“The ultra-composed Neo-Impressionists aren’t obvious angels of chaos, yet Georges Seurat, Camille Pissarro, Paul Signac and Maximilien Luce all advocated anarchist positions, including ‘the propaganda of the deed’, aka bomb-throwing. This is one of the riddles of modernist art, and at its centre is the sphinx Félix Fénéon (1861-1944), great champion of Seurat and company, brilliant critic and editor, sophisticated dandy and gallerist – and committed anarchist.”
Such is the substance of the first paragraph in Hal Foster’s London Review of Books review, At MOMA of the museum’s exhibition of Feneon’s influence.
The end of the 19th century was a time of tumult and revolution in Paris. Government scandals and anarchist bombings punctuated the news. Feneon — who as an art critic and collector had coined the name “Neo-Impressionists” in 1886, and who worked at the Ministry of War —
“cut a dashing figure on the literary scene too, animating several journals, attending Mallarmé’s Symbolist salon and editing Rimbaud’s Illuminations. Amid all this, he also found time for anarchist activities, publishing subversive articles anonymously and pseudonymously.”
In 1894 he was arrested for the bombing of Restaurant Foyot. His wit and intelligence saw him found not guilty by the jury, but he was fired from the War Ministry. For many years thereafter, he edited La revue blanche and later was curator at the prestigious Galerie Bernheim-Jeune.
The Neo-Impressionists worked through strict formalism — what Seurat called ‘a systematic paradigm’ — while riffing off the colour deconstructions of the Impressionists. The order in which they worked seems not to gel with the idea of a chaotic anarchism but, as Foster notes, “[a]lthough anarchists seek to overthrow the state, they do so only to claim a more fundamental order.”
“For Signac the arrangements of painting and society were isomorphic: ‘Justice in sociology, harmony in art: same thing.’ This analogy between a just painting and a just world isn’t as far-fetched as it seems. Subsequent artists with anarchist sympathies, such as Mondrian and Barnett Newman, thought along similar lines – though, fortunately for them, they weren’t trying to depict the golden age.”
The Neo-Impressionists were deeply respectful of autonomy.
“This autonomy takes nothing away from the singularity of a Seurat painting, a Fénéon text, or an anarchist action: individuality, the sine qua non of anarchism, is not sacrificed – on the contrary. ‘This uniform and almost abstract execution leaves the originality of the artist intact,’ Fénéon wrote of Neo-Impressionist technique, ‘and even heightens it’.”
Foster’s piece is a deeply fascinating essay on several levels and I have barely scratched the surface with my notes above. Well worth the read.