Tuesday, July 23, 2013
Baudelaire and the Definition of Modernism
Charles Baudelaire ; (April 9, 1821 – August 31, 1867) was a French poet who also produced notable work as an essayist, art critic, and pioneering translator of Edgar Allan Poe. This is a lecture by Dr. Richard R. Brettell, Professor of Aesthetic Studies at The University of Texas at Dallas.
Baudelaire is one of the major innovators in French literature. His poetry is influenced by the French romantic poets of the earlier 19th century, although its attention to the formal features of verse connect it more closely to the work of the contemporary 'Parnassians'. As for theme and tone, in his works we see the rejection of the belief in the supremacy of nature and the fundamental goodness of man as typically espoused by the romantics and expressed by them in rhetorical, effusive and public voice in favor of a new urban sensibility, an awareness of individual moral complexity, an interest in vice (Linked with decadence.) and refined sensual and aesthetical pleasures, and the use of urban subject matter, such as the city, the crowd, individual passers-by, all expressed in highly ordered verse, sometimes through a cynical and ironic voice. Formally, the use of sound to create atmosphere, and of 'symbols', (images which take on an expanded function within the poem), betray a move towards considering the poem as a self-referential object, an idea further developed by the Symbolists Verlaine and Mallarmé, who acknowledge Baudelaire as a pioneer in this regard.
If the first lecture was about the Parisian art world and the Salon exhibitions that defined it in the 1850s and 60s when the Impressionists were young, and the second was about the city in which those exhibitions were set, the city undergoing intense and important transformation during the 1850s and 60s. This lecture will deal with another vital subject that is a necessary background to the study of Impressionism, the relationship between painting and writing. Not just writing about painting, but writing itself.
The entire history of advanced French letters, from the middle of the 18th century through the 20th, is one of a kind of interlinking between painting and writing. Virtually every great French writer, whether of plays, novels, or poetic texts, also wrote criticism, sometimes about literature, past art, and often about contemporary art.
The sense that as works of visual art, as paintings were made, they were also talked about in highly experimental prose by the greatest writers of their time. It's something very difficult for us, being late 20th, early 21st century Americans, actually to understand, because very few great American writers of our own lifetimes have actually practiced the art of art criticism.
Probably the most notable exception would be John Updike, whose art criticism is only one slim volume, but a pretty interesting one. From Diderot through Stendhal, Baudelaire, and then the whole array of his successors, the most important and most ambitious of French writers, have written about art. Indeed, writing about art is considered to be central to their entire literary enterprise. That's something that shows in many ways, how important painting was. Not is, but was. And how important painting was to the whole experience of urban life, intellectual life, and culture in general in the 19th century.
We'll talk in this lecture about one critic. His name was Charles Baudelaire 1821-1867, who was without question the most important French poet of the mid-19th century. A man whose oeuvre, whose total production as a writer, is not large. He was very careful about what he wrote, which he edited, reworked, and made more and more powerful through reworking. So even his complete poetic works is one volume, while his art criticism is two volumes. So he wrote probably more art criticism than he wrote poetry in terms of number of words. Yet his entire production as a writer is not a large one.
Born in 1821, Baudelaire was a young, ambitious, highly intelligent artist who decided to make his entree as a published writer, not in his chosen field of poetry, because he had difficulty early on in his life publishing his poetry, but as a journalist in art criticism. The very first writing of any kind, published by Baudelaire, was his review of the Salon of 1845. It's a review that's utter unremarkable. He was young, not even 20 yet, being born in 1821, this is 1847, so he's 18 years old!
So as a teenager, he's writing a review of the Salon which is published, something hard for us to realize. Yet the next year, in 1846, after he'd gotten this thing under his belt, he wrote a highly experimental, brilliantly argued, polemical review of the Salon, which is actually arguing with the Salon, and thinking about painting in a way that was so experimental and so much about the relationship between painting and society, and between painting and the state of the city, the state of modern man, that there had been nothing like it in the entire history of art criticism. It was an essay that transformed people's idea of what art criticism actually could be.
