Dec 1st 2020

Anarchism and the Avant-Garde: Félix Fénéon at the Museum of Modern Art

by Sam Ben-Meir

Sam Ben-Meir is professor of philosophy and world religions at Mercy Collage in New York.



The Museum of Modern Art is currently presenting Félix Fénéon: The Anarchist and the Avant-Garde – From Signac to Matisse and Beyond, examining the immense influence of this art critic, editor, publisher, collector and anarchist. Fénéon (1861-1944) saw the critic as a channel between the artist and the public – a role which had particular significance because art could further the cause of social justice and harmony. As Paul Signac would proclaim: “Justice in sociology, harmony in art: same thing.”

Asunday
Georges Seurat: “A Sunday on La Grande Jatte” (1884)


The exhibition includes several of Georges Seurat’s paintings, and begins with a study for “A Sunday on La Grande Jatte” (1884), his famed masterpiece, which was featured in its ultimate, monumental (10-foot wide) iteration at the 1886 exhibition of the Impressionists. That same year Fénéon would coin the term Neo-Impressionism to identify the revolutionary innovations that Seurat and Paul Signac were pioneering – which included the pointillist technique that Fénéon would contrast with the ‘blink-of-an-eye’ effects of the Impressionists. For Seurat and Signac, pointillism was a science-based approach to color, based on the application of tiny, juxtaposed dots of multi-colored paint, which were blended in the viewers eye, rather than physically blended on the canvas.

Luce
Maximilien Luce: “Man Washing” (1887)


The show includes paintings by Maximilien Luce, such as “Man Washing” (1887) which depicts a man standing over a wash basin, as he cleans the back of his neck. The scene underscores the simple, daily routines of the working-class and their humble, domestic interiors: a small mirror hangs on the wall behind him; his jacket lies draped over a chair, which casts its shadow over his black boots and the hexagonal terracotta tiles of the floor. There is a tough, primitive ruddiness to Luce’ representations of the working-class, a quiet dignity in the subject’s thin but taut, muscular frame.

Luce was a fellow anarchist with whom Fénéon would form a close friendship. A spate of political bombings in 1894 would lead to the so-called Trial of the Thirty; and while Fénéon was ultimately (and narrowly) acquitted, both men would find themselves at Mazas prison – a notorious, twelve-hundred cell panopticon. A lithograph by Luce depicts Fénéon at Mazas, standing within a long, narrow outdoor corridor, flanked by a looming guard tower which could see into every cell.

seurat demolotion worker
Paul Signac: “Demolition Worker” (1897-99)


One of the exhibition’s standout paintings is Signac’s “Demolition Worker” (1897-99) – a monumental allegory about delivering the “forceful blow of a pickaxe to the antiquated social structure.” One is reminded of Mikhail Bakunin’s famous dictum “the passion for destruction is a creative passion too.” But the painting is more than a plea for bringing down the present social order: it is an anarchist’s call to take up the struggle for a modern, egalitarian society in which manual laborers are treated with fairness and respect – a testimony to the inherent nobility of man and of the human form.

“In the Time of Harmony: The Golden Age Has Not Passed, It Is Still to Come” (1896), is meant to offer a glimpse of Signac’s utopian vision, his dream of what the future society might look like. Anarchism was not about the fury of political violence for its own sake, nor was it about dismantling social structures so that lawlessness and chaos might prevail. In Kropotkin’s words anarchism was about “well-being for all” – and “well-being for all is not a dream. It is possible, realizable, owing to all that our ancestors have done to increase our powers of production.” The Neo-Impressionists recognized that well-being also meant the liberation of our aesthetic sensibilities, and the realization of our true self through the freedom to create and recreate. As Signac would observe: “When the society we dream of exists, the workers freed from the exploiters who brutalize them, we will have time to think and to learn.” Signac’s figures dance, paint, exercise and read; they bathe and recline, they sing and play. Men, women, and children are all a part of Signac’s paean to a world in which social disparities are overcome, and positive freedom – the freedom to, as opposed to mere freedom from – is finally our guide.

