In certain modern careers the union of a keen aesthetic intelligence with the imperatives of a radical political commitment would appear to be so complete that there is hardly any way to separate the one from the other even for the purposes of analysis. Yet about such a union of art and politics there is nonetheless some thing that requires explanation—something that remains, if not exactly an enigma, then at least a paradox, the kind of paradox that illuminates not only the minds of the individuals in question but the larger contradictions that have been endemic to the phenomenon of avant-garde culture in bourgeois societies since the concept of the avant-garde first emerged in nineteenth-century France. It is not always from the most towering figures, moreover, that we can learn the most about what these contradictions have meant in practice. Certain lesser figures—critics, editors, publicists, even dealers—may have much to tell us about the way in which the most exalted artistic ideals can sometimes live on intimate terms with political ideas that, were they ever to be successfully implemented, would be certain to destroy the civilization that made the art possible in the first place.
One of the most interesting of these figures is the French writer Félix Fénéon (1861-1944), who has long been recognized as the most gifted of the critics who devoted themselves to new art in Paris in the last years of the nineteenth century, and who was also known to be closely involved with the most militant elements of the anarchist movement. For many people it will come as a shock to discover that Fénéon lived on until the 1940s; we do not think of him as a contemporary of Andre Breton and Jean-Paul Sartre. His greatest claim to fame was to have been the critical champion of Georges Seurat, who died in 1891, and it is among the Neo-Impressionist painters and Symbolist writers of the 1890s that we tend in our mind’s eye to picture him— an association made enduring by the well-known portraits of Fénéon painted in 1890 by Paul Signac, in 1896 by Félix Vallotton, and in 1901 by Edouard Vuillard, the latter two showing him at his desk in the offices of the Revue Blanche, the illustrious journal he served with distinction as editor and writer and governing intelligence. But it turns out that there was a great deal about Fénéon—not only about his longevity but about his political activities, his business affairs, and his private life as well as his work as a writer—that we either never knew or did not pay sufficient attention to. He was a far more accomplished, more complicated, and more mysterious char acter than most of us had any reason to suspect. We therefore owe much to Joan Ungersma Halperin, who has now given us in Félix Fénéon: Aesthete & Anarchist in Fin-de-Siècle Paris an excellent biography of this strange figure. Though by no means beyond criticism in every respect, Professor Halperin’s biography brings to light a good deal about Fénéon’s life and work that until now has remained obscure—obscure, it should be noted, largely because it suited Fénéon for much of the truth about his life and work to remain concealed.
The writing of Fénéon’s life has been a long endeavor for Professor Halperin, and she has been nothing if not diligent in her preparations for the task. In 1970 she edited the most complete collection of his writings that we now have, and ten years later she published a useful guide to the art criticism. For her new book she has considerably enlarged the scope of her researches. The art of Seurat and the Neo-Impressionist circle is inevitably a principal focus. The prior gen eration of Impressionist painters, about whose work Fénéon often displayed a certain ambivalence, comes in for a good deal of attention, too. So does his work as a cham pion of the Symbolist poets—Rimbaud, Verlaine, Mallarmé, Laforgue, et al. There is much here about his relations with Mallarmé and Pissarro, both of whom he adored; some interesting details about his attitude toward Gauguin, whom for the most part he did not think well of; about Matisse, whom he admired and served as a dealer; and even about Picasso, whose art he didn’t much care for. (He disliked Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, for example.)
Professor Halperin also gives us an absorbing account of the trial—the so-called Trial of the Thirty—in which Fénéon was accused (and ultimately acquitted) of participating in a conspiracy to commit acts of anarchist terrorism. It is Professor Halperin’s belief that Fénéon was guilty of at least one such terrorist act himself, the bombing of the fashionable Foyot restaurant in 1894. There is no question but that he thoroughly approved and sometimes abetted the practice of “propaganda by deed,” as terrorist acts were called in anarchist circles. On the whole, I am inclined to be persuaded by Professor Halperin in this matter, but it must be said that she offers no certain proof of Fénéon’s guilt in the Foyot bombing. (I take her dramatic vignette of Fénéon’s exe cution of this deed to be an imaginative reconstruction—which is to say, pure fic tion.) And to believe him guilty of this crime, one must also believe that Fénéon was will ing to deceive Mallarmé, the poet he venerated more than any other, whom he allowed to testify on his behalf—and very eloquently, too—at the Trial of the Thirty.
Given Fénéon’s almost superhuman powers of detachment from what conventional opinion looked upon as moral scruple, I frankly doubt if this deception—if that is what it was—of a writer he regarded as a friend and indeed, as Professor Halperin says, one of his “gods,” would have given him much cause for hesitation. It was in Fénéon’s nature to live on easy terms with situations that many lesser mortals would have found to be oppressively burdened with excruciating moral contradictions. In his politics, anyway, Fénéon was the complete ideologue, and in other matters, too, he was remarkably adept at giving his own con victions and pleasures an unquestioned priority over every other consideration.
