Emmelyn Butterfield-Rosen on Félix Fénéon

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Emmelyn Butterfield-Rosen on Félix Fénéon

Mug shots of Félix Fénéon, April 26, 1894. Photos: Alphonse Bertillon.

One spring evening in Paris in 1894, an elegant young man was strolling alone near the Luxembourg gardens. . . . He jumped on the platform of a departing bus and climbed to the top open deck. He had just sat down, arranging the folds of his Inverness cape, when an explosion rocked the street. . . . “Another bomb,” someone said. . . . The thin lips of the elegant young man lifted slightly in a smile.1

THESE LINES, reminiscent of a script for a BBC detective drama, open the definitive and only biography of the French critic, editor, and art dealer Félix Fénéon (1861–1944), an obscure but much revered figure in the history of French modernism. Some art historians (T. J. Clark, for instance) have regarded him as “the best art critic after Baudelaire.”2 For specialists in art of the fin de siècle, his writing is unavoidable. From 1883 until he stood trial for criminal association in 1894, he edited and wrote for numerous Symbolist and anarchist “little magazines” while clerking in the Office of the Ministry of War. He signed his name to several singularly precise and perceptive texts that explicated, in vivid detail and highly technical language, the new formal mechanisms employed in experimental painting of the period, especially that of Georges Seurat and the school of pointillist painting he initiated, which Fénéon christened “Neo-Impressionism.”

The bulk of Fénéon’s art writing has never been translated. For anglophone audiences, he is probably better known for his “Novels in Three Lines,” a litany of more than one thousand mini-tragedies and absurdities published anonymously in 1906 during the half year he spent writing news items for Le Matin, an American-style mass-circulation newspaper founded by a disciple of William Randolph Hearst. These faits divers, of which Luc Sante published an acclaimed translation in 2007, make for reading that is melancholy but piquant. They include random reports such as “On the left shoulder of a newborn, whose corpse was found near the 22nd Artillery barracks, a tattoo: a cannon.” Or: “The sinister prowler seen by the mechanic Gicquel near Herblay train station has been identified: Jules Ménard, snail collector.”3

Maximilien Luce, Félix Fénéon, 1901, oil on canvas, 18 × 15 3⁄8

A recent exhibition at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, “Félix Fénéon: The Anarchist and the Avant-Garde—From Signac to Matisse and Beyond,” aimed to introduce Fénéon to a general audience and “explore how he shaped the development of modernism.”4 Long overdue, this show––organized by MoMA’s Starr Figura; Isabelle Cahn of the Musée d’Orsay, Paris; and Philippe Peltier, formerly of the Musée du Quai Branly–Jacques Chirac, also in Paris––arrived at the timeliest possible moment. Beautiful and perturbing, the show was important in the way it raised and put into discernible relation, even if it failed to fully intellectually engage, some of the most urgent topics of today––when mounting calls for restitution are increasingly forcing Euro-American museums to address the colonial origins of their collections, and when, at least in the United States, domestic terrorism, as both an actual fact and a strategically weaponized accusation, is again a hyperpotent force in the political imagination.

The exhibition was anchored by dozens of paintings by artists Fénéon made famous as a writer or, later, as a dealer for the blue-chip Paris gallery Bernheim-Jeune—such as Seurat, Paul Signac, Pierre Bonnard, Henri Matisse, and so on—yet its more thought-provoking aspect was the very intentional spotlight it placed on two areas of Fénéon’s activity that remain shrouded in mystery, even after this show: his precise involvement with anarchism in the 1890s, and his vast collection of African and Oceanic sculptures, amassed in the early twentieth century and referred to by Fénéon with the calculated vaguery les arts lointains (“art from far away”). That the curators did not tackle these mysteries more aggressively was a missed opportunity. Did Fénéon plant a bomb in an act of propagande par le fait? What specific relations of trade, theft, or expropriation enabled nearly five hundred pieces of “art from far away” to come to Paris and into Fénéon’s personal possession? More than simply neglecting to bring new archival concreteness to these sorts of questions, which would, if answered, have important historical ramifications, the catalogue and exhibition––though the latter interspersed items of evidence from the Parisian Préfecture de Police throughout its display of art objects––nevertheless maintained a calculated ambiguity with regard to the realm of the evidentiary, lingering in the arena of “it is possible” while declining to communicate with clarity what is and is not known, or how and why reliable details of Fénéon’s activity as a collector and political actor have been rendered irretrievable, if in fact that is so.

Maximilien Luce, “Bilan des victims de l’etat social” (Balance Sheet of Victims of the Social State), 1893. From Le Père Peinard: Réflecs hebdomadaires d’un gniaff (Old Papa Workhorse: Weekly Reflections of a Cobbler), November 19, 1893.

THE TENSE POLITICAL MOMENT framed by the exhibition is usefully encapsulated in an illustration that appeared in Le Père Peinard: Réflecs hebdomadaires d’un gniaff (roughly, “Old Papa Workhorse: Weekly Reflections of a Cobbler”), the venue in which Fénéon published his last pieces of art criticism. These final reviews departed drastically from the critical voice for which Fénéon is best known, with its involuted syntax, its deep dives into the dictionary for “Fénéologisms,” its coolly clinical, even supercilious tone.5Le Père Peinard was written entirely in the potty-mouthed slang of a fictional prolo narrator who refers to bosses as “cake-gobblers” and grammar books as “something to wipe my ass with,” and who is pictured on the masthead as a towering figure swinging his leather razor strop overhead as police, bankers, lieutenants, and clergymen flee page right in fear.6 The November 1893 issue of the magazine contains an illustration, unfortunately not on view at MoMA, titled “Balance Sheet of Victims of the Social State.” It was executed by Maximilien Luce, one of the Neo-Impressionists championed by Fénéon, who was represented in the exhibition by a pointillist painting of a bathing worker and two portraits of Fénéon, one made during the 1894 internment of anarchists at Mazas prison and the other, from 1901, showing the writer restored to freedom and to high fashion, posing in the aforementioned Inverness cape in front of a wall of Japanese prints. 

