Archive for the ‘Modern Art Criticism’ Category

Erwin Panofsky and Iconography, Part Three

ERWIN PANOFSKY AND ICONOGRAPHY

Part Three: Icon, Iconography and Iconology

As has often been pointed out, the exodus of Jewish scholars from Germany was one of the greatest brain drains of talent of the 20th or any other century.  “Hitler shakes the trees, and I pick up the apples.” This famous quote is attributed to Walter Cook who founded the Fine Arts Department of New York University ( now the Institute of Fine Arts, also known as “The Institute) and moved his scholars to a brownstone next to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. According to Harry Bober in “The Gothic Tower and the Stork Club,” Panofsky was “one of the more resplendent golden apples, joining the department in 1931. The ideas of Erwin Panofsky and how they were employed or not have depended upon trends in art history. When Panofsky became part of the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton University (called “The Institute” by those in the know) in 1933, his iconographical system found a permanent home . The discipline of art history in America was greatly enriched by his intellectual and philosophical approach and put what was still a relatively new field of study in his new country on a sounder footing.

Because many of its scholars were Jewish, art history was hunted from Europe by the Nazis.  They fled to America, bringing with them concepts based upon European philosophy that were  ill-understood by their new students. Traditionally, the American version of his signature idea: iconography, was greatly simplified into a clunky game of matching symbols (icon) to symbolism (iconography), while neglecting the cultural basis for the meanings (iconology). That said, when Panofsky arrived at Princeton with his Kantian-inspired system, he met with opposition from another branch of Kantian thought–formalist art history and yet another bastion of artistic thought, Marxism. For art historians, Marxist thought or the assertion of Karl Marx that the economy was the “secret engine” of society, was a fruitful way of examining a work of art, for a Marxist analysis would remove the “veil” of the “natural” and reveal the economic basis of the work itself. Formalist art historians, however, preferred to look directly at the work itself and not at the society that produced it. Rather than thinking of these two methods as complementing each other or as adding to a fuller picture of the art, the discipline tended to place Formalism and Marxism as polar (and political) opposites.

When Panofsky arrived in America, the formalism of Heinrich Wölfflin’s approach to “style” and the materialism of Marxism had become the leading modes of art historical and art critical thinking. The Marxist approach, exemplified by the writings of Meyer Schapiro (1914-1996), was on full view in Schapiro’s famous  battle with Alfred Barr (1902-1981), the director of MoMA. Barr’s famous 1936  “Chart” of avant-garde movements in his catalogue Cubism and Abstract Art removed art from any historical or cultural context and presented the movements as independent of social forces.  In comparison to Barr’s art-for-art’s sake approach, Schapiro was a life-long Marxist who had more in common with Walter Benjamin than with the more orthodox Marxist art historian, Arnold Hauser. Before and after the Second World War, Formalism and Marxism, softened semantically to the “social” approach to art history, were the dominant modes of art history methodology, but, due to its political connections, Marxism waned and Panofsky’s iconography moved to the fore. But when Marxism made a comeback during the sixties and seventies, the symbolic meaning of art receded until the late 1980s and early 1990s with the books of Michael Podro’s The Critical Historians of Art and his student, Michael Ann Holly’s Panofsky’ and the Foundations of Art History. Panofsky’s methods were seen as part of The New Art History or a more modern way of looking at art in historical context, one of Panofsky’s basic tenets.

As Holly’s book outlines, Panofsky’s intellectual antecedents were complex. As an art historian, he felt that his primary task was to make sure that his studies of works of art rested on a firm foundation or to establish an epistemology of art history. In his opinion, the Formalist methodology of Heinrich Wölfflin was founded on a particular judgment or a personal interpretation of the stylistic elements of any given work of art, and that, therefore, the observations of  Wölfflin or any other formalist art historian did not have the necessary epistemological depth. What Panosksy wanted to do was to provide art history with a Kantian a priori, to fix art historical methods in the realms of a universal or necessary judgment. It would take Panofsky two decades to work out his approach and he would deploy his intellectual heritage from pre-war Germany to do so.