Baudelaire, from that point on, was associated with art and artists very strongly throughout his career. We'll remember him, especially as we look at Courbet's painting, as being the poet on the far right of A Real Allegory, that huge painting we already analyzed in three parts, which was shown in his own private exhibition of 1855.
Courbet knew Baudelaire well, and painted him twice, including this wonderful portrait of Baudelaire alone, reading an old book. We can see the worn edges of the binding. It's very thick and there's a sense that it might even be the bible. It's a book that has authority. It's thick, heavy, old, and worn. His attention to it is complete. He's absorbed as a reader. Looking at him, we feel almost as if we've invaded his privacy, as if he ought to be alone, as if he's unaware of being observed as a reader.
There's a very prominent quill pen in a cheap and ordinary, ceramic ink stand, on a very plain worktable, with little problems and inconsistencies in it, like its little turned leg, no money, no class, nothing on it. Yet a stack of things is there, a portfolio with its little tied string on the left, which may even have drawings or prints in it, its that kind of thing. There is a novel, which when you buy new in France during the 19th century is covered with yellow paper. People bound them by themselves, so there were no hardbacks to buy that were already bound.
So a yellow papered book, and all French bindings in the 19th century means novel. So he's reading a novel, and then there's another book on top of that, which is leather bound and old, showing the kind of range of his interests and his comparative poverty. We're in a simple room with no adornments on the wall, there are no paintings, no sculpture, nothing that indicates he has any money whatsoever, which he didn't.
There's a sort of sofa, on which he doesn't sit, but almost leans, showing his elegant long hand, almost looking like a hand painted by El Greco, it has this kind of long fingered romantic and its kind of touching the soft fabric of the cushion in a kind of sensualist way. His cheeks are red, he's wearing ordinary clothing, not dandy clothing, not fancy clothing. He's completely absorbed in his work, his mind is what this painting is about. Courbet paints Baudelaire as being a reader and producer of words, as somebody who's alone in the city, in a small place where he escapes only from that place in his mind.
Yet that actually isn't all of Baudelaire, so we have to turn to a wonderful, tiny etching of Baudelaire, one of two prints of Baudelaire by his friend Edouard Manet, the painter who succeeded Courbet as the greatest French avant garde painter of the second empire. A painter to whom the next lecture will be developed. Here one sees Baudelaire with hardly any marks at all, as if Manet makes only a few little lines. It's an etching, which means Manet was working on a copper plate that had been covered with a kind of gummy substance, and he made those lines with a pin or a needle, in that gummy substance.
There's so few lines and it's such a tiny portrait, that it almost seems as if Baudelaire has kind of wandered by and has left before Manet can finish the portrait. He's also wearing a strangely shaped top-hat, and he's facing into the picture plane, as if himself a passerby, as if he's not standing still, as if both the viewer of the portrait and the subject of the portrait are in motion. That sense of transience, of being in the city, out of doors, moving around, spied by someone on your walk, is a notion that is absolutely essential to the whole experience of Baudelaire's prose, and of his own particular definitions of modernity.
It was indeed the word modernity and modernism, the modern world, and being true to one's own time, and being a representer who makes the essential qualities of one's own time, permanent, sticking, and lasting for posterity, which is essential to Baudelaire's aesthetic. Baudelaire thought it was wrong that artists represented art by looking at other art, and by reading old texts and by creating images which are in their way, archeological.
His view was that great art from the artists of the 6th century BCE in Athens weren't representing Egyptians, but that they were representing people of the 6th century BCE in Athens! That the artists who were painting in Florence in the 15th century, or in Rome in the late 15th and early 16th century, were representing their own world, and they made the gods in their own images, and represented imported historical events in their own city with people wearing contemporary dress. The same thing with the Dutch artists of the 17th century.