Luce’s illustration conveys the message that symbolic or retributive violence was the logical—and only available—counterbalance to the countless casualties of government-protected capitalism.

Luce’s “Balance Sheet” is a panoptic summation of the reciprocal, interlocking advances of insurrectionary actions and state repression in what is sometimes called the “First Wave of Modern Terror.”7 It was published in Père Peinard at a pivotal moment: less than two weeks after a Spanish anarchist killed some thirty operagoers at Barcelona’s Gran Teatre del Liceu, and three months before Émile Henry, the twenty-one-year-old son of an exiled Communard, brought this new civilian-targeted terrorist tactic to Paris, aiming a bomb at random bourgeois patrons of the Café Terminus in retaliation for the state’s public execution of Auguste Vaillant, who had bombed (with no casualties) the French parliament.8 The protagonist of Luce’s image is a woman in the pensive pose of Dürer’s Melencolia I, 1514. Gazing into space, she takes a break from the task before her—her desk is strewn with papers, where she appears to be crunching numbers, balancing out two columns of figures. In one column: 35,000 KILLED, 20,000 DEPORTED MAY ’71, 90,000 MISERY; 71,000 INSANITY, 40 FOURMIES, RAVACHOL. And in the other: 80 HOSTAGES MAY ’71; SIX DOZEN COPS, 1 TSAR, A HANDFUL OF BOSSES, 25, BARCELONA THEATER. Above that balance sheet is another pair of lists in two columns marked AUTHORITY and REVOLT. On one side, PROSTITUTION, MISERY, FAMINE, SUICIDE, INFANTICIDE, CHICAGO, and FOURMIES (i.e., the 1886 Haymarket massacre and the 1891 “Fusillade de Fourmies,” in which French troops in the eponymous town gunned down striking workers). And on the other list, names of streets and cities where anarchist bombs exploded and prominent assassination victims, notably TSAR N°2., i.e., Alexander II of Russia, who in 1881 was killed in a bombing orchestrated by Narodnaya Volya (The People’s Will). That spectacular act instigated an official endorsement of tactical violence at that year’s International Anarchist Congress of London and a widespread philosophical embrace, in the decades that followed, of a premise neatly summarized in this closing couplet of an anarchist poem: “This alone, this always, will succeed / The miracle and magic of the deed.”9

Much writing on anarchist propaganda of the deed, as historian Mike Davis has stated, “reifies violence on the left in abstraction from the ruling-class and state violence to which it was almost always a reaction . . . the image of totally autonomous, self-propelled Terror—the political equivalent of Satanism––has always had a certain sublimity, but it is a myth.”10 Certainly, Luce’s illustration communicates that reactivity, while underlining the asymmetrical count of fatalities, conveying the message that symbolic or retributive violence was the logical––and only available––counterbalance to the countless casualties of government-protected capitalism. The thrust of this message is relayed in the caption of the image: words spoken to the feather-penned penseur by a worker peering impatiently over her shoulder: “OK, Madame History, it’s a hell of a mess to tally the victims. Come on, don’t break your head and listen up: whichever side the victims, responsibility lies with the high-up do-nothing fuckers [jean-foutre de la haute].”

Luce’s address to the allegorical figure “Madame History” articulates both a sense of urgency (she seems to be taking a little too long to complete her calculations) and a cynicism (her confused expression suggests she is perhaps a bit too dumb, or too much in the pocket of the high-up fucks, to see that her numbers just don’t add up). In France in the early 1890s, during the short period now known as the “era of attacks,” the political calculations of many artists and anarchists in Fénéon’s circle aligned with those in Luce’s “Balance Sheet.”11 The show communicated this tendency in large part through ephemera generated in the process of criminalizing such beliefs, which propagated in symbiosis with the swift growth of police forensics and surveillance, as so many turn-of-the-century novels document. At MoMA, evidence of this feedback dynamic came in the form of crime-scene photographs from the restaurant bombing allegedly perpetrated by Fénéon, an 1894 police informant’s list of known anarchists, and photographs executed by Alphonse Bertillon, chief of the identification bureau for the Paris police, who invented the standard mug-shot format. The curators present Luce and Fénéon as his subjects, along with the “violent Christ” Ravachol (François Claudius Koenigstein), an anarchist thief who bombed the homes of several judges and became a folk hero after being executed, fêted with popular songs like “La Ravachole,” with its chorus intoning: Vive le son d’l’explosion!12

Paul Signac, Au temps d’harmonie: L’âge d’or n’est pas dans le passé, il est dans l’avenir (reprise) (In the Time of Harmony: The Golden Age Has Not Passed, It Is Still to Come [Reprise]), 1896, oil on canvas, 25 1⁄2 × 31 7⁄8

