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  • Writer's pictureStephanie Brown

39. Translations

Updated: Feb 17, 2021

Dig deeply into writings on Gauguin's career, and you'll find regular mentions of one of the first printed reviews of his work. This was the review I was tracking down a few weeks ago when the Gallica BnF's website went down; it has now recovered, and I can tell you exactly what that review said. The budding art critic Félix Fénéon published it in the January 1, 1888, edition of La Revue indépendante de littérature et d'art. Fénéon included it in the listings of gallery shows on in Paris that winter, under the sub-category of "Art Dealers Window Shows." Gauguin, Camille Pissarro, and Armand Guillaumin all had works on view "chez [Theo] Van Gogh (maison Boussod et Valadon, boulevard Montmartre." Here it is, in my translation:

To recap, Fénéon has told us that Theo Van Gogh is exhibiting two paintings by Gauguin that have been warmed-over from other exhibitions, and two new paintings. One of those new paintings is top heavy, and the other is derivative of tourist art. And the derivative painting? It's authentic to Gauguin's style. Still not sure what Fénéon thought?

Translating grièche sent me to multiple French dictionaries, both online and on my desk. The only mention I could find was of a type of magpie, a pie-grièche. It is a hard word to translate. In English, it's a type of shrike, also known as a butcher bird for how it impales its prey (note the conspicuously dead songbird in the Audubon illustration) before eating it. I was not convinced that Fénéon had intended to call Gauguin a magpie, or a butcher bird.

I put out a call for translation help on Twitter and went on with the rest of my evening. The next morning, I had two responses. One was from a French colleague. He had never heard the word applied to a person, and when he searched for it as an adjective, he came up with...this very sentence. The other was from a former student; she had thought to look in the online notes for Naifeh and Smith's recent Van Gogh: The Life. Naifeh and Smith, bless them, had some additional context for the word. It came to their attention because Gauguin had used it later in 1888 in a letter to Theo Van Gogh. He referred to himself as the grièche Gauguin sitting down to supper with "the good Vincent." Naifeh and Smith suggest that the word means grumpy or cantankerous. They, too, trace it back to Fénéon. And so I think we all agree that the meaning of the word ranges from prickly to boorish to "a miniature bird of prey, as much in their shape as in their morals."

The adjective made an impression on Gauguin. Since he used the word in his letter to Theo, it seems likely that the two had talked about the review together. Theo would have remembered the review of the show in his gallery regardless: as the gallery manager, he would have combed the press for mentions, good, bad, and snarky. Those mentions would help him position his artist-clients for other exhibitions, help him price their work, help him decide whose work to hang in front and whose to hang in the back hall. And both would have remembered it because of who had written it.

Félix Fénéon turned 27 in 1888. He was living in a flat at 85, rue Lecourbe, above a laundry that specialized in bedding. Fénéon had come to Paris from his provincial hometown seven years earlier after acing the qualifying exam for a civil service job at the Ministry of War. Fénéon clerked at the Ministry from 1881 until 1894, when he was fired subsequent to his arrest in connection with a series of anarchist bombings across Paris. Acquitted at trial because of insufficient evidence, Fénéon turned to art criticism for a decade before joining, in 1906, the Galerie Bernheim-Jeune, where he fostered the career of many avant-garde artists, among them Henri Matisse.

But that is all yet to happen in the winter of 1887-88. In the 1880s, Fénéon spent his days at the Ministry of War and his evenings visiting galleries and exhibitions. On Tuesdays he went to the poet Stephen Mallarmé's weekly evenings at home. He wrote for a series of short-lived arts and literary journals, some of which he also edited and published. Fénéon befriended Gauguin's sometime teacher, Camille Pissarro. He invented the term Neo-Impressionism to describe the work of Pissarro, Georges-Pierre Seurat, and Paul Signac. And he formed friendships with these men that would last the rest of their lives.

La Revue indépendante, Fénéon's newspaper home from 1886-1888, came out on the first of every month. Regular columns covered the latest in poetry, music, fashion, theater, and art. There were a few illustrations. Often a novel was serialized. Mallarmé published in it; so did Jules Laforgue, who translated Walt Whitman's poetry in addition to writing his own. The expat Irish novelist George Moore wrote for it. The intellects may have been grand; the budget was not. The color of the paper the journal was printed on varied from month to month: orange to blue to yellow to green. Not an artistic choice, but an economical one: white paper was more expensive. An annual subscription cost 15 francs; an issue at the corner news stand would set you back 1 franc 25 sous. A kilo of bread in Paris in 1888 cost about one-third of that. So the journal was cheap to buy and full of names that would have been known amongst the avant-garde--known well to men like Theo and Vincent Van Gogh, and Paul Gauguin.

Fénéon's writing is known for being difficult to translate. His biographer, Joan U. Halperin, has written that Fénéon's "writings overflow with complex formal devices and obscure words aimed at bringing the reader's attention to the distinctive characteristics of the artworks in question." Of the artworks, and, in this instance, of the artist. Search for grièche in Le Robert, the definitive French dictionary, and you will not find it. You'll find pie-grièche, and a mention that the word can sometimes apply to shrewish women. But you won't find grièche used on its own. Fénéon's and, later, Gauguin's, usage is the only one I have found. I think it tells us something about Fénéon--you can hear how proud he is of having found, maybe almost invented, just the right word. It tells us something about what Fénéon, and likely others, thought of Gauguin--shrewish, definitely; someone who used up others as though they existed only to feed his needs, not entirely impossible. And it tells us something about Gauguin and the Van Goghs. Nearly a year later, this word is still living rent-free in Gauguin's head. His self-description--le grièche Gauguin--is trying to make a joke, but the joke doesn't quite land.

In the last few sentences of his review, Fénéon has some almost complimentary, and certainly intriguing, things to say about Gauguin's pottery. That is the part of the review that scholars reference to illustrate that Gauguin's talent was multifaceted and unique. I looked for Fénéon's 1888 review because I thought to use it as a route towards moving Gauguin from the unknown artist to the artist who was just beginning to be known. The review was meant to be a quick passage, a contextual shortcut. A friend's father was a translator. Our friend says that his dad always talked about the act of translating as being similar to the act of going on a journey. When you began to shift words from one language to another, you traveled from one language, one place, one moment, to another. The land you covered was not always what you had expected; who you found yourself to be at journey's end was not necessarily who you had been. Where you ended up might not be where you planned. My destination was getting Gauguin onto a train to Pont-Aven. Instead, I find myself eavesdropping on conversations in the Boussod-Valadon gallery on the Boulevard Montmartre.


A note on the sources:

There's a lot more to say about Gauguin and Pissarro; this passage from the Wildenstein catalogue raisonné for Pissarro seems to suggest that Pissarro may have agreed substantively with Fénéon.

The essays in the Figura, Cahn, and Peltier's Félix Fénéon: the anarchist and the avant-garde (MoMA 2020) have been useful, as has the exhibition website.

Mallarmé and Gauguin knew each other, as well, although maybe a little later. Mallarmé translated Poe's The Raven, and in 1891 Gauguin portrayed him with a raven on his shoulder. When Gauguin departed for Tahiti in 1891, Mallarmé attended his going away party.

Shim Chung's 2008 essay The Monstrous and the Grotesque: Gauguin’s Ceramic Sculpture helped me find my way around Fénéon's review.

And, if you're curious about the mangoes painting, it's probably this one:

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