Baudelaire wanted artists to get out of literature, to get out of the past, and to get into the city, into the most modern form, the most transformed world, the social and physical world of mankind, and make the city into a work of art. He became a man who is in many ways, what he called himself and the artists whose work he admired the most, a flaneur (wanderers). One who walks around in a city without a destination or plan.
You leave your apartment, and rather than going to an appointment, to the cafe to meet someone, to lunch at a restaurant, you simply walk to where your own interests in the streets and the weather and your mood and who you see and who you interact with, all those accidental things determine the course of your walk. You don't ever know when you leave, where you will end up, or how long you will be away. You are like a truffle-snuffer for sensations in the city. The city's ability to provide you with hundreds of thousands, indeed millions of sensations, from which you choose the most splendid and evocative of sensations, is the mark of your ability to be a good flaneur or a great flaneur.
Now this idea is so different from the idea of educating the artist or educating the writer by reading, by looking at other art, by patiently studying modes of composition and modes of creating works of art, be they literature or other works of art. It comes from the kind of idea that what you do as an artist is that you educate your sensibility, your sight, your response mechanisms. Through that, almost random and personal form of education, you create a world of images and experiences that you transform into art.
That notion is anti-hierarchical, and actually does not presume that the flaneur is educated in any particular way, but is endlessly diverted and curious. Now one of the extraordinary things about Baudelaire as an art critic, is the way in which he uses language, which comes fundamentally from his abilities as a poet. We'll read an excerpt from one of his short poems called Spleen from his first great collection of poetry, published in 1857, the title of which was Les Fleurs du Mal (The Flowers of Evil). It was immediately censored when it appeared because it was so shocking and evil it was thought to be mired in decadence. We'll see that sense of decadence and his extraordinary eloquence as a writer and user of words, even in this English translation:
"I am like the king of a rainy country,
rich and yet powerless, young and yet most old,
who distrustful of the bows his tutors make,
sits bored among his dogs, as with his other beasts.
Nothing can lift his spirits, neither hawk nor game,
the dying subjects gather to his balcony,
the grotesque ballad of his best-loved fool,
no more distracts him in this sickness cruel.
His lillied bed is changed into a tomb.
The ladies of his court, all lords might love,
and yet they can no longer find shameless attire
to draw a smile from their young, wasted sire."
Now what's extraordinary about this poem, even in English, is that it has nothing to do with the modernity which Baudelaire thought was essential to painting. One of the most fascinating literary contradictions in literary history and in Baudelaire's career is that his poetic texts are timeless and ahistorical, while his art criticism is powerfully direct. It's this directness of his art criticism, of his writing about art and its relationship to modern urban experience, which is so important.
We'll get at this by reading a little bit from one of his late essays which he worked on for many years. It's a long essay from 1863 called The Painter of Modern Life. We'll come to remember this publication date of 1863 for many reasons, particularly in the next lecture. It's an essay about a painter who in fact didn't paint oil paintings, and didn't exhibit major paintings in the Salon. He was a painter who in every sense was a popular artist, and a painter of the spectacle of the city. A painter who used that spectacle of the city in very powerful ways.
His name was Constantin Guys 1805-1892, who worked in London and Paris for illustrated, weekly magazines. He represented people who lived in the city, the spectacle of the modern city, military parades in the modern city, balls and finery, particularly urban women of the lower sort, who he was fascinated by and sort of represented the city as a glittering world.
Guys was the artist who, because he was not a high artist, but a low artist, a popular artist, an artist who trafficked in the ordinary or popular, in the world of mass culture rather than of high culture, that Baudelaire was courageous enough to celebrate. Rather than celebrating Courbet or Delacroix, which he did in an obituary written in 1867 later, rather than celebrating Ingres or the modern painters of the countryside of Paris, he celebrated a little artist who was not trained as an artist in the academy and not part of the world of the Salon. That was a courageous act!