We are offered plentiful evidence of this tendency in Professor Halperin’s detailed chronicle of Fénéon’s relations with women—a subject worthy of a small volume in itself. It was said when he was doing his military service as a young man that “the lubricity of Fénéon [was] legendary in the annals of the voluntariat” and his disposition in this respect seems not to have suffered any notable diminution with the passage of time. Professor Halperin quotes some examples of the pornographic wit and cheer fully salacious inventions that characterized his correspondence with certain women Fénéon was involved with, and he apparently never lost the habit of speaking about personal sexual matters in terms that were astonishingly graphic and obscene even by the emancipated standards of the bohemian milieus in which he moved. At the same time, he remained devoted, after a fashion, to the only woman he actually married. “His marriage at age thirty-six was in a sense conventional,” Professor Halperin writes, “since his mother picked the bride, Fanny Goubaux, a divorced woman, the daughter of a friend.” But this long-lived marriage was only a small part of the story of Fénéon’s relations with women. “Throughout his marriage,” Professor Halperin writes, “with his wife’s knowledge [though not exactly with her consent], he maintained a re lationship with a Belgian woman he had met several years before, Camile Platteel, with whom he also shared his intellectual and artistic interests; an unusual menage a trois, which lasted forty-six years, until Platteel’s death at age eighty-six.” Then too, as Professor Halperin tells us, “Fénéon was an ardent lover of common working women as well as women privileged with more edu cation and status.” This was the side of his life that Fénéon preferred to keep secret. As Professor Halperin writes: “when my re search turned up evidence of Fénéon’s lusty, long-lived love affairs, most of his male friends were shocked and disbelieving.” With at least two of the “common working women” he was involved with, Fénéon fathered illegitimate sons in whom he took no special interest. (That, too, I suppose, could be called the “conventional” side of his life.) From Professor Halperin’s account, it would appear that most of these women adored Fénéon. But even for Professor Halperin, who, if not exactly adoring, tends nonetheless to be forgiving in most matters, Fénéon’s behavior is disturbing and not al ways (shall we say?) in perfect alignment with his professed political sentiments. Yet the closest she can bring herself to a note of censure is to take refuge in some observa tions about “the complexity of Fénéon’s attitude towards women—a melange of daring, repression, rage, and insight,” etc. It is often the case that biographers who have immersed themselves for a considerable length of time in their subjects tend to absorb something of their moral outlook, and Professor Halperin cannot be said to have entirely escaped this professional deformation. But as she also writes at times from a distinctly but highly selective feminist outlook, there are parts of this book that are hopelessly conflicted, and these have mainly to do with Fénéon’s relations with women. A good deal of the time one has the im pression that Professor Halperin is rather proud, even boastful, of her subject’s sexual prowess. Then she remembers to remember how it all looks from the woman’s angle, and we are back in the realm of Fénéon’s “complexity.”
From the perspective of cultural history, many of the most illuminating pages of this book are devoted to Fénéon’s contributions, as writer and editor, to the numerous, short lived “little” magazines that were so essential to the late nineteenth-century Paris avant-garde. For these journals he wrote about new developments in art and literature, and he secured important manuscripts—for La Vogue, for example, he edited the first publication of Rimbaud’s Les Illuminations in 1886, and published translations of Dostoevsky, Keats, and Walt Whitman— and he made many contributions to anarchist papers as well. Between 1883 and 1895, writes Professor Halperin, “Fénéon published in more than twenty-one different reviews,” most of them Symbolist or anarchist in outlook. (Generally his art criticism was signed and the literary and anarchist writings were not.) Most of this work, which entailed long hours with difficult subjects, was done at night or at other free moments, while Fénéon earned a modest living as a civil servant (as, indeed, a “model employee,” it was said) in, of all places, the War Department, where he served in the recruiting division. When he lost that position because of the Trial of the Thirty, he went to the Revue Blanche, where his wealthy bourgeois employers were able to pay him a decent salary. (Among Fénéon’s many other contributions to the magazine was his own translation of Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey.) Later he became a newspaper journalist—it was typical of Fénéon that he gave money to the newly founded radical paper L’Humanité, while drawing a salary from the conservative Figaro—and still later he became a successful art dealer at Bernheim Jeune, representing (among others) Signac, Matisse, and Bonnard.