The social theory of the Neo-Impressionists was a combination of anarchism and communism; and was chiefly inspired by the writings of Russian exile Pierre Kropotkin, as well as the work of Jean Grave and the Belgian geographer Elisée Reclus. They agreed with socialists in their vision of economic communism and equality of social conditions – including collective ownership of the means of production, the abolition of private property, and the dissolution of class hierarchies. A crucial feature of anarchism is the emphasis on the individual as the fundamental building block, the essential point of departure for any human association whatever. The individual was characterized by Grave in 1899 as a social creature who should be “left free to attach himself according to his tendencies, his affinities, free to seek out those with him whom his liberty and aptitudes can agree.” What the anarchists yearned for was a harmonious relationship between the individual and society as a whole – and this social ideal found its aesthetic representation in Neo-Impressionism. As D.D. Egbert observed in Social Radicalism and the Arts (1970): “… The very technique that the Neo-Impressionists employed, with its strongly accentuated individual brush strokes, which nonetheless are brought together in harmony to form the picture as a whole, paralleled the individualistic yet communal spirit of communist-anarchism.”

It is notable that in general, the Neo-Impressionists rejected overtly political subject matter – “stylistically innovative art, by its very freedom from convention, was necessarily revolutionizing.” They saw no need to embrace proletarian subject matter or anything like the ‘social realism’ which would characterize visual art during the Soviet era. As Pissarro observed in 1895: “Every production which is truly a work of art is socialist (whether or not the creator wishes it) … This work of pure beauty will enlarge the people’s aesthetic conceptions.” The fundamental idea here is that aesthetic form itself is the bearer of art’s radical potentialities, and beauty is inherently a kind of protest against an unfree world.

The show includes a number of works by the still underappreciated Félix Vallotton, including “Félix Fénéon at La Revue blanche” (1896) – a painting of Fénéon hunched over his desk, working assiduously late into the night, illumined by the glow of an electric lamp. It is a portrait of dedication – the image is reduced to its essentials, and intentionally slight on details to avoid distracting us from the portrait’s central theme. In other words, the concentrated focus of Vallotton’s subject is reproduced in the formal qualities of the painting, by eliminating everything extraneous to the image of a man wholly committed to his work.

In 1906, Fénéon joined the prominent art gallery Bernheim-Jeune, owned by Gaston and Josse Bernheim, two brothers who inherited their father’s business in the early years of the twentieth century. They are depicted in a 1920 painting by Pierre Bonnard, one of the Post-Impressionist, avant-garde artists to whom Fénéon gave his unflagging support. Fénéon also signed contracts with Kees van Dongen and Henri Matisse. Struck to see a well-known anarchist installed at an established and fairly conservative gallery, one contemporary observed that “A good anarchist, [Fénéon] planted Matisses among the bourgeoisie from the back room of Bernheim-Jeune as he might have planted bombs.” The comparison is a telling one because it underscores that, for Fénéon, all genuine art was necessarily subversive, an “indictment of the established reality” (as the philosopher and critical theorist Herbert Marcuse would later put it) – and by championing modern art he was, in his way, serving the cause of social revolution.

One of the most notable exhibitions that Fénéon organized was that of the Italian Futurists in February 1912 – which included paintings by Umberto Boccioni, Giacomo Balla, Gino Severini, Luigi Russolo, and Carla Carrà, among others. Emphasizing speed, technology, political radicalism and violence, Fénéon’s exhibition served to propel the Futurists to the front ranks of the European avant-garde. Boccioni was the first artist to be associated with the movement – and the show includes his painting “La risata” (1911, The Laugh), regarded as his first indisputably Futurist work, and an expression of the artist in his full maturity. From the gaudy, theatrical woman smiling in the upper left-hand corner, to the conspicuous men on the far left and right sides of the painting, to the many other faces and objects that have been worked in, Boccioni presents us with what is at once a simple dinner party, and at the same time a multi-dimensional conjunction of people and things, a fragmented reality, quasi-cubist, semi-abstract and inexhaustible in the relationships it conjures.

The sampling of Futurists includes Carrà’s painting memorializing the “Funeral of the Anarchist Galli” (1910-11), who was killed by police during a strike in Milan in 1904. The funeral itself became violent when the police refused to let mourners enter the cemetery, and Carrà’s painting captures the chaotic scene with sharp, slashing lines, aggressive brushwork and intense shades of red.

Félix Fénéon was not an artist, but an art critic; a bridge as it were between the artist and the public – and yet he was also so much more, because he recognized his significant social responsibility to find and champion those artists that were worthy of the public’s attention. That is perhaps the most important duty of the critic, and also the most difficult of the critic’s tasks; as it is in the very nature of genius to elude us, to transgress our settled categories of comprehension; and this is most true of the avant-garde artist who defies convention, who creates in effect a new vocabulary of seeing, and in the process reshapes and redefines our aesthetic sensibilities, our understanding of what is beautiful, and what the very aim of art is or should be. Fénéon’s influence was immense and due, in no small part, to his eye for genius; and because he recognized that while a painting may not, in itself, start a revolution, it can transform the way we see the world – and that is the beginning of all meaningful change.




