Home Magazine Dorothea Lange and Félix Fénéon at MoMA

Two terrific exhibitions “Félix Fénéon: The Anarchist and the Avant-Garde - From Signac to Matisse and Beyond” and “Dorothea Lange: Words and Pictures”, presented online through MoMA’s Virtual Views series, are now open simultaneously to the public (entry is by advance timed ticket only and capacity is limited). Don’t miss this double opportunity! 

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Félix Fénéon (1861–1944) was a theart critic, journaleditor, dealer, collector, and anarchist of the Belle Époque - during the late 19th century in Paris. Without Fénéon, we might not know artists like Georges Seurat, Paul Signac, Pierre Bonnard, Henri Matisse, and Amedeo Modigliani as we do today. The MoMa show displays works of Fénéon’s favorite artists (Seurat, Matisse and Bonnard) in addition to African and Oceanic tribal art that he collected over his lifetime. In 1886, Fénéon coined the terms “Neo-Impressionism” and “Pointillism” - an "optical mixture” of small dots of primary colors, side by side, to create the effect of light. Fénéon was extremely generous in providing financial security, supporting and promoting the artists he believed in, even though he generally despised museums. It is hardly surprising that he was also described as “implacable, inscrutable, meticulous and mysterious”, downright cruel. Fénéon discovered Georges Seurat’s A Sunday on La Grande Jatte (1884) and recognized its revolutionary quality. That public acknowledgement changed the History of Art forever. The portrait of Fénéon by Signac is a Neo-Impressionist abstract manifesto. All the bright colors behind the man’s sardonic posture and dandyish clothes are not realistic; they create a vortex of an anarchist utopia, a golden age of optimism and harmony that would emerge spontaneously, transcending the real world. Fénéon, who never liked the extravagant Pointillist portrait, was however fascinated by the scientific method - a contradiction in terms - of the Neo-Impressionists. This calculated process, based on color theory, was unpredictable for a group of painters who pursued ideas of freedom and improvisation. Avant-gardism and radical politics: two sides of the same coin that explain Félix Fénéon’s wit, his friends’ relevant theories and “the spirit of the time” they lived in.


Georges-Pierre Seurat. Étude d’ensemble (Study for “A Sunday on La Grande Jatte”). 1884. Oil on canvas, 27, 3/4 × 41" (70.5 × 104.1 cm). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Bequest of Sam A. Lewisohn, 1951.


Paul Signac. Opus 217. Against the Enamel of a Background Rhythmic with Beats and Angles, Tones, and Tints, Portrait of M. Félix Fénéon in 1890. 1890. Oil on canvas, 29 × 36 1/2" (73.5 × 92.5 cm). Gift of Mr. and Mrs. David Rockefeller.


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 Is Not Passed, It Is Still to Come [Reprise]). 1896. Oil on canvas, 25 9/16 × 31 7/8" (65 × 81 cm). The Kasser Mochary Foundation, Montclair, New Jersey.


Henri Matisse. Interior with a Young Girl (Girl Reading). 1905–06. Oil on canvas, 28 5/8 × 23 1/2" (72.7 × 59.7 cm). Gift of Mr. and Mrs. David Rockefeller.


The life of Dorothea Lange also embodies a certain degree of mystery and contradiction. A supreme artist of the Great Depression who always tried to elude the definition of “artist”, in favor of Documentary photographer. Presenting her iconic work across many contexts—photobooks, Depression-era government reports, newspapers, magazines, poems — and alongside the voices of contemporary artists, writers, and thinkers, the exhibition (through September 19) is the first major consideration of Lange’s poetic Oeuvreat MoMa since 1966. Determined to become a photographer - even with a flaccid paralysis caused by polio, even before using a real camera - Lange became an assistant at several New York’s studios and studied the medium at Columbia University. First, she specialized in city’s élite portraits to genuinely arrive to street photography. Her sensitivity to faces, to the marginalized, to composition and gradations of light, elevated her to a very specific artistry which speaks loud and clear and never generalizes or alienates her subjects. The MoMa show’s subtitle “Words and Pictures” puts the emphasis on the close connection between photographs and their captions, in Lange’s terms. A dejected man - wet hat and a dark coat waiting for a piece of good news - epitomizes the “White Angel Bread Line”; a thirty-two-year-old Cherokee woman, Florence Owens - perhaps history’s most famous photographs - surpasses the idea of a “Migrant Mother” and enlarges the discrepancy: legendary yet perturbed, ordinary yet stern, her placid agitation mixed with strength and resilience.


​​Dorothea Lange, White Angel Bread Line, San Francisco, 1933, Gelatin silver print, 10 3/4 × 8 7/8" (27.3 × 22.6 cm), © The Museum of Modern Art, New York, Gift of Albert M. Bender.


Dorothea Lange. Migrant Mother, Nipomo, California. 1936, Gelatin silver print, printed 1949, 11 1/8 × 8 9/16" (28.3 × 21.8 cm), © The Museum of Modern Art, New York, purchase.


Dorothea Lange. One Nation Indivisible, San Francisco. 1942. Gelatin silver print. © The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Purchase.


Read more about Félix Fénéon exhibition.

Read more about Dorothea Lange exhibition. 


Cover image: Dorothea Lange, Woman of the High Plains, Texas Panhandle, June 1938, Gelatin silver print, printed 1965, 29 3/4 × 24" (75.6 × 61 cm), © The Museum of Modern Art, New York, purchase.

Written by Petra Chiodi


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