Fénéon also managed over the years to acquire a sizable art collection, which in later years, when his political commitment had decisively shifted from anarchism to Communism, he hoped to bequeath to the Soviet Union—a plan that was foiled by the outbreak of the Second World War. Did Fénéon know what had happened to the life of art in the Stalinist terror? Was he aware that Stalin had been responsible for the murder of a great many more anarchists than the despised French bourgeois governments had ever dreamed of executing? Professor Halperin does not say. Her interest tends to flag when it comes to the last two decades of Fénéon’s life. By the 1920s, he had become an historical figure himself, and many people began turning to him for first hand information about the now celebrated artists and writers whose accomplishments he had been one of the first to recognize. We are given occasional glimpses into Fénéon’s correspondence in the later years and a few fugitive details about his political commitments, but by and large Professor Halperin fails to give us an adequate account of Fénéon in his old age.
As a young man he was, in the figure he presented to the world, a rebel-dandy straight out of the pages of Baudelaire. On very little money he lavished immense care on his appearance. “Personal grooming became a fetish,” writes Professor Halperin. After his military service, she reports,
He kept his military haircut, a close-cropped brush—it was the most elegant, recent style. But he shaved his cheeks and upper lip clean of the traditional beard and mustache; his facial hair was light-colored and made a poor showing, he thought. He left only the blond tuft that seemed to flourish naturally under his chin. He used pumice stone on his elbows and knees and manicured the nails of his long fingers .... His skin was fresh and smelled faintly of cuir de Russie, his favored perfume. And he dressed soberly, as elegantly as he could, with never a discordant note .... He had just turned twenty, but had left callow youth behind.
Fénéon was always impeccably attired. In 1886, he regularly appeared in silk top hat, puce-colored suit, dark red gloves and patent leather shoes. He carried a cane—and a debt of some forty francs to various shoemakers.
“There seems to be a contradiction,” Pro fessor Halperin observes, “between the dandy’s cult of the self and Fénéon’s anar chist commitment to improve the lot of the ignorant, the poor, and the oppressed, even at the risk of losing his own freedom.” Yet she makes short work of this “contradic tion.” If Baudelaire in The Painter of Modern Life provided the model for the dandy, Professor Halperin is eager to align that model with Fénéon’s anarchist ideals. “Dandyism,” she writes, “... can be seen as a leveler of old class distinctions, since it is up to the individual to create his or her own ‘class’…. For Fénéon, the perfecting of his own person was contingent upon the anarchist ideal that all people should have the means to enjoy maximum moral and material development.” Where this leaves the forty-franc debt to various shoemakers, who were scarcely aided in their attempts at moral and material development by patrons with such an outlook, Professor Halperin does not say. Fénéon, we are assured, “put himself increasingly at the service of others,” and we have no reason to doubt that he did. But there nonetheless remains something psychologically naive in this account of Fénéon’s dandyism. There certainly was an element of anti-bourgeois rebellion in that dandyism, but there was also a very large element of the same kind of detached and ironic self-aggrandizement that governed Fénéon’s relations with women, with hisemployers, and indeed with all of society. Social justice may have been his ideal, but that ideal was rarely, if ever, allowed to impose itself as an impediment to the realization of his own fondest pleasures. When it came to arranging matters to his own satisfaction, Fénéon had little or nothing to learn from the selective morality and indifferent conscience he so bitterly abominated in the bourgeoisie. In his own life this dandy-anarchist-aesthete was in many respects a kind of caricature of the archetypal bourgeois hypocrite. When he had made enough money in the art business, he retired, informing the Bernheims in 1924 that “I am ripe for the idle life,” and an idle radical he more or less remained for the next twenty years. Nor did his political radicalism ever impair his work as a businessman. At Bernheim Jeune, Professor Halperin writes, “the anarchist, who now declared himself a Communist, sold fortunes worth of paintings .... He was a superlative agent, looking out for the interests both of the artists and the gallery.” And Professor Halperin adds that he “looked after the details of his own contract [with Bernheim Jeune] as conscientiously as he did the contracts of artists whose work he sold.” Professor Halperin also suggests that Fénéon “misled his wife as to his earnings” in order to share his money with those in need. No doubt. But his own needs and expenses were not always those that could be reported to a faithful wife.