He begins his essay with an entire analysis of what he calls "the crowd." This is the subject of the modern artist and of Constantine Guys, the painter of modern life. We'll read about the crowd, as theorized by Baudelaire:
"The crowd is his element..."
(by "his" he means Guys)
"...as the air is that of birds and water of fishes. His passion and his profession are to become one flesh with the crowd, for the perfect flaneur, for the passionate spectator. It is an immense joy to set up house in the heart of the multitude, amid the ebb and flow of movement in the midst of the fugitive and the infinite. To be away from home, and yet to feel oneself everywhere at home. Just see the world, to be at the center of the world, and yet to remain hidden from the world. Such a few of the slightest pleasures of those independent, passionate, impartial natures which the tongue can clumsily define. The spectator is a prince who everywhere rejoices in his incognito. The lover of universal life enters into the crowd as though an immense reservoir of electrical energy. Or we might liken him to a mirror as vast as the crowd itself. Or to a kaleidoscope gifted to a consciousness, responding to each one of its movements and reproducing the multiplicity of life in the flickering grace of all the elements of life."
This idea of anonymous, impersonal, immersion, into multitudes, into others, into a world of sensation separated from oneself, is the role of the modern artist. What Baudelaire looked for throughout his life was an artist who could actually assume that role. Maybe the tragedy of Baudelaire's life is that he met that artist rather late. That artist became what Baudelaire wanted him to be, yet mostly only after Baudelaire's death in 1867, the funeral of which, that artist attended. That artist was Edouard Manet.
Now if we look at these Guys watercolors, they're watercolors about women moving through the cities, the dresses of the women, and the excitement of the women. They are slight, they seem insubstantial, it seems as if they were tossed off in no time, which is another element of modernity that Baudelaire loved.
Then if we turned to them, with their sort of febrileness, their sense of being transitory and impermanent, as life itself is. Yet then if look at the first major Salon painting by Manet, we see that we're in a different world. This is Manet's portrait of his parents, from 1859 and then exhibited in the Salon of 1860. It represents a rectitudinous bourgeois couple, Mom and Dad. Mom has her sewing basket, so she's the appropriate wife, behind her seated husband, who is looking rather infirm, and actually had tertiary syphilis so was to die two years after this time. Manet lived for the rest of his life with Mom which we'll get to in a bit.
Yet here we see Mom and Dad as people of incredible propriety, and shown in a deeply respectful, slow, careful, and private manner. This is not a Baudelairian painting, it is modern painting and personal painting, yet not the painting of the spectacle of the city, of the crowd, of the larger world that Baudelaire loved.
Yet lets turn to another Manet painting, a very almost clinical look at a particular woman. It's a painting done in 1862, and represents a woman who we've all been taught to think was his mistress, named Victorine Meurend. She was a beautiful red-headed woman with sort of greeny blue eyes, highly intelligent, she acted as an artist/model, wrote poetry of her own, was a kind of independent woman of sort of courtesan class in a certain way, but with whom Manet was deeply in love. He used her as a model, placing her in many different costumes and settings for many different reasons as his muse goddess, and as the person who for him, is his first Baudelairian figure.
As we look at Victorine Meurend, Richard reads another little passage from The Painter of Modern Life, so we can hear Baudelaire's words, written as this picture and the next one, also painted in 1862, were being painted:
"Woman in a word for the artist in general, and for the Mr. G..."
(we called Guys)
"...in particular, is far more than just a female of man. Rather she is a divinity, a star which presides at all the conceptions of the brain of man. A glittering conglomeration of all the graces of nature, condensed into a single being. The object of the keenest admiration and curiosity that the picture of life can offer its contemplator. She is a kind of idle, stupid perhaps, but dazzling and bewitching, who holds wills and destinies suspended on the glance. Everything that adorns woman, everything that serves to show off her beauty is part of herself. No doubt, woman is sometimes a light, a glance, an invitation to happiness, sometimes just a word. But above all she is general harmony , not only in her bearing in the way in which she moves and walks, but also in the muslins, the gauzes, the vast iridescent clouds of stuff in which she envelops herself and which are as it were, the attributes and the pedestal of her divinity. In the mettle and the mineral which twists and turns around her arms and her neck, adding her sparks to the fire of her glance, or gently whispering at her ears. What poet, in sitting down to paint the pleasure caused by the sight of a beautiful woman, could venture to separate her from her costume?"
