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The time has come again, after a lapse of fifty years, to speak of the artcriticism of Félix Fénéon, whose very slender works have just been collected, to our delight and surprise, in a volume of almost five hundred pages.1 It is his first book, except for a twenty-page pamphlet admired by Mallarmé. In this volume many of his most penetrating essays are unfortunately missing. But let us be thankful for what we have. Some of us had already had the patience to ferret out his notes in dusty magazines of the late eighties. And also the pleasure of spreading the news—communicated first by Paulhan—of this curious writer. Now that his works are available, it is clear that his art-criticism in keenness and philosophical volume stands only second to Baudelaire’s.
          Why has he remained unknown? It is sufficient to note that he spent only three or four years exploring the fields that he had discovered—after which his silence was almost complete, though he lived until 1945 (the story is told at length by Paulhan). We must also admit that he is difficult to read (and almost untranslatable). Even today some of our most sophisticated critics find him bewildering. Sometimes, indeed, he is positively unpleasant to read. Completely devoid of charm (at first sight). His vocabulary excludes such amenities, most of the time. His syntax may be described, to use a term dear to him, as “gritty.” In this way: a sentence is composed, among other things, of a subject and an object whose relationship is determined by time (the verb). Verbs are conjugated, but not a picture’s, and therein lies the whole significance of composition. This dense cipher, eternally fixed in its manifold radiance, casts no more than a gleam in the turbulent waters of discourse and time. So do not be surprised if Fénéon often leaves out the verb. “The sky, the peak, simply; the peak charred red against the cold white and blue sky”—a Hokusai print. “The maid, to one side, upright”—a segment of Gauguin. Fénéon refuses to transgress the limits of reason.           It is here that others cheat. Thus Diderot interpolates, between illusory past and future, what he calls the moment of the picture. It is a story whose point of departure he reconstitutes, whose vicissitudes he takes it upon him to relate, and which he suddenly cuts short halfway through with feigned astonishment—don’t move!—so as to bring the picture, abruptly conjured heaven knows whence, before our eyes. And as in a film, when the spools are stopped, we see the characters and apples petrified in full flight, absurdly suspended between earth and sky. He who wastes his time trying to hedge round the refractory picture with the language of time (as well try and take a handful of water) finds himself obliged to resort to magical assimilation, alchemy and other stratagems. Huysmans, furiously, perceives in a Goya “a mere mush of red, blue and yellow, commas of white, splotches of brilliance… We look again. Vaguely we discern, in the chaos of these faculae, a wooden toy shaped like a cow, rounds of sealing-wax scored with black…” A little later: “We step back, with astonishing results; as though by magic all falls into shape and place, all comes alive. The splotches pullunate. The commas whinny… The toy cow changes into a formidable bull, charging madly, horns first…” As the picture cannot move, the critic obligingly does so. He “steps back.” But Fénéon never flinches. He stands still, though he has often been seen, though he is often seen, to blush with pleasure before certain pictures. Here comes the critical point. Now elliptical, now loquacious, he numbs the verb. He confers upon it a new temporal value, as it were a greatly reduced speed, halfway between the living and the inanimate. Thus that moving phrase: “The sky, the peak, simply” (not “in reality”). And this Manichean simplicity embraces at one and the same time the things of nature, as given, in their entirety, without reestablished connexion, the partisanship of the painter and the humility of the critic who discerns it. The volcano is admittedly in ebullition when it reddens, but the lava is extinct, already charred, but without the appearance of charcoal, charred red. It gleams like embers and flows in the calm of immemorial eruption. This is the calm of Hokusai’s picture where, in effect, we find the cold blue and terracotta tints (as befits a painting of sky and atmosphere) characteristic of Japanese prints. Here Fénéon talks painting, literally, since he enables me actually to see the print. He attains the unreal and substantial plane on which the crystal of time dehisces. “Skins lie, snouts part grasses—cows”—and the inertia of things, here a skin, there a spot, begins to break up in the infinitesimal vibration conferred upon them by the notion of the world, the throb of faint relations hastening, whirling, until the thing ceases to be opposed in muteness and heedless vanity to the secret of the grass, confesses itself suddenly a garment shed, and the eye listens and the spot darkens and the exchanges quicken, from bush to being. But already the crafty Fénéon retracts, annuls with brief hyphen the quivering of the grasses, sign of nothingness, and all falls back into the tedious calm of truth. And we have seen, in the space of a ripple, a picture by Gauguin. With infinite precaution, careful not to disturb anything, careful not to stir it with an alien breath or to confuse this other animation with his own, he restores the charming hybrid world of wood, canvas, grass, people-things, where, since we are in the country, “countrywomen dress, lie, labour.” And the verbs are annulled like rings of smoke. And when a painting is exaggeratedly foolish he has only to say: “Eugène d’Argence, grass,” to be understood. And if he succumbs to the charm of time, it is with reluctance. “She laves, languid, her breasts”––and the brief reiterated liquid slows down the verb (he is speaking of Degas). Mixing in subtle syncope unlike bars of time, quenching certain contradictory harmonies, he achieves a phrase of muffled sound. The values stiffen, exchange their toxins; the rainbow has its protocol at last.
          At the same time no one is less pathetic in tone than he. He pronounces no judgement, expresses no opinion, commits himself to no philosophy, no esthetic other than that relevant to the picture he describes. All that can be said is that he describes some pictures in preference to others. But he confines himself to describing them. With diabolical patience (according to Paulhan). Thus, speaking of a Manet in an exhibition: “an oil-painting which, by its soft gloss, its submerged tints, its smooth surface, astonishes and stands apart: it is a torpid afternoon, a young mother with tender eyes, a face full of calm joy, in a light dress, seated, and behind her, lying on the garden grass, a man in a prattling glitter of red and blues.” Alone the transitive verbs suggest the tranquil swing from picture to beholder and from beholder to picture, an invisible shuttle in the transparent interspace. Gauguin: “From a voyage to the West Indies (1887), a Martinique landscape which, with its rose-pink copse, its thick-leaved median tree under which women drowse, its ochre path with two negroes carrying flat baskets, calls to mind the old engraved illustrations of the Islands. Among the heavy greens, the red clamour of a roof, as in every genuine Gauguin. Barbarous and atrabilious in quality, scant of atmosphere, coloured by diagonal stains sleeting from left to right, these proud pictures would sum the work of Gauguin were not this gritty artist above all a potter: he cherishes the abhorred sandstone, hard, ill-omened: haggard faces, wide glabellae, minute almond eyes, snub noses; two vases; a third: the head of some kingly macrobian, some dispossessed Attahualpha, his mouth rent gulflike; two more, of an abnormal and gibbous geometry.”
          Jean Paulhan remarks, in his striking preface, that thanks to Fénéon “criticism seems at last on the point of acquiring, like fencing or heraldry, its strict terminology.” And, true enough, these strange words turn out to be of the most precise significance. For these words that impede and repel us we have as little regard as once, when schoolboys, for the particles and inflexions designed to guide us through the labyrinths of dead languages. Fénéon makes his way in the void. But he leans resolutely on the adjacent known, the established fact, that lend him colour of certitude. The picture is the helm. The landscape of 1887 that he pilots so smartly, so sternly, towards its sandstone analogy (the rapid, harsh drawing of the first Gauguins) brings him irresistibly to the evocation of barbarous ages and bygone kingdoms. And Gauguin was one day to leave for Tahiti and never return. This penetration of perception that enables Fénéon to divulge the painter’s secret is not always appreciated by the painters themselves. Pissaro writes to his son Lucien: “I fear he explains these matters too well and that the painters profit by it.”
          The mind at grips with Fénéon’s flawless phrase, its baffling solicitations, is conscious at least, if not of the object from which it proceeds, of a verbal presence. For the words have ceased to be transparent, which is a serious matter. They lend themselves no longer to the joys of ubiquity. Walks in the woods, farewell. No more trespassing on the landscape. (In the shadow of a thick-leaved median tree, on ochre paths, by that blue matron and her snuff babe “who, propped against ellipsoidal heaps, fade.” No admittance!) Between us and the without stretches an opaque phrase, exacerbating, immovable. The window is barred. But from our bewilderment at last a picture springs, fully armed.