Sam Ben-Meir is a professor of philosophy and world religions at Mercy College in New York City.

Browse articles by author

More Essays

Feb 24th 2021
EXTRACT: "The art historian George Kubler observed that scholars in the humanities “pretend to despise measurement because of its ‘scientific’ nature.” As if to illustrate his point Robert Storr, former dean of Yale’s School of Art, declared that artistic success is “completely unquantifiable.” In fact, however, artistic success can be quantified, in several ways. One of these is based on the analysis of texts produced by art scholars, and this measure can give us a systematic understanding of how changes in recent art have produced changes in the canon of art history."
Feb 24th 2021
EXTRACT: "The most politically sensitive option we looked at was the virus escaping from a laboratory. We concluded this was extremely unlikely."
Feb 16th 2021
EXTRACT: ".... these men were completely unaware that they had put their lives in the hands of doctors who not only had no intention of healing them but were committed to observing them until the final autopsy – since it was believed that an autopsy alone could scientifically confirm the study’s findings. As one researcher wrote in a 1933 letter to a colleague, “As I see, we have no further interest in these patients until they die.” ...... The unquestionable ethical failure of Tuskegee is one with which we must grapple, and of which we must never lose sight, lest we allow such moral disasters to repeat themselves. "
Feb 14th 2021
EXTRACT: "In 2010 Carlos Rodriguez, the president of Buenos Aires' Universidad del CEMA, created the world's first - and only - Center for Creativity Economics.  During the next ten years, the CCE presented a number of short courses and seminars.  But the most important of its events was an annual lecture by an Argentine artist, who was given a Creative Career Award."
Feb 11th 2021
EXTRACT: "It’s not hard to see why. Although AI systems outperform humans in tasks that are often associated with a “high level of intelligence” (playing chess, Go, or Jeopardy), they are nowhere close to excelling at tasks that humans can master with little to no training (such as understanding jokes). What we call “common sense” is actually a massive base of tacit knowledge – the cumulative effect of experiencing the world and learning about it since childhood. Coding common-sense knowledge and feeding it into AI systems is an unresolved challenge. Although AI will continue to solve some difficult problems, it is a long way from performing many tasks that children undertake as a matter of course."
Feb 7th 2021
EXTRACT: "When it comes to being fit and healthy, we’re often reminded to aim to walk 10,000 steps per day. This can be a frustrating target to achieve, especially when we’re busy with work and other commitments. Most of us know by now that 10,000 steps is recommended everywhere as a target to achieve – and yet where did this number actually come from?"
Feb 5th 2021
EXTRACT: "This so-called elite supposedly conspires to monopolise academic employment and research grants. Its alleged objective is to deny divine authority, and the ultimate beneficiary and prime mover is Satan.Such beliefs derive from the doctrine of biblical infallibility, long accepted as integral to the faith of numerous evangelical and Baptist churches throughout the world, including the Free Church of Scotland. But I would argue that the present-day creationist movement is a fully fledged conspiracy theory. It meets all the criteria, offering a complete parallel universe with its own organisations and rules of evidence, and claims that the scientific establishment promoting evolution is an arrogant and morally corrupt elite."
Jan 29th 2021
EXTRACT: "Ageing is so far known to be caused by nine biological mechanisms, sometimes called the “hallmarks of ageing”. In order to prevent ageing in our tissues, cells, and molecules, we need to be able to slow or prevent these hallmarks of ageing from taking place. While there are numerous treatments currently being investigated, two approaches currently show the most promise in slowing the development of age-related disease. .... One area researchers are investigating is looking at whether any medicines already exist which could tackle ageing. This method is advantageous in that billions of pounds have already been spent on testing the safety and efficacy of these drugs and they are already in routine clinical use in humans. Two in particular are promising candidates."
Jan 23rd 2021
EXTRACT: "The ageing global population is the greatest challenge faced by 21st-century healthcare systems. Even COVID-19 is, in a sense, a disease of ageing. The risk of death from the virus roughly doubles for every nine years of life, a pattern that is almost identical to a host of other illnesses. But why are old people vulnerable to so many different things? It turns out that a major hallmark of the ageing process in many mammals is inflammation. By that, I don’t mean intense local response we typically associate with an infected wound, but a low grade, grinding, inflammatory background noise that grows louder the longer we live. This “inflammaging” has been shown to contribute to the development of atherosclerosis (the buildup of fat in arteries), diabetes, high blood pressure , frailty, cancer and cognitive decline."