For the early art historians, the most important fields of study, indeed the founding fields of the discipline, were the art of Antique, Medieval and Renaissance periods. It is this sweep of Western civilization, told as a series of recurrences of the classical culture and as the struggle to find and retain the powers of reason.  Panofsky was the student of Aby Warburg who was fascinated with the recurrence of persistent motifs in art and literature, stretching from ancient times to the Renaissance. Panofsky’s early writings reflect Warburg’s interest in the motifs of Renaissance art, but, as Michael Podro pointed out, Warburg combined Georg Hegel’s dialectic of conflict: thesis and anti-thesis with Sigmund Freud’s belief that society was forced to repress primal instincts and desires of human beings in order to govern its members. Warburg noted the tensions (dialectic) in Renaissance art, the tensions of psychological repressions, and the struggle of the artists and writers to overcome the “superstitions” of the medieval Church.

Panofsky gently swerved away from his mentor’s Freudian or psychological method and turned to the more secure neo-Kantian approach of philosopher Ernst Cassirer and that of the Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure. As Michael Podro pointed out,

What then could provide an absolute viewpoint form which we might elucidate a painting or a building? Panofsky takes as a model for the kind of interpretation he wants the Kantian conception of what makes a judgment scientific. What makes a judgment about the world a scientific judgment, as opposed to a merely personal report, is its causal character, and this causal character or structure is not, in Kant’s view, derived empirically but is injected into  experience by the mind…What was important for Panofsky was that it was assumed to be a concept we did not derive from experience but one which we brought to experience in order to give it its intelligibility.

The central problem that faces any historian is that of anachronism—-of looking at history from the standpoint of the present and for Panofsky the way to solve this inherent difficulty was to remain firmly fixed in the culture of the work of art itself, not the culture of the present time. The problem of anachronism was also the problem of Formalism, i.e. that observation had to have a causal component beyond the thing observed and reported upon. It was not until 1939 that Panofsky published a series of articles/lectures that certainly stemmed from his work as a professor at the Institute, Studies in Iconology. To study “iconology” is to study the meaning of a work of art: the meaning that was embedded in the culture, the meaning that was in the mind of the artist, consciously or not as a kind of “collective unconscious.” In the introduction of this book, the art historian establishes his methodology: what he was opposed to and how he resolved the problems of meaning and interpretation of works of art. Panofsky began his Studies with this statement:

Iconography is that branch of the history of art which concerns itself with the subject matter or meaning of works of art, as opposed to their form. Let us, then, try to define the distinction between subject matter or meaning on the one hand and form on the other…The meaning thus discovered may be called intrinsic meaning or content; it is essential where the two other kinds of meaning, the primary or natural and the secondary or conventional, are phenomenal. It may defined as a unifying principle which underlies and explains both the visible event and its intelligible significance, and which determines even the form in which the visible event takes shape. This intrinsic meaning or content is, of course, as much above the sphere of conscious volitions as the expressional meaning is beneath this sphere.

Panofksy established a layered or step-by-step method that was slow and deliberate, requiring an extensive education on not just the work of art but also of its culture of origin. The tripartite iconographical method of layered meanings or strata, has its basis not just in the Warburgian notion of motif but also in the ideas of Saussure. If, for the linguist Saussure, words were signs that were signifiers for the thing signified, than for Panofsky, the work of art could be understood as a visual language in terms of the sign, signifier and the signified or icon, iconography, and iconology. Panofsky continued his opposition to formalism by stating that the “pre-iconographical description” was a “pseudo-formal analysis,” but that this first take was a “practical experience” that was “controlled” by the history of style. Moving up from the bottom to the next layer or level of meaning, Panofsky introduced the “secondary” or “iconographical analysis” that  required “knowledge of literary sources that concerned historical themes or concepts.” It is with the last or highest level of interpretation that Panofsky acknowledged Ernst Cassirer: iconology is the “intrinsic meaning,” that is, the “iconological interpretation” is the history of “cultural symptoms” or the “essential tendencies of the human mind.”