In terms of actual art, this penchant for bombast was only barely represented in the works exhibited. This is due, in part, to an emergent schism—which seems to have hardened precisely in this late-nineteenth-century moment of intense art-world involvement in anarchism—between pure (or autonomous) form and political content. “The anarchist painter is not the one who represents anarchist scenes,” Signac asserted in 1902 (a few years before Fénéon signed him to a lucrative contract at Bernheim-Jeune), “but the one who, without worrying about riches, without wishing for recompense, struggles with all his individuality against bourgeois and official conventions.”13 The few works that did relay assertive political messages helped illuminate the very different species of anarchism espoused by the various art-world actors showcased in the exhibition. Among these were two paintings by Signac, who, despite his conviction that a true anarchist concerned himself exclusively with “form, composition, and color,” did paint several didactic “anarchist scenes.” On view were Le Démolisseur (The Demolition Worker), 1897–99, in which shirtless men take a pickax to buildings to herald the coming destruction of the social order, and Au temps d’harmonie: L’âge d’or n’est pas dans le passé, il est dans l’avenir (reprise) (In the Time of Harmony: The Golden Age Has Not Passed, It Is Still to Come [Reprise]), 1896 (originally to be titled “In the Time of Anarchy”), a rather wince-inducing glimpse into the painter’s vision of a utopian future, where men are at leisure to paint, read, and play bocce while women pick berries, fold laundry, and entertain babies. Equally didactic but more conceptually rich was the frontispiece of Camille Pissarro’s Turpitudes sociales (Social Disgraces), 1889–90, a rarely exhibited album of twenty-eight pen-and-ink drawings that represents, by far, the veteran Impressionist’s most explicit visual articulation of his own anarchist politics, and one that throws light on the specificity of Fénéon’s, as an anarchism untethered from ingenuous moralism, with a very different capacity to harness money, violence, and irony.

Pissarro willfully misunderstands and overwrites Baudelaire’s ambivalent stance toward, so to speak, social-justice warriors.

In the Turpitudes frontispiece, Pissarro pictures himself in the guise of Father Time or the Grim Reaper with an hourglass and scythe; he sits on a mountaintop gazing over the Parisian skyline toward the Eiffel Tower––the already iconic “spread-legged whore” of iron, then the tallest building in the world, newly constructed for the 1889 world’s fair honoring the French Revolution’s centennial, and a bitter symbol, for artists in the 1890s, of the annexation of revolutionary ideals by a spectacular and spectacularizing form of capitalism.14 The letters ANARCHIE beam out from the rays of a sun that rises behind the tower, which was, Pissarro explained in a letter, “not yet high and wide enough to conceal the star that lights us up.”15 The twenty-eight drawings that follow this allegorical self-portrait spell out the theme of redemption through violence that is implicit in it. Beginning with a fat banker clutching a bag of money, standing atop a pedestal to be worshipped, these drawings (unfortunately not included in the show) alternate images of the Bourse and café terraces with scenes of breadlines, factory work, robberies, suicides, drunkards, starving families, and workplace accidents, concluding with an image of men at the barricades wielding shotguns and raising a flag.

The poor and their allies must not wait submissively for change or charity but enact social change by force––that is Turpitudes’ relentless argument, which Pissarro drove home with quotations on the facing pages of his images, all but one culled from La Révolte, a journal originally founded by the Russian anarchist theorist Peter Kropotkin. (For example: “It is the War of the dispossessed against their dispossessors, the War of the hungry against the fat, the War of the poor against the rich, the War of life against death.”16) The most revealing quotation, however, is the single line––“One is equal to another only if he can prove it, and worthy of liberty only if he can win it”—taken from Baudelaire’s prose poem in Paris Spleen (1869) “Let’s Beat Up the Poor!” Turpitudes, which contains several drawings clearly inspired by Paris Spleen’s prose portraits of the Parisian poor, willfully misunderstands and overwrites the poet’s ambivalent stance toward, so to speak, social-justice warriors.17 The sentence Pissarro quotes is, in the poem, spoken by an invisible “demon of action” into the ear of a narrator who has just spent some weeks devouring revolutionary political theory (implicitly, the writings of Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, the French father of anarchism).18 Upon leaving his living quarters, he hears the demon’s call when he encounters a beggar at a bar door, and feels compelled to pounce on him “with the fierce energy of a chef tenderizing a steak.” To the surprise and delight of the narrator, his victim, after a moment, gets up and gives back better. After being beaten “nearly to jelly,” the narrator retorts with pomp to the beggar: “Monsieur, you are my equal! Do me the honor of sharing my purse.”

“One is equal to another only if he can prove it, and worthy of liberty only if he can win it.” This line, in Baudelaire, is a hypothesis tested with a brutal and sarcastic thought experiment. Inserted into Pissarro’s album alongside a drawing titled “The Beggar,” it becomes something different. Glossing this drawing in a letter some months later, Pissarro explained: “This pariah does not have the energy to take by force the abundant victuals displayed in the vitrine behind him, preferring to starve to death. Strange!!!”19 As his exclamation makes clear, for Pissarro the “demon of Action” is not a joke. Armed insurrection and, more immediately, individual reclamation of wealth by force are being prescribed, in Turpitudes, as necessary remedies for economic inequality. More broadly, Pissarro’s calculated (mis)quotation of Baudelaire agitates against the poet’s cynical and aestheticizing stance in relation to social problems, rewriting history so that a Baudelaire is more in line with a Kropotkin, sharing a clear voice of advocacy, proposing solutions.