I trust it will be evident from even this incomplete account of Professor Halperin’s biography that Fénéon was indeed a very remarkable figure. Yet as extraordinary as he was in so many ways—in so many ways, it should be noted, that for better or for worse prefigure the cultural ethos of our time—it is finally on the basis of his art criticism that Fénéon makes his primary claim on the attention of posterity. There isn’t very much of that criticism—in the attractive little paperback volume that Françoise Cachin edited in 1966, it amounts to little more than thirty thousand words—and the most important parts of even this small oeuvre were written between 1883 and 1892 and amount to a lot less than that. In this criticism, moreover, Fénéon will often be found to change his mind—it seems to be a habit of the best critics to do so—and he never writes about anything at length or, for that matter, in depth. He brought to the writing of criticism a light touch—Mme. Cachin even speaks of “a certain frivolity”—and he was temperamentally disinclined to labor his points. Yet about the really important aspects of the new art he encountered in the decade or so in which much of this criticism was written, he identified the essential is sues—the essential aesthetic issues. As Profes sor Halperin correctly observes, “his chief interest in the pictures is aesthetic,” al though, as she also points out, he was acute ly aware of the importance of the subject matter, a radically new subject matter in many cases, which made those same pictures so difficult for the public to deal with. In deed, so far was Fénéon from being indif ferent to the subjects that artists made use of that he actually rejected some of the last paintings of Seurat—the painter he esteemed more than any other—because they dwelt so centrally on the figure. He seems to have especially disliked the Young Woman Powdering Herself. But he nonetheless recognized at once what was important in Seurat:
Here in truth fancy brushwork is futile, tricks of the trade impossible; there is no room for bravura—let the hand be numb, but the eye quick, shrewd, and knowing. Whether the subject is an ostrich plume, a bundle of straw, a wave, or a rock, the handling of the brush remains the same.
And in his response to the Grand Jatte when it was first exhibited, he described it in a way that needs little amendment a century later:
The subject: beneath a sultry sky, at four oclock, the island, boats slipping past its flank,stirring with a casual Sunday crowd enjoying the fresh air among trees; and these forty or so figures are endowed with a succinct, hieratic line, rigorously drawn in full-face or in profile or from the back, some seated at right angles, others stretched out horizontally, others standing rigidly; as though by a modernizing Puvis.
The atmosphere is transparent and uncommonly vibrant; the surface seems to flicker or glimmer. Perhaps this sensation, which is experienced in front of certain other paintings in the same room, can be explained by the theory of Dove [the German physicist who wrote on optics]; the retina, expecting distinct rays of light to act on it, perceives in very rapid alternation both the dissociated colored elements and their resultant.
Professor Halperin lists the various terms Fénéon employed in explaining the Neo-Impressionist method. He never spoke of pointillisme, which the artists never accepted, but wrote instead of “a seeding of tiny coloring strokes... a whirling host of minute spots ... a swarming of prismatic spangles in vital competition for a harmony of the whole.” And of this method he wrote:
This seeding of coloring spots is extremely sensitive because its constituent elements can be continuously varied .... So the painters chose this uniform stroke, but the spot itself had no more reality than the stitch in tapestry; it was like substituting a neutral typography— to the benefit of the text—for an affected and immoderate handwriting.
It was, Fénéon insisted, a sort of “abstract execution,” by which, as Professor Halperin points out, “he naturally did not mean nonrepresentational art but rather that distillation or synthesis of form and color that he prized” in the painting. But as she also observes, the “abstract execution” that Fénéon discerned in this art was indeed to lead the way toward abstraction.
What Fénéon saw in Seurat, in other words, was the advent of the kind of “pure” painting, one might even say formalist painting, that would soon become a central aesthetic issue in the modernist art of the twentieth century. But in what relation did this genuine and profound aesthetic response to Seurat stand to the political commitment—the commitment to anar chism—that was also so important to Fénéon? It doesn’t answer this question to say that some of Fénéon’s best friends among the artists—Pissarro, for example, and Signac, who followed Fénéon’s example in subsequently shifting from anarchism to Marxism to the Communist Party—were also of the anarchist persuasion. Seurat certainly wasn’t, and Fénéon acknowledged him as the chef d’école. There is a distinct irony, moreover, in the spectacle of this anarchist/libertarian critic embracing the most disciplined, the most formal, and—to use his own term—hieratic style of his time as the very model of artistic achievement. Perhaps it can only be explained by some law of compensation: what Fénéon most despised in society and in life itself—rules, hierarchies, restraints, prohibitions, and indeed limits of any kind on his freedom-he was perfectly willing and indeed eager to uphold in the realm of art.
However we wish to explain this paradox, it remains the paradox that defined him as an historical figure. The great difference that separates his day from ours is not to be found in Fénéon’s political radicalism, for that has now become an institutionalized component of our social and cultural life. The difference lies in the official attitude toward art, which now favors precisely the kind of libertarian aesthetic—sometimes known as postmodernism—that stands at the great est possible distance from Seurat and his “hieratic line.” It is odd to think that, a century later, it isn’t so much Fénéon’s aestheticism that we’ve inherited as an artistically deformed version of the anarchism that was its opposite.
Hilton Kramer (1928-2012) was the founding editor of The New Criterion, which he started with the late Samuel Lipman in 1982
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