Maximilien Luce, Félix Fénéon, 1901, 45.5 x 39 cm, Musée d’Orsay, Paris. DR

The history of the appreciation of African art or, “Primitivism”, by modern artists, is well documented from the 1930s onwards in the works of Robert Goldwater (1938), Jean Laude (1968) and, later, William Rubin (1984). The instrumental role played by the critics, writers and scholars who rejected academic traditions and participated in the emergence of Modern Art and the discovery of “Primitive” art has, surprisingly, long been overlooked.[1]  In 1917, Guillaume Apollinaire paid tribute to the “great audacity in taste” of the artists, dealers, aestheticians and art lovers who first recognized “Negro idols as real works of art,” from as early as the 1890’s.[2] Amongst these scholars and connoisseurs, Félix Fénéon (1861-1944), the critic, editor, dealer and collector of Modern and Primitive Art, stands out as a leading figure in the founding of this modern sensibility.

Toulouse Lautrec, Portrait de Félix Fénéon, Collection Thadée Natanson, Paris. DR

Fénéon and the Avant-Garde: an Aesthete with a Cause

In 1906 Félix Fénéon was hired by the Galerie Bernheim-Jeune, where he took up the post of artistic director.  Being chosen by the Bernheim brothers was a mark of considerable recognition for this unconventional aesthete, who had already played a key role in the late 19th century artistic revolution and the emergence of the Modern artistic sensibility. The “very singular Fénéon”[3] was the theorist and most fervent advocate for the Neo-Impressionists[4], especially Seurat and Signac,[5] as well as a renowned journalist and contributor to several Avant-Garde periodicals, creator of “Novels in Three Lines”, Chief Editor and éminence grise of the Revue Blanche from 1893 to 1903, and a staunch “Dreyfusard”. He was also a supporter of the Anarchist movement, who, during “The Trial of the Thirty” Mallarmé dubbed one of the “subtlest and keenest” critics of his time.[6]

Fénéon was commissioned by the Bernheims to discover and sign artists who were likely to become “household names”. Thanks to his efforts, Cross, in 1906, Signac, in 1907, Matisse and Marquet in 1908, and Van Dongen in 1909 all found a greater audience for their work under his leadership, whilst the Futurists saw their work exhibited for the first time in Paris, in 1912.

Georges Braque dans son atelier, Paris, 1911. DR

In 1947, in accordance with the will of his wife Fanny,[7] Félix Fénéon’s stunning collection was auctioned in Paris.[8] Formed over a period of more than half a century, the collection reveals the unerring accuracy of Fénéon’s eye, and his appreciation of the sensuality of the artistic experience (“I love Fénéon. I have seen him blush with pleasure when looking at a painting,” wrote Verhaeren in 1903)[9].

Modigliani, Pull jaune (Jeanne Hébuterne), 1919, 100 x 64 cm, Ancienne collection Félix Fénéon. The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York. DR

The catalogues for the sales contain the most emblematic names in the history of Modern French painting, revealing how much Fénéon was interested in each new development in the art of his contemporaries. Upon Fénéon’s death, John Rewald[10] described the Fénéons’ apartment at 10 Avenue de l’Opéra, as he had found it in the mid-1930s: “The walls were cluttered with frames that almost touched each other. […] one room after each other, all similar in aspect,” hung from floor to ceiling with paintings and drawings by artists closely tied to Fénéon: Seurat, Vuillard, Bonnard, Toulouse-Lautrec, Van Dongen, Braque, Matisse, Modigliani, the ensemble exhibited alongside one of the largest collections of the time of the Art of Africa, Oceania and the Americas. Not only did he advocate the connection between Modern art and ‘Primitive’ art, he lived it.