Although subsequently in American art history, Panofsky’s Hegelian methods have often stalled at the iconographical level with few art historians being willing to look for the “symbolic forms” or “symptoms” in works of art.  Part of the reason for the impoverished use of Panofsky is the inevitable loss of intellectual background when the art historian emigrated to America, and another reason for the loss of the philosophical background was the division of universities and colleges into distinct departments, dividing disciplines, like history, art history and philosophy, which were in actuality part of one another into artificially separated entities. As Holly pointed out,

Art historians not acquainted with the background of many of Panofsky’s ideas frequently see in his later work merely a practical program for the deciphering of specific and not-so-hidden symbols in visual images. Iconology, despite Panofsky’s emphasis on semantics, is still understood as only a slightly  more refined and sophisticated version of iconography.

Just as the three layers of meaning combine Saussure and Cassirer, Panofsky’s famous concept of “disguised symbolism,” developed in his 1953 essay Early Netherlandish Painting, reveals his neo-Kantian insistence on finding the epistemology for a work of art and in establishing the epistemology for art history. Art is embedded in a épistémè that is clearly visible in Netherlandish painting of Jan van Eyck, but in Panofsky’s account of late Medieval art in Northern Europe, we find echoes of Warburg. Here is an artist, van Eyck, who is part of a “superstitious” spiritual culture but who is also living in a new world of reason and science. “A way had to be found to reconcile the new naturalism with a thousand years of Christian tradition,” Panofsky wrote and noted that “The more the painters rejoiced in the discovery and reproduction of the visible world, the more intensely did they feeel the need to saturate all its elements with meaning.” To miss this mind set, this struggle between faith and science is to miss, not just Panofsky’s epistemology of art history but also to miss the meaning of the work of art itself.

The first post in the series discussed Panofsky’s intellectual background with the second post explaining the idea of symbolic form.

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

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

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Erwin Panofsky: Art History and Philosophy

ERWIN PANOFSKY (1892-1968) 

Part One: The Antecedents of Iconography

To be an art historian in Germany or Austria, the sites where the study of the discipline was both founded and developed, was to be a member of an intellectual elite. The study of art in the late nineteenth century and the early twentieth century was based as much on private art collections, and the ability to gain access to these homes, as upon the study of art in museums. Born into the family of wealthy business people, Erwin Panofsky, who was taken to museums as a child, moved among these privileged intellectuals in those brilliant years of the Weimar Republic before its tragic end. Like many German intellectuals, Panofsky moved his career to America, taking with him the scholarly method of studying art in terms of meaning to Princeton University, where he spent the rest of his life. All too often the American understanding of this art historian is somewhat stripped down and remembered as a process of interpretation: icon, iconography and iconology, meaning that the icon or image was the symbol for a certain concept, such as the Cross was symbolic of the Crucifixion. All too often Americans tended to neglect the basis of Panofsky’s thought: iconology or the placement of art in culture. But for Panofsky, art history was an extension of the philosophical thought of Germany in the early twentieth century.

The nearly century long pride of place that Erwin Panofsky holds in art history is demonstrated by the recent excitement at the finding of his long lost Habilitation thesis that was found in June of 2012. The German publishing house De Gruyter will publish Die Gestaltungsprincipien Michelangelos, besonders in ihrem Verhältnis zu denen Raffaels in 2014. There is no doubt that his thesis will be marked by traces of the state of German philosophy of the early twentieth century. The best way, indeed, the only way, to discuss the art historical writings of Erwin Panofsky is to place the historian in the rich and complex intellectual context of his time. His art historical methodology was firmly grounded in German philosophy—specifically that of the philosopher, his colleague, Ernst Cassirer (1984-1945).  Cassirer, a professor of philosophy at Hamburg, whose cousin Paul Cassirer was an art dealer, stated that, “Reason is a very inadequate term with which to comprehend the forms of man’s cultural life in all their richness and variety. But all these forms are symbolic forms. Hence, instead of defining man as an animal rationale, we should define him as an animal symbolicum.”  A neo-Kantian from the Marburg school, Cassirer’s contention that people thought symbolically would profoundly shape Panofsky’s ideas on how people read or understood “icons” or images.

