Félix Fénéon, the most quietly influential figure on the art scene of fin-de-siècle Paris, cut an oddly comical figure. The discoverer of Georges Seurat, supporter of Maximilien Luce, and champion of Camille Pissarro aspired to an elegant dandyism that his ungainly frame and pale, elongated, beaky face — like that of a rangy marsh bird — struggled to support. With his gangly limbs, goatee beard and top hat, the greatest tastemaker of his generation looked like Abraham Lincoln reimagined by George Cruikshank: a lugubrious Uncle Sam.
As Fénéon shambled towards Stéphane Mallarmé’s salon in the Rue de Rome, or down Boulevard de la Madeleine to an opening at the fashionable Bernheim-Jeune gallery, of which he was a director, members of the public would point and stare, not because they recognised him, but because they had mistaken him for Valentin le Désossé, jelly-legged dancer from the Moulin Rouge (both parties felt slighted by the error). When Henri Toulouse-Lautrec drew a caricature of Fénéon, cheekily positioned next to the impeccably styled Oscar Wilde, it appeared more realistic than the subject.
Yet, despite the smirks that greeted Fénéon’s sartorial misjudgements and penchant for faux-Wildean epigrams that had all the sparkle of cement, few in bohemian Paris could doubt the man’s keen aesthetic eye, or the clarity and wisdom of his judgements. Though he was the son of a travelling salesman, born in Piedmont in 1861 and raised in Burgundy, and had no formal education to speak of, Fénéon’s taste was impeccable, and he was always ahead of fashion — a vedette of the avant-garde.
Fénéon was a riddle: a committed anarchist who wrote regular magazine articles calling for the overthrow of the state, yet paradoxically held a job as chief clerk in France’s War Department. Even those closest to him could never quite grasp the inner workings of his character. By selflessly drawing attention to others, he shifted the spotlight away from himself, directing movements from the shadows.
Fénéon flits through the journals of Jules Renard and the De Goncourt brothers, and across the letters of Apollinaire, with barely a comment, vital and barely discernible as some rare gas. Recalling him, André Breton, whose experimental work Fénéon had encouraged, wrote, ‘Although I got to know him, was amazed by him, admired him and loved him, I never fully understood him... His outer shell was rough and slippery.’
Toulouse-Lautrec, Luce, Paul Signac and Félix Vallotton would all portray Fénéon, but arguably the most striking images of this enigmatic man are some brutally stark mugshots by an anonymous police photographer. They were taken in 1894, after Fénéon’s arrest in connection with the fatal stabbing of France’s president, Marie François Sadi Carnot, and the detonation of bombs outside Foyot, a Parisian restaurant popular with politicians, and the fashionable Café Terminus near Gare Saint-Lazare.
Held in jail for three months before being tried with several dozen other anarchists, Fénéon defended himself with energy and wit and was acquitted through lack of evidence (though it seems likely he was an accessory in one of the bombings at least).
When it came to recognising what art might be, Fénéon was decades ahead of his time
After the trial, Fénéon — sacked at last from his civil service post — slipped even further from the spotlight, working as a sub-editor at Le Matin where he gathered material for Novels in Three Lines, a literary cult classic that would have a marked effect on the Futurists), living in anonymity with his mistress Camille Pateel, and rebuffing attempts to bring him into the mainstream of artistic Paris with the pronouncement, ‘I aspire only to silence.’
Despite this proclamation, Fénéon continued to write and work at Bernheim-Jeune, and his influence remained as strong, his vision as clear as ever. When it came to recognising what art might be, he was decades ahead of his time.
He had begun extolling the importance of non-European art in the first decade of the 20th century. His personal collection included, alongside works by Matisse, Modigliani and Braque, art from Africa and the South Pacific. In 1920, he penned an essay in Le Bulletin de la Vie Artistique calling for the recognition of ‘art from distant lands’ under the headline, Seront-ils admis au Louvre? (‘Will they be admitted to the Louvre?’).
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He would receive an affirmative, if belated, answer to his question 56 years after his death, when, in 2000, the Louvre put on display the Fang Mabea statue, carved from golden wood by an anonymous artist in Cameroon. Fénéon had acquired it and other works of African art at a time when they were thought to be of interest solely to anthropologists. Today, many of the pieces he collected are acknowledged to be masterpieces.
Félix Fénéon (1861–1944) is at the Musée du Quai Branly-Jacques Chirac until 29 September, and the Musée de l’Orangerie, 16 October–27 January 2020