Pissarro pictured himself as an avenger, the Grim Reaper, but he never used his body to actualize the album’s threat. Turpitudes sociales was in fact made bespoke as a teaching instrument for Esther and Alice Isaacson, Pissarro’s London-based, thirtysomething, comfortably middle-class nieces, who were, as their uncle chastised them in one letter, “not very au courant with political matters.”20 It was a call to arms kept muffled within a familial, domestic sphere. Did Fénéon, by contrast, act on the violence Pissarro advocated in private? And if he did, what would it tell us about a man, nicknamed “Father Laconic,” who spoke next to nothing about his personal beliefs?21

Police photograph of the bombed Restaurant Foyot, Paris, 1894. Photo: Alphonse Bertillon.

IN HER 1989 BIOGRAPHY of Fénéon, Joan U. Halperin, also the editor of his complete works, made the allegation that her subject was in fact responsible for an unsolved bombing that took place on April 4, 1894, when a terra-cotta-potted hyacinth loaded with explosives was placed on the outside windowsill of the luxurious Restaurant Foyot. MoMA’s catalogue repeats her proposition, saying “it is believed that Fénéon set the . . . bomb himself,” while elsewhere simply noting, “His culpability remains a point of question.”22 Maintaining the did he/didn’t he ambiguity––with a strong lean in the direction yes!––lends a frisson of radicalism; and today, as in the late nineteenth century, the dawning age of the mass press, bombs are catnip for publicity. But there was something that felt exploitative about the atmosphere of unchecked facts. Striving to ascertain whether or not Fénéon was “guilty” would have been a worthy––even if ultimately futile––task for a museum with a sophisticated research apparatus; but perhaps answering the question matters less than acknowledging the uncertainty; acknowledging this uncertainty helps illuminate the conundrums of causality, swinging between coincidence and conspiracy, that the Foyot bombing inevitably raises as a particular violent act; acknowledging the uncertainty would also have helped to get at the ambiguities around the ethics, or sincerity, of Fénéon’s politics, an ambiguity felt particularly palpably in the context of a show that examined his anarchism of the 1890s amid the full trajectory of his work and life history.

Fénéon’s sympathy for violent tactics is not in doubt. Signac recalls him asserting, in 1894, that recent dynamitings had “done more than the twenty years of Kropotkin’s or [Elisée] Reclus’s brochures.” He also reported that Fénéon particularly admired the “logic” of Henry’s attack on Café Terminus, regarding his strategy of taking casualties indiscriminately from the moneyed voting populace as “most ‘anarchist.’”23 Fénéon and Henry were acquainted, and the bombings of the Foyot and the Terminus do seem connected. Indeed, an explicit relation was asserted in Henry’s parting words: “My head is not the last you will cut off; yet others will fall, for the starving are beginning to know the way to your great cafés and restaurants, to the Terminus and Foyot.”24 At the same time, no one was formally charged for the Foyot explosion, which did not kill anyone. Fénéon was simply caught up in a sweep and charged as part of an association de malfaiteurs composed of “militants” and “thieves.” Though mercury and eleven detonators were found in his office, he may have been hiding them for others and there is extremely little evidence to support Halperin’s claim that Fénéon was responsible for an actual bombing. In the rather scathing opinion of historian Philippe Oriol, Halperin’s case is based on a “totally Margaret Mitchellesque conception of research.”25

Although it predates the Foyot bombing by four years, it is difficult not to see Signac’s portrait as a prophetically incriminating picture.

As an alternative, Oriol floats various theories raised in 1894, noting how frequently the police, and entities like the Okhrana, the Russian tsar’s secret service, which kept a Paris office, were involved in staging what were essentially false-flag attacks meant to validate the state’s repressive anti-anarchist tactics. That the Foyot bomb was more of a bomblet, not powerful enough to kill, might support this theory. Oriol also raises the fact that the single victim wounded by this ostensibly random attack makes one question its true randomness. The man who lost an eye was Laurent Tailhade, a poet and strident anarchist sympathizer who some months prior, following Vaillant’s bombing of the Senate, had declared to much fanfare: “What matter the victims, if the gesture is beautiful!”26 One wanting to make a punch line of gauche caviar intellectuals could hardly have plotted a more perfect attack. Some sense of how the incident went down in (ruling class) history can be grasped from Restaurant Foyot’s entry in the 1911 Gourmet’s Guide to Europe:

When the Anarchists thought that to blow up a restaurant would be a warning to aristocratic diners, Foyot’s appeared to them to be very handily situated . . . but the only person hurt was an Anarchist poet who had been so false to his tenets as to have taken a very pretty lady to dine à deux in this restaurant of the well-to-do, and to have given her Truite Meunière. . . . Needless to say, Paris laughed. 27

Fénéon was friendly with Tailhade, and as Oriol notes, it stretches the imagination that he would have placed a bomb outside a glass window through which he could have easily seen and recognized his fellow dandyish writer. At the time, since no one else was injured, friends assumed the bomb was intentionally thrown at Tailhade, perhaps by police agents provocateurs.28 The historical significance of the Foyot bombing lies precisely in the profound aporia it produces around intention and causality. Was this a supreme instance of coincidence––one anarchist writer acting by the deed, only to injure another––or rather, a plan masquerading as weaponized chance procedure?