In his 2006 study of Cassirer, Edward Skidelsky introduces his book, Ernst Cassirer: The Last Philosopher of Culture, by making the point that, after the Fall of the Berlin Wall, Cassirer has been reconstructed by German historians as one of the few intellectuals who emerged post 1989 as something of a hero who famously debated (and probably lost the debate) the future Nazi, Martin Heidegger in 1929. In the “Debate on Kant,” Cassirer asserted that Kant must be understood, no metaphysically, but functionally in the various forms of neo-Kantianism which, “..enquire into the possibility of philosophy as a sciencewith the intention of formulating its conditions..” For Cassirer the form is the function of philosophy, and the path to the symbolic form is Kant’s concept of “schema”, defined in the abstract as “phenomenon,” but reinterpreted by Cassirer as “symbol.”

During his years as a philosopher of the Weimar Republic, Cassirer’s works were published by his cousin Bruno and one of his earlier works was on Einstein’s Theory of Relativity, published in 1921 and translated in English as early as 1923, signaling that Cassirer was first of all a philosopher of science. Indeed, Kant was understood in Marburg from the standpoint of science, but when Cassirer published The Philosophy of Symbolic Forms in three volumes between 1923 and 1929, he showed that he had moved into the arena of culture. As Donald Philips Verene points out in The Origins of the Philosophy of Symbolic Forms: Kant, Hegel, and Cassirer (2011), myth is not just the origin of culture but also of language itself: “Linguistic symbolism is representational symbolism. All natural languages are structures of representation…” Taking Kant as his starting point, Cassirer proposed a “critique of culture.”

The first Jew to serve as the rector of the new university at Hamburg, Cassirer was also among the first to leave Germany in 1933 and after nearly a decade of lecturing in England and Sweden, he ended his career at Yale and Columbia universities. As Sebastian Luft pointed out in Cassirer’s Philosophy of Symbolic Forms: Between Reason and Relativism; a Critical Appraisal, that Cassirer wrote his last two important works, The Myth of the State (1946) and An Essay on Man (1944), were written in English. The “functional concept” proposed by Cassirer ordered his symbolic forms according to a principle of “serial arrangement” in which certain elements obtain meaning only within that particular system. In other words, Cassirer was positing a universal model for language that could incorporate the particular under the functional concept. The combination of the particular that acquires meaning within a universal system is not dissimilar to the ideas of Ferdinand de Saussure and his networks which make meaning possible. For Cassirer symbolic forms—myth, religion, language, art history and science—were understood contextually as “inner forms” unique to each culture.

The three volumes have very specific subtitles which almost certainly can be explained by his association with Warburg: The Philosophy of Symbolic Forms. Volume One: Language (1923), The Philosophy of Symbolic Forms. Volume Two: Mythical Thought (1925), and The Philosophy of Symbolic Forms. Volume Three: The Phenomenology of Knowledge (1929). The fourth volume on the metaphysics of symbolic forms was in progress when the philosopher died suddenly of a heart attack the day after the death of President Franklin D. Roosevelt.  During his years in Germany, Cassirer was in contact with the other seminal figure that helped Panofsky form his approach to art was one of the founders of the field, Aby Warburg (1866-1929), who was the eldest son of one of Germany’s premier banking families. Warburg gave up his position as heir to his younger brother Max who would helm the family business. An art historian, specializing in the Renaissance, Warburg asked in return only that his brother support his life long desire to amass a library on art and culture. It is this library and the mode of its arrangement that would prove to be the foundation not just for Panofsky’s methods of study but also for the contextual approach to the visual arts.

