cured forever of tuberculosis, died Sunday by mistake,”

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“In Oyonnax, Mlle. Cottet, 18, threw acid in the face of M. Besnard, 25. Love, obviously.”

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Feneon was passionate about the new art of his time. He befriended the artist Georges Seurat early in that artist’s career – which is actually the only time he could have befriended him since Seurat died suddenly one Sunday morning barely 31 years old. Have you seen the Sondheim musical ‘Sunday in the Park with George’? It brings to life Seurat’s masterpiece, ‘Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte.’ Of which you will see a study in this exhibition.

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 I loved it, my son, 16 when we saw it, tolerated it. In fact, I could only convince him to go because we had been binge watching the classic Mathew Broderick film, ‘Ferris Bueller’s Day Off’ during which Ferris and his friends visited the Art Institute of Chicago. If you are looking for reasons to go to Chicago and Frank Lloyd Wright’s architecture and Rick Baylis’s Mexican restaurants aren’t enough of an enticement, maybe the opportunity to see this fantastic painting will convince you. There are several other Seurat paintings at the Orangerie which Feneon had in his collection, among them three studies entitled, ‘Model, Front View’

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and ‘Bathers of Asnieres’

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and ‘Wave’

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Feneon promoted Seurat and his fellow pointillists (a word initially used derisively by critics), Paul Signac, Maximilien Luce and Henri-Edmond Cross. In fact, Feneon coined the term Neo-Impressionists in 1886 to describe their work, confirming that these artists’ paintings moved beyond Impressionism. Seurat and his followers looked to science, specifically to color theory, to give their work a sense of permanence and organization, in contrast to the sense of the ephemeral and momentary that defines Impressionism. In 1887, Fenton defended the Neo-Impressionists against criticism that their application of paint in uniform dots resembled mosaics or tapestries. “Take a few steps back,” (Fénéon wrote), “the technique . . . vanishes; the eye is no longer attracted by anything but that which is essentially painting.. “

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Feneon became the artistic director of Bernheim-Jaune Gallery in 1906, a position he held for 18 years, until his retirement at age 63. At the gallery, he showcased the work of the artists he loved. And when the gallery owners hesitated, Feneon used part of his own salary to buy paintings, establishing his commitment, and as a consequence, amassing a collection for himself that was a prescient one, filled with masterpieces and early works of masters.

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Quite a few of the artists Feneon championed painted his portrait, let’s look at a few. But let’s start with a photograph, the mug shot taken by an unknown police photographer when Feneon was arrested in 1894 for suspected anarchist activities.

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 Yes, he is a very severe looking guy with his square jaw and neatly trimmed goatee. A portrait of Feneon by Felix Vallotton from 1896

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is equally severe. He sits at his desk at La Revue Blanche, bent over at a 90 degree angle, the desk piled high with manuscripts on which he is busily at work. In another portrait of Feneon this one by Edouard Vuillard,

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the writer is in the same pose, but as usual with Vuillard, the room is as busy as the writer, a wall of bookcases brimming with books, crammed with paintings above and a hallway beyond.

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Have you heard the term Dandy ? According to the Fashion Encyclopedia, dandy refers to a man who pays great attention to fashion and who dresses with a careful stylishness. There is a room in the Toulouse Lautrec exhibition at the Grand Palais devoted to dandies. Each of T-L’s dandies wears or carries a top hat and often a cane.

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The style began in England, and I was surprised to see these French men were called dandies. If the exhibition hadn’t told me they were dandies, I would have called these elegant men flaneurs, men who walk around with no set destination, free to go where they wish, when they wish. Feneon is depicted as a dandy in a portrait by Maximilien Luce of 1901,

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 Feneon is seated, with his coat over his shoulders, his cane resting on his lap. Behind him three framed Japanese prints, more proof, if any is needed, of Feneon’s taste for all kinds of art, including Japanese prints which were so important for the Impressionists.

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One final portrait of Fenton, the fabulous poster for this exhibition by the Neo-Impressionist, Paul Signac, entitled, wait for it, it is a mouthful – ‘Opus 217. Against the Enamel of a Background Rhythmic with Beats and Angles, Tones, and Tints, Portrait of M. Félix Fénéon in 1890,’ .

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To thank Feneon for writing a biography of him in, Les Hommes d’aujourd’hui, Signac decided to paint a portrait of the critic: ‘It will not be an ordinary portrait but a carefully planned composition meticulously constructed in terms of lines and colors… A decorative version of Félix, stepping forward with a hat or flower in hand’.

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Signac depicts Fénéon in left profile. The lines of the subject’s nose, elbow, and cane descend in a zigzag pattern, like the rhythmic “beats and angles” of the title, and the flower he holds echoes the upturned curl of his goatee. The background patterns were inspired by a Japanese wood block print, possibly a design for a kimono, which Signac kept in his studio. The abstract patterns are also probably an allusion to the aesthetic theory of Charles Henry, the Frenchman whose books on color theory and the “algebra” of visual rhythm Signac had recently illustrated. Neo-Impressionism The Science of Color from Seurat to Metzinger,

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https://www.moma.org/collection/works/78734.

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If you are worried that Feneon was an ascetic aesthete, you can relax, it seems not to have been the case. According to his biographer, Joan Halperin, he had married to oblige his mother; (and) kept a devoted lifetime mistress with whom he lunched every day; (he) had affairs with laundresses, painters, actresses and lesbians to whom he wrote tender and erotic letters when they were away. All of them, according to Ms. Halperin, remembered him fondly after his death.” (Felix Feneon: Aesthete and Anarchist in Fin-de-Siecle Paris, Joan U. Halperin. Yale U Press. 1988). That’s nice, I wonder how many of them were still around when he died. After he retired at 63, he lived for another 20 years, refusing requests to write a memoir or a collection of his writings. He told a publisher who approached the topic that, ’I aspire only to silence.’

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An American angle? Sure. Dressed in top hat and cape, skinny and with his pointed beard, Feneon’s resemblance to Uncle Sam was frequently remarked upon.

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While the Feneon exhibition at the Musee Quai Branly is over, some examples of his African and Oceanic art are on view at the Musee de l’Orangerie. If you find yourself in New York next year and want to see both parts of the Feneon exhibition AND see how the Museum of Modern Art looks now (after having been closed all last summer), you can do so from March 22 through July 25, 2020. Finally, if you are in Paris and hankering after an immersion into African and Oceanic art, you can go to the Musee Quai Branly through June 2020 to see the Helena Rubinstein collection. Interestingly enough, she was recently the subject of an exhibition at the Museum of Jewish Art & History in Paris, a great museum, if you haven’t been, on her collection of European avant-garde art. So, like Feneon, Rubinstein, (a founder of an entire cosmetic empire), collected African art and amassed a collection of avant-garde art.

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–Dr. Beverly Held

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2 comments

Julia Frey December 17, 2019

Another excellent review! I just sent it to Joan Halperin, who wll be pleased to read it, I think. Thank you, Beverly.




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