Fénéon, Les impressionnistes en 1886, 1886

 The Influential Sources of Primitivism

Astonishingly no research has been published on Félix Fénéon’s collection of the Art of Africa, Oceania and the Americas, and Jean Paulhan did not mention the collection in his 1945 biographical study. Joan Halperin[11] dates Fénéon’s first acquisition of African art to 1919, probably since some of his African pieces are first published in a 1920 edition of the Bulletin de la Vie Artistique. However bearing in mind the character of Fénéon’s literary and artistic circle, as well as the abundance and form of his African collection in the early 1920s, it seems more likely that he began the collection before the First World War. 

Fénéon’s “inner circle” included the various personalities who were instrumental in the Parisian discovery of ‘Negro Arts’, a term which, at the time, encompassed the arts of Africa, Oceania and the Americas. Amongst the artists, Henri Matisse in particular stands out, with Fénéon supporting him from 1905 onwards.[12] In Fénéon’s literary circle, Guillaume Apollinaire had long held pride of place. Apollinaire, who Fénéon introduced to the Revue Blanche, was the first to call for “certain exotic masterpieces”[13] to enter the Louvre, in 1909. Amongst the collectors and dealers was Charles Vignier, a member of the Symbolist group, who around 1900 started selling objets d’art from Asia, America and Africa and whose collection was exhibited in part in 1913 at the Galerie Levesque[14]; Jos Hessel, a cousin and collaborator of the Bernheim brothers, and Léonce Rosenberg, the Modern Art dealer, whose collection of African art was acquired by Hessel before the First World War.

Portrait de Guillaume Apollinaire, ca. 1914. DR

The history and character of the African objects seen in Paris at the beginning of the 20th century was closely linked with the stages of colonial conquest and trade with the colonies. Most pieces came from coastal areas of French West Africa, in particular the Côte d’Ivoire and the Congo. Out of a total of nearly four hundred pieces from Africa spread out over two auctions (203 in the auction on 11 June and about 190 in the auction on 13 June), Felix Fénéon’s collection included at least 100 pieces from Côte d’Ivoire, and just as many which are identified as being from the “French Congo”. 46 of the 70 pieces he lent to the exhibition L’art Indigène des Colonies Françaises et du Congo Belge, organized in 1923 by Clouzot and Level at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs (Pavillon de Marsan), came from Côte d’Ivoire.

Henri Matisse, Portrait de madame Matisse (détail), 1913, Huile sur toile, 146,4 x 97,1 cm. Musée de l’Ermitage, Leningrad. DR

Henri Matisse dans son studio, Nice, 1934. Courtesy of a Private Collection

Manifesto for Art from Remote Places

After his years advocating Neo-Impressionism, Fénéon rarely published his opinions on new forms of contemporary painting, although he never stopped collecting it; “he jealously guarded his feelings, as if voicing them out loud had been at odds with their very beauty”.[15] It is therefore in the form of a survey and through the voice that accompanied him throughout his life - that of the press - that his commitment to the recognition of Negro Art was fully revealed. His famous Enquête sur les arts lointains ; Seront-ils admis au Louvre ? (Will Arts from Remote Places be Admitted into the Louvre?), was published in 1920 in the Bulletin de la vie artistique in three consecutive instalments,[16] under slightly different titles: “Will They be Introduced into the Louvre Collections?”; “Will They Come to the Louvre?”;[17] “Final part of the Survey on Arts from Remote Places”. The survey published the opinions of the “twenty ethnographers or explorers, artists or aestheticians, collectors or dealers”[18] Fénéon had consulted, brilliantly demonstrating that despite the excitement generated by “arts from remote places” in Avant-Garde circles, it would be difficult to introduce these objects to museums that were “arranged for the study of Art as well as for that of techniques.” Jean Guiffrey, curator of painting at the Louvre at the time, concluded his contribution to the survey with a scathing judgment: "It would be paradoxical to compare the stammerings of civilizations still in their infancy, curious as they are, with the most perfect works of human genius for which the Louvre already has but limited space."