Another theory raised at the time was that the bomb was thrown at Tailhade by a spurned lover. Le Matin (Fénéon’s future employer) quoted a certain “Jacques Prolo,” an avowed anarchist, who swore that “only a woman would have dreamed of hiding dynamite in flowers.”29 To my mind, however, the flowerpot is, if not a smoking gun, an intriguing detail that points—perhaps—toward a perpetrator with a decadent literary sensibility. Someone who would have found it amusing to play on the verb planter, used for both bombs and flowers, someone who might be familiar with Baudelaire’s prose poem “The Bad Glazier,” another tale of pointless cruelty at the expense of the working poor, in which the narrator makes “a war machine” out of “a little flower pot.”30 The poet Stéphane Mallarmé was a character witness for Fénéon in the Trial of Thirty, at which he vehemently denied his friend’s involvement in any violent activities, avowing that for Fénéon “there are no better detonators than his articles.” Nevertheless, Mallarmé was clearly taken with the spectacular activation of “accident” in the public sphere, and with the metaphorical collapse of explosion and blossom, fuse and stalk, made possible by what he referred to, in a poetic tribute to Tailhade, as “the sinister flowerpot.”31

And then there is the centerpiece of the exhibition, a picture gifted to MoMA by David Rockefeller, that has hung on the museum’s walls off and on since 1947. I am referring to the most flamboyant of the many extant portrait-tributes to Fénéon: Paul Signac’s Opus 217. Against the Enamel of a Background Rhythmic with Beats and Angles, Tones, and Tints, Portrait of M. Félix Fénéon in 1890. Although it predates the Foyot bombing by four years, it is difficult not to see this as a prophetically incriminating picture, delighting in the notion of the writer as a revolutionary bomb-thrower. Fénéon appears before a pinwheeling vortex of patterned colors, striding forth in a perfect profile that matches his mug shot, while gingerly proffering in his outstretched right hand a cyclamen with a curiously long, wispy stem. He holds the flower away from his body with cautious delicacy. Though the bloom is often interpreted as a dandy’s chivalrous offering to a person outside the frame of the picture, the outstretched arm can also read as a threatening gesture; an explosion that seems to ramify out from the flower, the background’s burst of riotous color echoes in its compartmented structure the five petals blossoming from the base of the stem held in Fénéon’s hand. The aestheticization of violence that Fénéon, and this exhibition as a whole, invites us to contend with is encapsulated in this motif of bomb-as-flower.

Paul Signac, Opus 217. Sur l’émail d’un fond rythmique de mesures et d’angles, de tons et de teintes, portrait de M. Félix Fénéon en 1890 (Opus 217. Against the Enamel of a Background Rhythmic with Beats and Angles, Tones, and Tints, Portrait of M. Félix Fénéon in 1890), oil on canvas, 29 × 36 1⁄2

“‘I’M TELEGRAPHING RAVACHOL!’ cried Nini Colonne of Pantin. She was committed for insanity; the comrade’s death being somewhat notorious.”32 Referring back to the attacks of the 1890s in connection with a diagnosis of mental incapacity, this is the most explicit of several references to anarchist terrorism among the thousand faits divers Fénéon wrote a little more than a decade after his acquittal. It is hard to know how to interpret the tone: sympathy for the impulse to resurrect the violent Christ? Or an avowal that sanity is contingent on recognizing distance from that moment of militancy? It is striking how closely the subjects of the “Novels in Three Lines” echo those of Pissarro’s Turpitudes sociales. Most frequent, by far, are accidents, domestic violence, and suicides. But the radical difference in tone captures the dynamic of aestheticization that makes Fénéon’s attitude toward violence, even already in the 1890s, so qualitatively different from someone like Pissarro’s. With Fénéon, very much as with Baudelaire, the possibility remains open that violence is regarded as an end in itself, an object of aesthetic fascination, and not a means to an end of social progress. The violence recorded in the “Novels in Three Lines”––with their dead babies tattooed with cannons, their tramps burning to death in shelters, their women shot or strangled by jealous lovers––may be a vehicle for Fénéon’s “contained outrage,” as Luc Sante suggests, but it is also impossible to disentangle from the commercial character of the writer’s task in an established genre invented to sell newspapers—a kind of mass-market “Let’s beat up the poor!”33 And in the transition from the era of propagande par le fait to that of the faits divers, the meaning of fait migrates from deed to fact; the “Novels in Three Lines” are consumable in quantity like so many acidic bonbons; they are fait accompli, and do not compel their reader to act.

Fénéon left Le Matin at the end of 1906 to become an art dealer at Bernheim-Jeune, where his most lasting and lucrative achievement was probably launching the career of Henri Matisse––a painter who, as is well known, took pains to stress his art’s luxuriant, balming hedonism and its compatibility with bourgeois sensibilities.34 At the same time, in 1912, Fénéon gave the Italian Futurists––the paradigmatic champions of art-as-violence among the avant-gardes of the early twentieth century, and future Fascist collaborators––their first Parisian exhibition. Most likely, it was after becoming a dealer that Fénéon began to amass his collection of African and Oceanic sculpture. (Apparently, it has been impossible to determine whether Fénéon began collecting as early as 1904, i.e, before artists like Picasso and Matisse, or as late as 1919, when collecting so-called art nègre had already become an established transcontinental fad.35)

Albert Guillaume, “La maladie noire” (The Black Fever), caricature postcard, ca. 1923. Far left: Félix Fénéon. Second from right: Paul Guillaume.

