Charles Baudelaire and Art Criticism

BAUDELAIRE AS ART CRITIC

“We are going to be impartial.  We have no friends—that is a great thing—and no enemies.”  Thus Charles Baudelaire began his career as an art critic with the Salon of 1845.  With a tone we suspect to be sardonic, the young writer addressed himself to the bourgeoisie, “a very respectable personage; for one must please those at whose expanse one means to live.”  The poet completed his introduction, which is his manifesto of art writing, by saying, “We shall speak about anything that attracts the eye of the crowd and of the artists; our professional conscience obliges us to do so.  Everything that pleases has a reason for pleasing, and to scorn the throngs of those that have gone astray is no way to bring them back to where they ought to be.”  In the Salon of 1846, the writer again targets the middle class art audience, stating that, “…any book which is not addressed to the majority—in number and intelligence—is a stupid book.”  In other words, Baudelaire, a member of la bohème, would not be writing to the artistic reader but to those who were woefully in need of education, the middle classes.

Baudelaire followed the traditional format of the art critic, a walk through a huge salon exhibition, pausing here and there, giving some artists an entire page and others a mere sentence.  Interspersed were pages of commentary on the state of the arts, which, combined over time, created a description of the culture of two decades in Paris.  The art writer was a product of the Romantic period.  Reading his reviews of the Salons, it is plain that he was imbued with the tenants of Romantic thought, but by the time his career began, Romanticism was on the wane and new ways of thinking about art were being developed.  Although Eugène Delacroix was making official art for the establishment, Baudelaire worshiped him and despised his great rival, Jean-Auguste Dominique Ingres.  “M. Delacroix is decidedly the most original painter of ancient or of modern times…M. Delacroix is not yet a member of the Academy, but morally he belongs to it.”  Baudelaire refers to the painter as “a genius who is ceaselessly in search of the new.”

In The Salon of 1846, Baudelaire wrote some of the most definitive words on Romanticism.  “…if, by romanticism, you are prepared to understand the most recent, most modern expression of beauty—then…the great artist will be he who will combine with the condition required above—that of the quality of naïveté—the greatest possible amount of romanticism.”  As will pointed out in the text, “Charles Baudelaire, Author of Modernism” (Art History Unstuffed), the writer was obviously familiar with Friedrich Schiller’s “Naïve and Sentimental Poetry,” in which the poet compared two artistic types.  Schiller’s “naïve” poet (artist) who was “childlike,” and allowed nature to flow through spontaneously creating art through an individual sensibility was the precursor to artistic individualists like Delacroix.  “Romanticism,” Baudelaire echoed, “is precisely situated neither in choice of subjects nor in exact truth, but in a mode of feeling.  They looked for it outside themselves, but it was only to be found within.  For me, Romanticism is the most recent, the latest expression of the beautiful.”

And yet, in the same Salon, Baudelaire acknowledges the pressing conditions of the urban present.  For him, and for many artists, Romanticism was the very expression of all that was modern: artistic freedom and the expression of individuality. But in the writer’s section “Of the Heroism of Modern Life,”  there are passages that prefigure The Painter of Modern Life. In order to understand the importance of Baudelaire’s writing at this point, it is necessary to remember that the Romantic artists, especially during the time of this Salon, were often involved in historical subjects.  Unknowingly working against waning Romanticism and predicting Realism, Baudelaire made a case for modern subject matter.

Before trying to distinguish the epic side of modern life, and before bringing examples to prove that our age is no less fertile in sublime themes than past ages, we may assert that since all centuries and all people have had their own form of beauty, so inevitably we have ours…

All forms of beauty,” the writer continued, “…contain an element of the eternal and an element of the transitory—of the absolute and the particular.  Absolute and eternal beauty does not exist, or rather it is only an abstraction skimmed from the general surface of different beauties.  The particular element in each manifestation comes from the emotions; and just as we have our own particular emotions, so we have our own beauty.

The notion of “beauty” is already an old fashioned one, inherited from the Ancients, would will soon be replaced by a bracing does of realism and the introduction of “ugliness.”  Here we see the appearance of Baudelaire’s fascination with fashion that would emerge in The Painter of Modern Life.  In contrast to the colorful attire of the past, contemporary fashion for men had become democratized by the uniform of the black suit, which, according to Baudelaire, “…not only posses their political beauty, which is an expression of universal equality.”  After reassuring the reader that artists were capable of capturing shades of blacks and grays, something Èdouard Manet would excel at, he continued, “…our principal and essential problem, which is to discover whether we possess a specific beauty, intrinsic to our new emotions…” and urges the artists to look away from “public and official subjects” to “private subjects which are very much more heroic than these.”

Indeed, Baudelaire moved directly to the world he knew best, the world inhabited by the disenfranchised, including artists and writers, “the pageant of fashionable life and the thousands of floating existences—criminals and kept women—which drift about in the underworld of a great city….all prove to us that we have only to open our eyes to recognize our heroism.”  It is in this underworld where modern life existed.  Indeed, as Baudelaire pointed out, the comfortable bourgeoisie cannot be a hero; that status is reserved for those who deserve it—those of  “floating existences,” the men and women struggling to keep alive in a hostile city.  The need for this new kind of heroism intensified, for the gaps that appear in his art writing coincide with the Revolution of 1848 and the establishment of the Second Empire, events that brought about the very “modern life” he predicted.  For years, Baudelaire the art writer went dark, while he translated the American poet Edgar Allan Poe and wrote his ill-fated book of poetry Les Fleurs du Mal (1857).