Felix Fénéon later became the herald for the recognition of “arts from remote places”. In 1923, the American John Quinn, a famous figure amongst the New York Avant-Garde, visited Fénéon in Paris. After Quinn insistently tried to acquire three African pieces from him, Fénéon wrote to Henri-Pierre Roché “You are probably aware – I am not – of Guillaume’s prices […] I shall answer that I do not sell mynègreries. In so doing I shall avoid  […] risking the disappearance of objects I enjoy. Why can this pleasant collector not covet my paintings instead!”

Sweeney, African Negro Art, 1935, couverture (Détail). DR

Importantly, Fénéon took part in all the exhibitions that contributed to the recognition of African Art, both in Europe and in the United States. After the exhibition at the Pavillon de Marsan, which was a first step towards the appreciation of ‘primitive’ objects as art by a French institution, objects from Fénéon’s collection appeared in the following exhibitions: Art Nègre at the Studio des Champs Elysées, 1924 (4 objects), the emblematicExposition d’art africain et océanien at the Galerie du Théâtre Pigalle, 1930 (7 objects), and Les arts anciens de l’Afrique Noire, at the Palais des Beaux-Arts, Brussels, 1930. Fénéon lent 23 pieces to the latter exhibition, the largest French contribution apart from those made by dealers. Henri Lavachery, the exhibition’s curator, chose Felix Fénéon as one of the first collectors to petition, alongside the painters Derain, Vlaminck and Lhote. In 1931, Fénéon lent objects to the exhibition Negro Art at Jordan Marsh & Company in Boston, and to the exhibition baptised “The Truth about the Colonies”, an anti-imperialist event held at the Soviet Pavilion during the Paris Colonial Exhibition.

Statue Baga de l’ancienne collection Félix Fénéon. Walker Evans, 1935. DR

In the mid-thirties Fénéon established cloes ties with the well- known French dealer of African and Oceanic Art, Charles Ratton. The Parisian dealer was asked by James Sweeney to select objects to be included in the 1935African Negro Art exhibition held at the Museum of Modern Art, New York. Eleven pieces from the Fénéon collection were included amongst the works chosen, the most representative of the creativity and talent of African artists in this seminal exhibition. The last exhibition in which Fénéon took part was one hastily organized by Charles Ratton (“in less than a week” according to a letter dated 27 January 1937 from Ratton to Fénéon) at the Edouard VII theatre (December 1936 – January 1937), as a compliment to the screening of the film The Green Pastures, which was censored in several European countries for its use of African-American actors interpreting Bible scenes. 

Tête Fang de l’ancienne collection Félix Fénéon. Walker Evans, 1935. DR

“Hastening to Love an Unexpected Work of Art”

Although the collection’s pieces from Côte d'Ivoire - the aesthetics of which are now regarded as "classic" - were the first pieces from the Fénéon collection to be exhibited, the collection stands out for the formal audacity of it’s major pieces acoss all tribal areas. The “dancing” Baga figure (Guinea) and the Yoruba equestrian figure (Nigeria), photographed by Walker Evans in 1935, were complemented by pieces from the Belgian Congo, seldom seen in French collections at the time. Fénéon's editorial activities in Belgium and his relationship with the Neo-Impressionist and Symbolist avant-garde circles in Brussels in the last decade of the 19th century probably gave him access to objects acquired directly from the Belgian Congo. In 1929, a Loango nail-studded fetish from the Fénéon collection was illustrated by Paul Guillaume and Thomas Munro in La sculpture Nègre primitive. In 1934, Nancy Cunard published eleven pieces from Fénéon’s collection, including the famous Luba Janus mask, in her revolutionary Negro Anthology.  