MoMA’s exhibition closed with a room of Matisses, Futurist paintings such as Luigi Russolo’s The Revolt, ca. 1911, and seventeen sculptures from Fénéon’s now-dispersed collection, most created in what were then French colonial possessions: On view were objects from the present Democratic Republic of Congo and Côte d’Ivoire, but also Burkina Faso, Papua New Guinea, British Columbia, and Madagascar. An exquisite heddle pulley attributed to the so-called Master of Bouaflé—a carver whose works all seem to have passed through the hands of dealer Paul Guillaume––was the only object attributed to a semi-named artist, among sixteen others marked as “Unrecorded.”36 The room contained many visually arresting pictures and sculptures. But it was also unsettling, because so much was left unsaid about the violence of what was on display, especially with respect to the art “from far away,” as Fénéon would say.

In the context of a show foregrounding anarchism, in which so many of the European protagonists were preoccupied with theorizing theft and property, it would have been immensely instructive to place a more public spotlight on the provenance histories of Fénéon’s non-Western sculptures. For the conditions of their acquisition would show, in exaggeration, the dynamics of violent taking, or asymmetrical exchange, that anarchists decried in the relations between rich and poor in European nations. Whether or not they contained objects now universally understood to have been “stolen”––like the bronzes of Benin analyzed in Dan Hicks’s recent book The Brutish Museums––collections like Fénéon’s, formed before World War II, originated in acts of spoliation, perhaps in the guise of a coercive “trade,” which nowadays are being classified as a form of theft. (Guillaume, for instance, acquired sculptures by advertising in military publications to colonial soldiers.37) As Hicks emphasizes, we still lack a nuanced “theory of taking” that would address the multifarious forms of imperial looting that created the present imbalance, such that “90% of the material cultural legacy of sub-Saharan Africa remains preserved and housed outside of the African continent.”38 The numbers here are a bit like those being tallied in Luce’s “Balance Sheet”––lopsided to an ostentatious degree, despite Madame History’s slowness to acknowledge what is plain to see. As Felwine Sarr and Bénédicte Savoy stated in their 2018 report The Restitution of African Cultural Heritage: Toward a New Relational Ethics, yet to be acted on by the French museums whose collections it addressed, “Destruction and collection are the two sides of the same coin.”39

View of “Félix Fénéon: The Anarchist and the Avant-Garde—From Signac to Matisse and Beyond,” 2020–21, Museum of Modern Art, New York. Photo: Robert Gerhardt.

The show’s final room contained many visually arresting pictures and sculptures. But it was also unsettling.

The challenge presented by the current debates around restitutions––beyond the obvious threat that they are a mere “beautiful gesture,” a ruse for colonial nations to evade the more substantive work of economic reparations––is that the very concept of restitution reifies a legalistic framework defined by Euro-American capitalism and established in relation to these objects in part through the actions of “promoter-purchasers” like Fénéon.40 As the MoMA exhibition demonstrated, Fénéon played a pivotal role in a twinned process of aestheticization and financial speculation through which Euro-American collectors recategorized certain African and Oceanic sculptures that had been imported from the colonies to the metropole, shifting their classification from ethnographic specimen to art object. In his 1920 “Survey on the Distant Arts,” Fénéon framed these objects around the question “Will They Be Admitted to the Louvre?” thereby contributing to the deconstruction of Eurocentric norms of beauty and aesthetic quality and, in the process, doing something to “promote a more harmonious, egalitarian world,” as MoMA’s exhibition blurb states.41 At the same time, it was precisely in this process of artification—which often involved baptism by auction––that the paths of provenance were effaced.42 In this case, the aestheticization of violence lies not so much in the aestheticization of an explosion than in the capacity to overlook one, or in the capacity to forget that “property is theft,” as an old anarchist might say.

Emmelyn Butterfield-Rosen is associate director of the Williams Graduate Program in the History of Art at the Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, MA. Her first book, Modern Art and the Remaking of Human Disposition, addresses Fénéon’s writings on Seurat and is forthcoming from University of Chicago Press.


1. Joan Ungersma Halperin, Félix Fénéon: Aesthete and Anarchist in Fin-de-Siècle Paris (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1989), 3.

2. T. J. Clark, “We Field-Women,” in Farewell to an Idea: Episodes from a History of Modernism (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1999), 55–138, 62.

3. Félix Fénéon, Novels in Three Lines, trans. Luc Sante (New York: New York Review Books, 2007), 146, 22.

4. “Félix Fénéon: The Anarchist and the Avant-Garde—From Signac to Matisse and Beyond,” Museum of Modern Art, accessed March 7, 2021, www.moma.org/calendar/exhibitions/5075.

5. The term is Halperin’s, whose analysis of Fénéon’s writerly strategies, in her biography and in Félix Fénéon and the Language of Art Criticism (Ann Arbor, MI: UMI Research Press, 1980), remains invaluable.

6. Père Peinard 5, no. 244 (November 19, 1893). The magazine, edited by Émile Pouget, was founded in 1889 and closed by censors in 1894. A complete run of issues can be found at archivesautonomies.org/spip.php?article3963. See also Howard G. Lay, “Réflecs d’un gniaff: On Emile Pouget and Le Père Peinard,” in Making the News: Modernity & the Mass Press in Nineteenth-Century France, ed. Dean de la Motte and Jeannene M. Przyblyski (Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts Press, 1999), 82–138. I am grateful to Emmanuel Hau for his help with the translation of language from Père Peinard.