Baudelaire’s silence and withdrawal are interesting.  On one hand, one could speculate that the writer was confounded by the death of Romanticism, but, on the other hand, he had been on the cutting edge by predicting the coming of an art that demanded contemporary subjects.  But the kind of realism that developed after the Revolution of 1848 was based upon observation of the base and the banal, the ordinary world according to Gustave Courbet.  The natural world of the petit bourgeoisie did not appeal to Baudelaire, who, according to Jean-Paul Sartre, “hated and regretted”  “naturalness.”  “Baudelaire’s profound singularity,” Sartre wrote, “lay in the fact that he was the man without ‘immediacy.’”  The art critic is silent during the first decade of the Second Empire until the occasion of the Exposition Universelle in 1855.  Picking up his earlier thoughts, Baudelaire returns to the subject of beauty.  “The Beautiful is always strange,” he said in one of his most famous statements.  “…it always contains a touch of strangeness, of simple, unpremeditated and unconscious strangeness, and it is that touch of strangeness that gives it its particular quality as Beauty.”

Oddly Baudelaire devotes his review of the Exposition to the dialectic of the display of Ingres and Delacroix as the official artists representing France, ignoring the outsider Courbet, his Realist Manifesto, his innovative Pavilion of Realism, and the two decades of works it contained.  Halfway into the Second Empire, Baudelaire wrote of “The Modern Artist” and “The Modern Public and Photography” in The Salon of 1859.  In writing of photography, Baudelaire also expresses his horror of the new tendencies towards objectivity and of scientific observation.  “Each day art further diminishes its self-respect by bowing down before external reality; each day the painter becomes more and more given to painting not what he dreams but what he sees.” “…it is happiness to dream,” the poet protested and, in the next section, wrote on Imagination, “The Queen of the Faculties.”  Once again, Baudelaire uses the opportunity to repudiate Realism.

In recent years we have heard it said in a thousand and different ways, “Copy nature; just copy nature. There is no greater delight, no finer triumph than an excellent copy of nature.” And this doctrine (the enemy of art) was alleged to apply not only to painting but to all the arts, even to the novel and to poetry.  To these doctrinaires, who were so completely satisfied by Nature, a man of imagination would certainly have the right to reply: “I consider it useless and tedious to represent what exists, because nothing that exists satisfies me.  Nature is ugly, and I prefer the monsters of my fantasy to what is positively trivial.

Baudelaire dismissed the realists, “…let us simply believe that they mean to say, ‘We have no imagination, and we decree that no one else is to have any.’ He continued, “How mysterious is Imagination, that Queen of the Faculties! It touches all the others’ it rouses them and sends them into combat.” “…Without imagination, all the faculties, however sound or sharpened they may be, are as though they did not exist…” Speaking of Delacroix (without naming him), Baudelaire elaborated upon the painter’s dictate, “Nature is but a dictionary,” in order to compare the artist to the realists. Earlier the art critic had written of Delacroix that, for the painter, “The entire universe is only a dictionary of images and signs.”  “Painters who are obedient to the imagination seek in their dictionary for which the whole visible universe is but a storehouse of images and signs to which the imagination will give a relative place and value; it is a sort of pasture which the imagination must digest and transform…”

The concept that nature was a dictionary, seen by the artist as a symbolic, not literal, source for ideas was echoed in his poem, “Correspondences” in Les Fleurs du Mal (1857):

La Nature est un temple oû de vivants piliers

Laissent parfois sortir de confuses paroles;

L’homme y passé à travers des forêts de symbols

Qui l’observent avec des regards familiers.

Writing in 1990, the critic, Jonathan Culler, translates Baudelaire’s “forest of signs” as a doctrine of Correspondences in which the poet “seems to disrupt the one-to-one correspondence between natural sign and spiritual meaning that the others promote.”  In other words, Baudelaire caused a rupture between the word and the thing, between the act of transcribing and the object recorded.  The so-called “correspondences” are arbitrary, making the signs into symbolic substitutes that do not name but suggest.  By continuing to insist upon the primacy of the imagination, Baudelaire founded a modern poetry of nuance.

Baudelaire ends his work as an art critic by paying homage to his friend Courbet, “we must do Courbet this justice—that he contributed not a little to the re-establishment of a taste for simplicity and honesty, and of a disinterested, absolute love of painting.” And Baudelaire included a nod to Manet who had yet to become the artist he would be.  And so, with the Salon of 1859, Baudelaire moves on to other forms of writing.  Somewhere along the way, Baudelaire seemed to find a balance between poetry and prose with his “prose poems” in Paris Spleen in 1869.  Waiting almost a decade after his last Salon, Baudelaire seemed to come to terms with Realism, but not in terms of “simplicity and honesty,” but in terms of the artificiality that Sartre insisted Baudelaire preferred.  The poet realized that the next life for art would be not in the country scenes of the painters of the lower classes but in the interpretation of “the heroism of modern life” he discussed in The Painter of Modern Life.

See also “Baudelaire and Modernity” and “Baudelaire and The Painter of Modern Life”

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Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed.  Thank you.

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