In counter distinction to the formalism of Heinrich Wölfflin, Warburg insisted that works of art were more than a mere collection of shapes and colors. While it should be noted that Wölfflin was somewhat in concert with Cassirer in that he thought that each era had a “period eye,” or a particular way of seeing or making forms, Warburg had “a downright disgust for aestheticzing art history.” In other words, he resisted the notion that a work of art was presented for pleasurable appreciation rather than for its deep psychological meaning across time. Warburg was fascinated with the Renaissance, not as a “rebirth,” but as rebirth redefined as “survival,” or the continuous reappearance of a motif or an idea that moved through time, leaving its traces on art and literature. And, also in contrast to received wisdom, Warburg did not regard the Renaissance as a return to classical reason but as the continuation of the struggle between the forces of rational thinking, as personified by the figure of Apollo, and the power of the irrational, as symbolized by the god Dionysus.

This human struggle between the rational and the irrational was part of a collective (un)consciousness that had as its origin in the body, manifested in art as an empathetic expressiveness. These primal experiences of suffering or traumas became for Warburg, “pathos formulae.” Warburg worked as an archaeologist of culture, excavating these ancient wounds which could be found, as antique echoes, in the works of the Renaissance, which contained the marks of the primitive nature of what the classical artists had grappled with—the dialectic between the animal in the human. These traces or tracks could be discerned in a variety of sources, not just visual but also textual, and Warburg assembled his books, building a cohort of sources or references around lingering ideas. These books would be grouped together in  sections in what would become one of the most famous intellectual libraries of the twentieth century.

Mark A. Russell noted that the establishment of this collection followed Warburg’s move to Hamburg. According to Russell, in Between Tradition and Modernity: Aby Warburg and the Public Purposes of Art (2007), the Kulturwissenschaftliche Bibliothek Warburg or the Warburg Institute had acquired 15,000 volumes by 1911 and by 1926, when the library became a research institute with Fritz Saxl as Warburg’s assistant, there were 46,000 books. By this time, as Russell recounts, Warburg had suffered from his own mental illness and during his absence, the library had been moved from the private home and became a public library with the books, arranged by Saxl, placed on the shelves in accordance to scholarly expectations. Upon the fragile recovery of his mental health, Warburg continued his scholarship on memory and pictorial representation until his death in 1929. Saxl carried on his legacy but when Hitler came into power, it became clear that a library, founded by a Jewish family could not survive under the Nazis. Saxl and the Warburg family made arrangements to transfer the entire library, now some 66, 000 books, to London where it became the Warburg Institute in 1933. The library never returned to Germany.

Although Warburg actually visited America and made the acquaintance of the anthropologist Franz Boaz, his archaeological/psychological/anthropological focus remained on Florence during the Renaissance and he was fascinated with the lingering spell of pagan expressions on modern thought. But the scholar, who published his works almost entirely in articles, did  not see history as evolving in a progressive form over temporal periods; instead,Warburg thought of history in terms of psychic time. When the Great War broke out, Warburg watched in horror as Europe descended into once again into savage barbarism. Although Warburg supported his nation, as any good patriot, he suffered great psychological anguish during this period and it can be argued that the balance of his mind never quite recovered from the darkness of the War. Warburg did not live to see the rise of Hitler, much less the destructive power of unleashed irrational primitive thinking by the Nazis, but he would have been transfixed to witness the return of a psychic trauma that would cause history to shudder with the new primal wound it would inflict.

If Cassirer’s thinking sought to be transcendent, the method of Warburg was concrete, based on the image as metaphors which progress or transform over time. To this end, Warburg collected a disparate array of images which formed an Atlas of recurring symptoms of humanity’s ongoing trauma/s. The Mnemosyne collection, also known as “Mnemosyne, A Picture Series Examining the Function of Preconditioned Antiquity-Related Expressive Values for the Presentation of Eventful Life in the Art of the European Renaissance,” began in 1924 after Warburg had recovered from his mental collapse and could have been part of his attempt to understand the War and the world’s regression into a primitive state. The “Atlas” was never completed and remains frozen in time, surviving as old photographs of groupings of clippings, reproductions, photographs and other images arranged according to Warburg’s intuition.