Couverture - Etude Bellier, Hôtel Drouot, Paris, 11-13 juin 1947, “Collection Fénéon. Afrique, Océanie, Amérique”

Fang art (known as “Pahouin” at the time) was represented by four objects in the 11 June 1947 auction catalogue. In 1929 Basler published the Fang head, later in the Berès collection, in L’Art chez les peuples primitifs. The masterpiece of the Fénéon African collection is the Fang Mabea figure, a uniquely vibrant testimony to the audacity of Fénéon’s taste. Although we do not know who he acquired it from, we do know that the ten or so sculptures that comprise the small corpus of Mabea Fang from the Cameroons arrived in Europe between 1890 and 1916. In 1915 Carl Einstein published in Negerplastik the Mabea figure from the collection of Joseph Brummer and Frank Burty Haviland (now in the Musée du Quai Branly, inv. 71.1977.52.1), with no indication of where it was from. In 1916, when Marius de Zayas published the same figure inAfrican Negro Art: its Influence in Modern Art, the figure was said to come from “Ivory Coast”. The Fang Mabea aesthetic is so utterly unique that its stylistic identification came at a very late date. The Fénéon figure was also said to come from Côte d'Ivoire in the 1930 exhibition catalogue at the Palais des Beaux-Arts, Brussels. It was one of 29 works illustrated in the 1947 auction catalogue, and it set one of the record prices.

Man Ray, Portrait de Nancy Cunard, 1925. DR

Fénéon had, at one point, been tempted to bequeath his collection of paintings to the Soviet Union. Shifting political context disabused him of this notion, and he organised the first of two auctions in December 1941 and some of the paintings he had bought and loved “when they were still new” were auctioned.[19]  In a letter to Dr. Girardin, a prominent collector of Modern and Negro Art, who urged Fénéon to donate his collection to the French government, Fénéon wrote: “I feel disinclined to convert to the cult of idols [...] I like the idea of seeing them, once out of my hands, venturing out into the unknown and taking their chances [...] I can picture them, one day, making the delight of one man or woman’s recreation [...] is it not be better than to languish in the dust and boredom of a museum? Besides, sooner or later, this is where they must end up.”[20] The Fang Mabea figure was thus acquired in the auction by his friend Albert Kleinmann, the collector and dealer of Modern Art. In 1972, Kleinmann’s descendants parted with the figure, and it was by acquired by Jacques Kerchache, becoming one of the jewels of his collection. In Kerchache’s majestic L’Art Africain (editions Mazenod, 1988), which he co-wrote with Jean-Louis Paudrat and Lucien Stéphan, this figure was chosen to illustrate the cover beneath the jacket.  The Robert T. Wall family, acquired the masterpiece in 2003, and generously lent it to leading exhibitions Eternal Ancestors: the Art of the Central African Reliquary, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 2007-2008, and Bildwelten: Afrika, Ozeanien und die Moderne, at the Fondation Beyeler, Basle, 2009.

Vuillard, Félix Fénéon à la revue Blanche, 1901, 46.4 x 57.5 cm, The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York. DR

Fénéon was fond of saying: “One should hasten to love an unexpected work of art. Promoted to the rank of masterpiece, it can no longer cause true love, but merely the expression of the highest consideration.”[21] The masterpieces that Felix Fénéon was able to discern - over a century ago for some - still exert their effect on us in the most fascinating expression of their modernity.

We express our deep gratitude to Philippe Dagen, Maurice Imbert and Jean-Louis Paudrat for their contribution to the writing of this text. We also thank Guy Loudmer for his valuable documentary support.