7. David C. Rapoport, “The Four Waves of Modern Terrorism,” in Attacking Terrorism: Elements of a Grand Strategy, ed. Audrey Kurth Cronin and James M. Ludes (Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press, 2004).

8. Different sources offer different counts of the Liceu fatalities; I take the number thirty from Richard Bach Jensen, The Battle Against Anarchist Terrorism: An International History, 1878–1934 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014), 32.

9. Richard Bach Jensen, “Anarchist Terrorism and Counterterrorism in Europe and the World,” in The Routledge History of Terrorism, ed. Randall D. Law (New York: Routledge, 2015), 112. The poem is John Davidson, “To the Generation Knocking at the Door,” published in the Glasgow Evening News in 1905.

10. Mike Davis, “Artisans of Terror,” in In Praise of Barbarians: Essays Against Empire (Chicago: Haymarket, 2007), 263.

11. The periodization comes from Jean Maitron, Histoire du mouvement anarchiste en France, 1880–1914 (Paris: Société Universitaire, 1951).

12. John Merriman, The Dynamite Club: How a Bombing in Fin-de-Siècle Paris Ignited the Age of Modern Terror (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2016), 83–84.

13. Paul Signac, unpublished manuscript probably written circa 1902, cited in Robert Herbert and Eugenia Herbert, “Artists and Anarchism: Unpublished Letters of Pissarro, Signac, and Others,” Burlington Magazine, no. 102 (November 1960): 472–82, 479.

14. Joris-Karl Huysmans, as quoted in Halperin, 204.

15. Pissarro to Esther and Alice Isaacson, July 30, 1890, in Correspondence de Camille Pissarro, ed. Janine Bailly-Herzberg, vol. 2, 1886–1890 (Paris: Presses universitaires de France, 1980), letter no. 592, 354–55.

16. Camille Pissaro, Les Turpitudes Sociales 1890. Pissarro et l’Anarchie, Facsimile edition (Geneva: Albert Skira, 1972), n.p.

17. For instance, drawing 21 in the suite La vertu récompensée (Virtue Rewarded), showing two beggars confronting diners on a café terrace, is likely inspired by “The Eyes of the Poor.” 

18. I have modified the poem’s title, but otherwise referred to the translation in Charles Baudelaire, Paris Spleen: Little Poems in Prose, trans. Keith Waldrop (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2010), 94–95. An early draft of the poem concluded with the question “Qu’en dis tu, Citoyen Proudhon?” I am indebted to the discussion of the poem in Françoise Meltzer, Seeing Double: Baudelaire’s Modernity (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011), 11–74.

19. Pissarro to Esther and Alice Isaacson, in Correspondence, 2: 354–55.

20. Pissarro to Esther Isaacson, December 22, 1885, in Correspondence de Camille Pissaro, ed. Janine Bailly-Herzberg, vol. 1, 1865–1885 (Paris: Presses universitaires de France, 1980), 368.

21. The nickname, coined by Henry Gauthier-Villars, is relayed in Starr Figura, Isabelle Cahn, and Philippe Peltier, Félix Fénéon: The Anarchist and the Avant-Garde (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 2020), 26.

22. Patricia Leighten, “Fénéon’s Anarchist Avant-Gardism,” in The Anarchist and the Avant-Garde, 102, and curators’ introduction by Starr Figura, Isabelle Cahn, and Philippe Peltier, 23.

23. Signac, journal entry of December 26, 1894, as quoted in Katherine Brion, “Paul Signac’s Decorative Propaganda of the 1890s,” RIHA Journal 44 (July 2012): 1. Halperin makes this connection, writing, “For Fénéon, the path was clear. He repeated Henry’s act, but with more discretion,” 275.

24. Émile Henry, Émile Henry’s Defense, theanarchistlibrary.org/library/emile-henry-emile-henry-s-defense.

25. Philippe Oriol, À propos de l’attentat Foyot (Paris: Fourneau, 1993), 9. Her case was also questioned by James Joll, who wrote, “The evidence for this doesn’t seem wholly conclusive. The poet and critic André Salmon stated (when and to whom? Halperin just says, ‘It was passed on to the author’) that the wife of Fénéon’s Dutch anarchist friend Alexander Cohen told him that in old age Fénéon ‘disclosed his role in the bombing’ to the Cohens. It’s hard to know how to evaluate this third-hand evidence; and even if Fénéon did say something to the Cohens, might it not have been just another typical piece of Fénéonesque mystification?” “Art and Anarchy,” New York Review of Books, November 23, 1989, www.nybooks.com/articles/1989/11/23/art-and-anarchy/; see also Mitchell Abidor’s critique of evidence based on “a chain of hearsay” and “the unreliable memoirs of André Salmon, written in 1959, decades after the events” in his correction to Jed Perl’s review of the MoMA exhibition, where Perl follows the lead of Halperin to say that Fénéon’s role in the bombing was “almost certain.” Mitchell Abidor, letter to the editor, New York Review of Books, June 11, 2020, www.nybooks.com/articles/2020/06/11/felix-feneon-bomb-restaurant-foyot/.