1. Félix Fénéon: Oeuvres, preface by Jean Paulhan, (Gallimard: Paris, 1948).




Subject: beneath a canicular sky, at four o’clock, the island, flanked with scurrying boats, astir with a fortuitous Sabbath people in outdoor jubilation, in the midst of trees; and these some forty figures are invested with hieratic and summary line, treated with rigour from the back, the front, the side, sitting at right angles, lying flat, rigidly erect, as by a modernminded Puvis.


The exhibits of Monsieur Claude Monet date from 84, 85 and 86: they are impressions of nature fixed in their transience by a painter whose eye grasps instantaneously all the data of a scene and spontaneously decomposes its tones.
          These seas, seen by an eye falling perpendicularly upon them, cover the entire rectangle of the frame; but the sky, invisible, is sensed: all its changing turmoil is betrayed in the restless play of light on water. It is a long cry to Backysen’s wave, perfected by Courbet, and the whorl of green sheetiron crested with foam in the trite drama of tempest. Etretat in particular solicits this painter of seascapes; he delights in these uprearing blocks, these terebrated masses, these abrupt ramparts whence, like trunks, flying buttresses of granite spring. The Needle of Etretat—flying small craft, on wings of faint blue sail, overturn crudely in the sheet of deep, its violets changing yonder to flawy greens, forerunners of faltering blues and furtive incarnadine. Rainy Day: the crags, the needle rock dissolve in a flurry of fine grey harmonies—the mist. Seascape: a rosish beach, and greens, mauves, violets, plashing, awash. Others––seascapes from the Gulf of Genoa. View from Cap Martin: a palely green sky with scudding etesian greens; girding a steep, an ochre path; in the background, afar, tremulous amethyst hills.
          Eure landscapes. The Rick: in a meadow bordered by a row of plumulous trees, a blue woman and a snuff child, propped against the ellipsoidal heap, fade. Orchard in Spring: trees shiver on slopes whose thalweg gives the picture’s axis. Finally, under an azure awallow with plump little cirri, the neighbourhood of The Hague and Sassenhem: in square beds and platbands reaches of tulips, cels tulips, Sluis tulips, Flanders tulips; and their yellows, their streaked whites, their violets swoon in the crimson shriek of the sun’s-eyes and tulips of Thrace.

ANDRÉ DU BOUCHET (1924-2001) was one of France’s most influential poets of the postwar period. The essay on Fénéon was originally published in 1949, written directly in English. Paul Auster’s brilliant translation of The Uninhabited (1976) is still the best sampling of du Bouchet’s poetry available in English.

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