Jan 20th 2021
EXTRACT: "Anthropos is Greek for human.... The term is used to convey how, for the first time in history, the Earth is being transformed by one species – homo sapiens. ...... The idea of the Anthropocene can seem overwhelming and can generate anxiety and fear. It can be hard to see past notions of imminent apocalypse or technological salvation. Both, in a sense, are equally paralysing – requiring us to do nothing. .. I consider the Anthropocene as an invitation to think differently about human relationships with nature and other species. Evidence suggests this reorientation is already happening and there are grounds for optimism."
Jan 7th 2021
EXTRACT: "During the second world war, Nazi Germany banned all listening to foreign radio stations. Germans who overlooked their duty to ignore foreign broadcasts faced penalties ranging from imprisonment to execution. The British government imposed no comparable ban which would have been incompatible with the principles for which it had gone to war. That’s not to say, though, that it wasn’t alarmed by the popularity of German stations. Most effective among the Nazis broadcasting to the UK was William Joyce. This Irish-American fascist, known in Britain as “Lord Haw-Haw”, won a large audience during the “phoney war” in 1939 and early 1940, with his trademark call sign delivered in his unmistakable accent: 'Jairmany calling, Jairmany calling'. "
Jan 6th 2021
EXTRACTS: "The revelation of Trump’s hour-long recorded call with Brad Raffensperger, Georgia’s Secretary of State, over this past weekend crossed a new line – a line that not only set a high-water mark of moral reprehensibility, but a legal line as well, specifically in his pressuring Raffensperger to 'find the 11,780 votes' that would hand Trump the state and his veiled threat (' it’s going to be very costly…') if Raffensperger failed to comply. ........ Raffensperger – who has been forced to endure intense pressure, intimidation and threats – has proven himself to be a man of integrity and principle."
Jan 6th 2021
EXTRACT: "A final, perhaps more sinister, possibility is that Johnson knows exactly what he is doing. His political style evokes a unique blend of dishevelled buffoon and privileged Etonian. He is someone who likes to bring good news and doesn’t take life too seriously. Making tough, controversial decisions threatens this persona and so hiding in the shadows until his hand is forced helps him to reconcile his identity threat."
Dec 21st 2020
EXTRACT: "The resultant loss of land, the growing impoverishment of its citizens, and the hostile actions of Israeli occupation forces and settlers have forced many Bethlehemites to leave their beloved city and homeland. Given these accumulated violations of human rights and their impact on Christians and Muslims, alike, one might expect Christians in the West to speak out in defense of these residents of the little town they celebrate each year.  That, sadly, is not to be – most especially (and I might add ironically) among powerful Christian conservative groups in the US which, after all, claim to be the defenders of their co-religionists world-wide."
Dec 7th 2020
EXTRACT: "Worldwide, people donate hundreds of billions of dollars to charity. In the United States alone, charitable donations amounted to about $450 billion last year. As 2020 draws to a close, perhaps you or members of your family are considering giving to charity. But there are, literally, millions of charities. Which should you choose?"
Dec 1st 2020
EXTRACT: " The Museum of Modern Art is currently presenting Félix Fénéon: The Anarchist and the Avant-Garde – From Signac to Matisse and Beyond, examining the immense influence of this art critic, editor, publisher, collector and anarchist............A crucial feature of anarchism is the emphasis on the individual as the fundamental building block, the essential point of departure for any human association whatever. The individual was characterized by Grave in 1899 as a social creature who should be “left free to attach himself according to his tendencies, his affinities, free to seek out those with him whom his liberty and aptitudes can agree.” "
Nov 25th 2020
EXTRACT: "As the pandemic raged in April, churchgoers in Ohio defied warnings not to congregate. Some argued that their religion conferred them immunity from COVID-19. In one memorable CNN clip, a woman insisted she would not catch the virus because she was “covered in Jesus’ blood”. "
Nov 18th 2020
EXTRACT: "Here are just a few ways exercise changes the structure of our brain."
Nov 15th 2020
EXTRACT: "Perhaps it is Piller’s discovery that when it comes to war there is no such thing as innocence...."