26. See Howard G. Lay, “Beau geste! (On the Readability of Terrorism),” Yale French Studies, no. 101 (2001): 79–100.

27. Lieutenant Colonel Nathaniel Newnham-Davis, The Gourmet’s Guide to Europe, 3rd ed. (London: Grant Richards, 1911), 32. In fact, the story of this bombing took a form that almost seems prescripted for inclusion as a news item in the fait divers, a genre Roland Barthes described as being constituted by a preoccupation with “aleatory causality, organized coincidence,” in its capacity as a genre of “a mass art” whose “role is probably to preserve at the very heart of contemporary society an ambiguity of the rational and the irrational, of the intelligible and the unfathomable,” Roland Barthes, “Structure of the Faits Divers” in Critical Essays (Chicago: Northwestern University Press, 1972), 194.

28. Eugenia W. Herbert, The Artist and Social Reform: France and Belgium, 1885–1898 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1961), 124.

29. Quoted in “‘Beau geste!’ (On the Readability of Terrorism),” 92. 

30. Charles Baudelaire, “The Bad Glazier,” in Paris Spleen, 15–17.

31. Stéphane Mallarmé, “Laurent Tailhade. Frontispiece,” in Divagations, trans. Barbara Johnson (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2009), 73–74.

32. Fénéon, “Novels in Three Lines,” 106.

33. Fénéon, “Novels in Three Lines,” vii.

34. “Do tell the American people,” he said to the press before the Armory show of 1913, “that I am a normal man . . . a devoted husband and father . . . I go to the theater, ride horseback, have a comfortable home, a fine garden that I love, flowers, etc., just like any man.” He was explicit in stating, “I do not believe in propaganda art. It is not necessary for the artist to associate himself with the class struggle.” See especially John O’Brian, Ruthless Hedonism_: The American Reception of _Matisse (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999), 20, 72.

35. See Philippe Peltier, “Fénéon’s Collection of Art from Africa and Oceania,” in The Anarchist and the Avant-Garde, 184.

36. MoMA’s catalogue provides no information about this maker, who was given the name “Master of Bouaflé” by the Swiss historians Eberhard Fischer and Lorenz Homberger on the occasion of the 1985 exhibition “Die Kunst der Guro,” at the Museum Reitberg, Zurich. The most comprehensive recent information I have been able to locate is in the catalogue, Gouro: sculpteurs de genies (Paris: Galerie Charles-Wesley Hourdé, 2016).

37. Charles-Wesley Hourdé suggests that the Guro objects in Fénéon’s collection were most likely brought to France by Raoul Soffrey Berthier de Montrigaud, a member of the French military during the Ivory Coast Pacification Campaign, who may have collected objects at the Zuénoula base between 1911 and 1913 and sold them to Guillaume at some point upon his return to France. See also Bertrand Goy, Côte d’Ivoire: Premiers regards sur la sculpture, 1850–1935 (Paris: Schoffel-Valluet, 2014).

38. Dan Hicks, The Brutish Museums: The Benin Bronzes, Colonial Violence and Cultural Restitution (London: Pluto Press, 2020), 24; Felwine Sarr and Bénédicte Savoy, The Restitution of African Cultural Heritage: Toward a New Relational Ethics, November 2018, restitutionreport2018.com/sarr_savoy_en.pdf, 3. This oft-cited statistic has been critiqued in an important respect by Zoë Strother, who observes that the notion of patrimoine it quantifies is Eurocentric, isolating objects that can be collected rather than a cultural heritage stored in the body of subjects (e.g., a wooden mask and not the knowledge, possessed by an enculturated human being, of how to dance with it). As she writes, what the statistic really tracks is so-called classical African works of art, i.e., “the art forms admired by early modernists such as Picasso and Matisse. ‘Classical’ in commercial galleries is a term that most often refers to African works collected during the first half of the colonial period, ca. 1885–1930. Such a selective view of what constitutes cultural heritage continues the colonialist paradigm that African cultural achievement should be defined by European criteria. It also perpetuates the misguided notion that African cultural production effectively died in 1885 and everything produced thereafter is illegitimate and debased in quality.” See Z. S. Strother, “Eurocentrism Still Sets the Terms of Restitution of African Art,” Art Newspaper, January 8, 2019.

39. Sarr and Savoy, 14.

40. Léa Saint-Raymond and Elodie Vaudry, “The Vanishing Paths of African Artefacts: Mapping the Parisian Auction Market for ‘Primitive’ Objects in the Interwar Period,” Journal for Art Market Studies 4, no. 1 (2020). For a critique of restitutions, see Manthia Diawara, “A Letter to President Macron: Reparations Before Restitution,” Hyperallergic, January 6, 2020.

41. “Félix Fénéon: The Anarchist and the Avant-Garde”; Félix Fénéon, ed., “Enquête sur les arts lointains, seront-ils admis au Louvre?,” Bulletin de la vie artistique, no. 24 (November 15, 1920): 662–69; no. 25 (December 1, 1920): 693–703; 26 (December 15, 1920): 726–38. It should be noted that in the Parisian iteration of the exhibition the answer to this question remained a resounding “no” with respect to Fénéon’s sculpture collection. In 2019, under the title “Modern Times, from Seurat to Matisse,” the Musée de l’Orangerie, Paris, presented works by Fénéon’s European friends while the African and Oceanic objects were segregated in a separate presentation at the Musée du Quai Branly. There was no separate or substantive catalogue for the Branly presentation, which would have been the most justifiable reason for this material’s separate presentation.

42. “Promoter-purchaser” is from Saint-Raymond and Vaudry.

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