This Atlas of Images or Bilderatlas consisted of over sixty or seventy screens (depending on which reference you read), or wooden frames covered with black fabric, where an array of images could be pinned and clustered as visual aids to Warburg’s thought processes. Warburg, who used these screens as illustrations to his lectures, took photographs of these screens, showing his collection of reproductions which traced motifs over time. These photos are all that is left of this vast memory project. It should be noted that Warburg did not differentiate between high or low art nor did he hesitate to cross disciplines. Not only did he pioneer in interdisciplinary research, he also established the mode of lecturing in art history—comparing and contrasting images. According to Sarah Blacker in “Institutional Purlieus and Archival Collapse: Aby Warburg’s Mnemosyne Atlas”, the “Atlas” was disassembled and is thought to have not survived the move to London except as boxes of images. Warburg had intended for his homage to the goddess of Memory to become the basis for the organization of his library and its images, but art historian Rudolf Wittkower in London used iconography as the system for the Warburg Institute.

The other seminal influence on Panofsky’s thought was Ferdinand de Saussure (1857-1913), a founder of modern linguistics. If Cassirer thought of humans as symbol-making beings, Saussure defined the human as a language-maker and elaborated upon a system of semiotics or semiology, a science of signs. The philosophical conclusions of these two thinkers were intertwined: both posited a system or a structure through which people communicate, either through symbols (which are a type of word) or words (which are a type of symbol). Both insisted that these symbols/words can be interpreted only within a cultural network that determines how language is understood and interpreted. Saussure’s Course on General Linguistics was not translated into English until 1959 and while a more definitive version came out in 1986,  the original and complete text finally emerged in 2006.

Saussure distinguished between language (langue) and speech (parole): one is formal and is a system which is structured—language which is to be studied by the philosopher, unlike causal speech acts. Language is a system of rules which makes performing speech possible. Language is a system or network of relations among elements, none of which can be understood outside the system, which is synchronic or outside time. Language is a system of signs which operate within a structure that the user has incorporated unconsciously. It is that structure of set of rules that govern usage and allow the subject to communicate. To the extent that Saussure can be considered a Structuralist, the Swiss philosopher was also connected to the French anthropologist, also a Structuralist, Claude Lévi Strauss, who asserted that culture had a language that could be de-coded.

Saussure’s “sign, signifier, signified” would be re-interpreted by Panofsky as “icon, iconography, iconology” with a work of art (icon) as a work of culture or a cultural activity (iconography)  that must be interpreted in a historical context (iconology). The sign is the icon which resembles the thing, just as a portrait resembles the person depicted. The index is another form of a sign is the “index,”  in which smoke, for example is an index of “fire.”  In Structuralism, Linguistics, and the Study of Literature (1975), Jonathan Culler noted that indexes are problematic and uses the example of Lévi-Strauss who suggested that an ax could be used as an “index” of a certain level of culture. But most signs are arbitrary in their (dis)connection between the word (sign) and the thing. The arbitrary nature of the sign, or the fact that there is no “natural” connection between the  object and the sign, is the seminal insight of Saussure. The sign has significance or meaning and is further elaborated by that which is signified or what the sign means within the culture and why it has acquired this meaning at this point in time. On one hand, the significance of the sign is always incomplete and always escapes total interpretation, but on the other hand, it is this signifé that creates the meaning, however unfinished, of the sign. For Panofsky, as shall be seen in Part Two, the iconology of the icon is embedded in the culture itself.

Part two of this series discusses the idea of symbolic form and three of this series will discuss Panofsky’s famous iconographical method.