Now Manet, beginning in the 1860s, beginning with his friendship with Baudelaire that commences in the early 1860s, turns his painting away from his parents, from the museum, from the past, towards the city, towards the city of Paris and towards the way in which women preside over that city for him, as for Baudelaire.
There is a particular and interesting aspect of this city, and of a woman's role in it, which is exemplified by this painting at the Yale University Art Gallery, where you see a woman, a dark-haired beauty, dressed not as a woman, but as a man. Also, not as any man, but as a bullfighter or matador, as a slayer of beasts, as a person exquisite in the art of the sword, but reclining on a wonderful sofa, with a cat at her feet, eating or playing with an orange, all symbols of sensuality.
This idea of woman as man, of woman as transformer, of woman as slayer of man, is made even stronger in this painting, a very large painting, also of 1862 at the Metropolitan Museum in New York, which represents Victorine Meurend, the same woman we saw before, dressed "en travesti", the French word for "in drag" in English, also as a bullfighter, but with he sword and with her pale pink little poof, which is supposed to be our draw, and we the viewer, are the bull. She is looking right at us, and we are about to be slain by her!
One of the most artificial and idiotic of pictures that one can imagine, and a painting that comes not from this particular passage of Baudelaire that we read, but from an essay written by Baudelaire, written about an artist who represents women in drag, and men in drag, and the play between the sexes that is such an elevated and interesting part of upper class sexuality, which Manet and Baudelaire were fascinated with.
These works of art, this last painting was done for the Salon, for a large public, and it was painted to be shocking! It was painted to raise issues of gender roles, their instabilities, and cruelties, in sheerly Baudelairian terms, and it raised them in a way which poses questions about the relationship about the modern artist to history, and the modern artist to literature.
Now Manet knew Baudelaire very well. Manet was one of the handful of people who attended Baudelaire's funeral in early September of 1867. Baudelaire had the misfortune to die to early in September, that the French, as we all know, leave "en mass" the Parisians, to go on holiday in August, that almost no one was back in Paris yet when poor Baudelaire died. So there were fewer than 30 people at his funeral, and Manet was one of them. There was an extraordinary rainstorm that day when the body was taken to Père Lachaise cemetery, and Manet witnessed it in a painting which veritably weeps with his own grief for the death of his friend.
That same year in the Salon, Manet was represented by a young follower of his, a painter named Henri Fantin-Latour in this painting, now in the Art Institute of Chicago. It represents Manet as a flaneur, as a man not shown in the city, but in the midst of the nothingness of a primed canvas, but dressed to walk out of doors, one hand gloved, the other hand bare, holding the glove. In his hands, the walking stick that will propel him out of doors. The sharp gaze of his eyes, the perfect clothing that he wears for his afternoon walk. He stares at us, as if we the viewer of the picture, are part of the crowd, the Baudelairian crowd that he paints.
This painting was the only Manet that was shown in the Salon of 1867, the year of Baudelaire's death. Manet's own paintings were rejected by the jury, as Courbet's had been earlier. Yet Manet was present as a portrait figure, painted by a young admirer in a highly conventional style. Yet let the style not fool us, because what this painting is, is Baudelaire's flaneur, looking at the crowd of the city as it is gathered in the rooms of the Salon, everyday and crammed on Sunday, a very crowd Baudelaire had written about so eloquently and powerfully in his great essay The Painter of Modern Life, published in 1863.