Principaux ouvrages de référence
Le Bulletin de la vie artistique, vol. I, n° 24, 15 novembre 1920, p. 662-669 ; Félix Fénéon, « Enquête sur les arts lointains (Iront-ils au Louvre ?) », Le Bulletin de la vie artistique, vol. I, n° 25, 1er décembre 1920, p. 693-703 ; « Fin de l’Enquête sur les arts lointains (Seront-ils admis au Louvre ?) », Le Bulletin de la vie artistique, vol. I, n° 26, 15 décembre 1920, p. 726-738
Cachin, Françoise (éd.), Félix Fénéon : au-delà de l'impressionnisme, Paris, Hermann, 1966
Collection Félix Fénéon, Afrique, Océanie, Amérique, Etude Bellier, Hôtel Drouot, Paris, 11 et 13 juin 1947
Dagen, Philippe, Le peintre, le poète, le sauvage ; Les voies du Primitivisme dans l’art français, Paris, Flammarion, 1998 et 2010
Fénéon, F., Imbert, M., Petit supplément aux Œuvres plus que complètes, L’échoppe, 2003
Halperin, Joan U., Félix Fénéon, œuvres plus que complètes, 1970
Paulhan, Jean, F.F. ou le Critique, Gallimard, 1945, puis éditions Claire Paulhan, 1998
Rewald, J., « Fénéon, l’Homme qui désirait être oublié » inLa Gazette des Beaux arts, juillet-août 1947, réédité par L’échoppe, en 2011
Biro, Yaëlle, Dagen, Philippe, Maurice, Danielle et Murphy, Maureen, Charles Ratton. L’invention des arts « primitifs », Musée du quai Branly et Skira Flammarion, Paris, 2013

[1]Dagen, Ph.,1998 et 2010
[2]« A propos de l’Art des Noirs », texte publié dansSculptures Nègres en 1917 et réédité dans le catalogue de laPremière exposition d’Art Nègre et d’Art Océanien, organisée par Paul Guillaume à la Galerie Devambez (Paris, 1919)
[3]Besson, G., Les Lettres françaises, 18 février 1954, inHalperin, t. 1, p. VII
[4]Fénéon, F., Les Impressionnistes en 1886, Paris, publications de la Vogue, 1886 
[5]Mais aussi de peintres aujourd’hui moins connus, tels que Louis Hayet
[6]In Mondor, H., Vie de Mallarmé, 1941, p. 688
[7]L’Université de Paris est désignée comme légataire universelle, avec la charge de créer, sous le nom de Fondation Fénéon, des Prix qui seraient annuellement décernés "à de jeunes écrivains et à de jeunes peintres ou sculpteurs de condition modeste, afin de les aider à poursuivre leur formation littéraire ou artistique".
[8]Hôtel Drouot, étude Alphonse Bellier, les 30 avril, 30 mai, 11 et 13 juin, et 9 juillet 1947
[9]Verhaeren, E. , 1903, in Halperin, 1970, p. XXXVII
[10]Rewald, J., 1947 et 2011
[11]Halperin, J., 1970, p. XXVII
[12]Ainsi que Kees Van Dongen, dont Fénéon joua, dès 1899, un rôle clé dans la percée fulgurante, et qui fut le voisin de Picasso au Bateau-Lavoir à partir de 1906.
[13]Apollinaire, G., Le Journal du soir, 3 octobre 1909
[14]Collections de M. Charles Vignier consistant en sculptures, peintures et objets d'art anciens de l'Asie ainsi qu'en quelques pièces d'art égyptien, d'art nègre et d'art aztèque, exposées du 16 mai au 15 juin 1913.  Paris, Galerie Levesque, 1913
[15]Rewald, idem, 2011, p. 72
[16]Arnold Van Gennep, Salomon Reinach, Lucie Cousturier, J.C. Mardrus, Gaston Migeon, Paul Guillaume, Kees Van Dongen, Dr. Verneau, Angel Zarraga, Robert Dreyfus, Jos Hessel, Jean Guiffrey, Charles Vignier, le Colonel Grossin, Mgr A. Le Roy, Paul Rupalley, Georges Migot, Léonce Rosenberg, Henri Clouzot et André Level.
[17]Lettre de Fénéon à Henri-Pierre Roché, le 3 octobre 1923
[18]Fénéon in Rewald, 2011, p. 83
[19]Fénéon, F., Imbert, M., Petit supplément aux Œuvres plus que complètes, 2003
[20]Bulletin de la vie artistique, Paris, 16 novembre 1926