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

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

info@arthistoryunstuffed.com

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Podcast 66: Marketing Georgia O’Keeffe

Georgia O’Keeffe, Part One

The career of Georgia O’Keeffe was a paradox: on one hand, she was dependent upon the patronage of her husband, photographer and art dealer, Alfred Stieglitz; on the other hand, she always had an independent vision.  The podcast, the first of four parts, focuses on her first mature phase: the flowers and how she broke away from gendered art writing.

 

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

info@arthistoryunstuffed.com

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Podcast 59: Pablo Picasso and the Making of the Art Market

Pablo Picasso, Part One

Although we accept Picasso as one of the great artists of the twentieth century, he was not born a famous artist, he was “made.”  This podcast discusses the role of the Great War and the creation of the post-war market in buying and selling avant-garde art.  In order to be successful, Picasso had to be polished as an artist and Cubism had to be tamed as an art market suitable for collectors.

 

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

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Baudelaire and “The Painter of Modern Life”

THE PAINTER OF MODERN LIFE

Like many writers before and after him, Baudelaire wrote without specific commission, on “spec” as it were.  This essay on Constantin Guys, an illustrator for the Illustrated London News, was actually written in 1860 and would not be published until 1863 in installment form in Figaro.  The publication of the article coincided with the infamous Salon des Réfusés and the debut of Édouard Manet as an artist of scandal.  Suddenly, what had been a nebulous concern, about content and technique in art making, became urgent and topical.  Manet had presented a courtesan as a modern “Venus,” a prostitute as a modern “Nude,” and had quoted Renaissance artists, Raphael and Titian to do so.  In addition, the painter had eschewed “good” drawing and approved “finish” for a causal and notational manner of transcribing.  The Painter of Modern Life made sense of what Manet had done to art—made painting “modern.”

There is a real question as to whether or not the “painter” of whom Baudelaire wrote was less important than the essay itself.  While it is certainly true that any writer uses others as vehicles for his or her views, the selection of Constantin Guys was crucial to the main point of the essay.  Guys, who, according to Baudelaire, refused to be named in the essay, was an old soldier who had served in that most romantic of conflicts, the freedom of Greece. As widely traveled as the poet was provincial, Guys had spent years as a reporter and an war correspondence for the Illustrated London News during the Crimean War. The artist informed the English audience of the details of an unpopular war at a time where his pen was much quicker than the camera.  Born in 1802, Guys was far older than Baudelaire when he returned to live in Paris, and he lived much longer than the poet who suffered from syphilis and drug addiction. Guys died in a tragic traffic accident in 1892.

Baudelaire saw Guys as a bohemian hero, an outsider, the “observer, philosopher, flâneur” and as “the painter of the passing moment and of all the suggestions of eternity it contains.”  Like Baudelaire, he, a “man of the crowd,” was a journalist who was trained to watch and look carefully, especially at the details, or what the poet described as, “particular beauty, the beauty of circumstances and the sketch of manners.”  But Baudelaire drew a distinction between the dandy—Guys “has a horror of blasé people…” (like the dandy)—and the flâneur , or the “passionate spectator.”   Baudelaire made the point, over and over, that the flâneur was someone who is traveling “incognito” or, in other words, the flâneur fades into the crowd, unnoticed.  “…the crowd is his element,” Baudelaire said, “…the lover of universal life enters into the crowd as though it were an immense reservoir of electric energy.”  “Monsieur Guys,” due to the necessary haste to record what he saw “drew like a barbarian, or a child,” producing “primitive scribbles,” was declared by Baudelaire to be “not precisely an artist, but rather a man of the world.”  “…the mainspring of his genius is curiosity.”  The working methods of the artist were traditional in that he looked, he saw, he scribbled and then, using his memory, completed his thought later in a sketch-like record.

Baudelaire stressed the “rights and privileges offered by circumstances…for almost all our originality comes from the seal which Time imprints on our sensations.”  Reaching back to Friedrich Schiller, perhaps, Baudelaire compares the artistic condition of Guys to be that of childhood, suggesting that the illustrator was an instinctive artist, from whom images simply flow, without hierarchy and without restraint.  Under the direction of no one, Guys simply sketched what he saw.  “But genius is nothing more not less than childhood recovered at will..,” Baudelaire stated.  So, it is implied, that only the “childlike artist,” who was Schiller’s “naïve artist,” is equipped to see and record the new world.  Baudelaire stated,

By ‘modernity’ I mean the ephemeral, the fugitive, the contingent, the half of art whose other half is the eternal and immutable…This transitory, fugitive element, whose metamorphoses are so rapid, must on no account be despised or dispensed with. By neglecting it, you cannot fail to tumble into the abyss of an abstract and indeterminate beauty, like that of the time the first woman before the fall of man.”

This is the founding definition of modernity, coined by a poet and evidenced by an illustrator of the “crowd.”

The salient quality of The Painter of Modern Life is what and whom Guys, the grown man, found interesting.  “Modern Life,” for Baudelaire, appeared to be located among la bohème, which, in itself, was a creation of the modern world.  First, there is the dandy.  The dandy is one of Baudelaire’s heroes and makes many appearances in the urban scenes captured by Guys.  “Dandyism,” the poet said, “borders upon the spiritual and stoical…Dandyism is the last spark of heroism amid decadence…Dandyism is a sunset; like the declining daystar, it is glorious, without heat and full of melancholy.  But alas, the rising tide of democracy, which invades and levels everything, is daily overwhelming these last representatives of human pride and pouring floods of oblivion upon the footprints of these stupendous warriors…” This man has “an air of coldness…a latent fire…(which) chooses not to burst into flames,” he concluded, alluding to the resigned cynicism of an endangered species in the face of unstoppable changes.

The female, in contrast to the male, is described, not in terms of character or psychology, but as a spectacle: “She is a kind of idol, stupid perhaps, but dazzling and bewitching.” But far from dismissing the female, Baudelaire continues for pages, focusing on cosmetics and fashion.  For Modernism, fashion is the leading indicator or the “ephemeral, the fugitive, the contingent,” for nothing is more changeable than fashion.  Fashion stands for the new consumerism, showcased in the arcades, where commodities were protected in passages of iron and glass.  Positioned between the major avenues, the arcades were the domain of the flâneur, both male and female, and the precursors to the department stores.  Consumer capitalism needs to create desire to tempt the buyer to purchase, which meant the creation of products that, by their very nature, needed to be renewed.  Not food or another necessity, but an artificial desire for a non-necessity drove the economy.  The woman becomes the carrier of artificiality.

Baudelaire, a city dweller, is no nature lover:  “I ask you to review an scrutinize whatever is natural—all the actions and desires of the purely natural man: you will find nothing but frightfulness.  Everything beautiful and noble is the result of reason and calculation.”  And cosmetics.  “Fashion should thus be considered as a symptom of the taste for the ideal which floats on the surface of all the crude, terrestrial and loathsome bric-à-brac that the natural life accumulates in the human brain:  as a sublime subordination of Nature, or rather a permanent and repeated attempt at her redemption.”  There is a slippage in Baudelaire’s writings from “women” to “prostitutes,” as if, for the poet there is no divide.  It is known that his only relationship was with a prostitute, but that kind of connection was not uncommon, in an age where marriage was often a financial alliance.  Baudelaire seemed to have no interest in the so-called respectable woman, who reflected her husband’s position and the values of the bourgeois society.  The prostitute is a free and liberated woman, from the poet’s perspective and thus wears modernity as cosmetics and fashion, proclaiming the artificial.  Indeed, the poet compares the application of make up to the creation of a work of art:  “Maquillage has no need to hide itself or to shrink from being suspected.  On the contrary, let it display itself, at least if it does so with frankness and honesty.”

Gradually, as the essay draws to a conclusion, Guys, the “painter of modern life,” has become less important that the social conditions he observed and recorded.  Modern life, fueled by commodities and their artificial manufacture of artificial desires, is defined by a new and bewildering urban environment, populated by new kinds of people, the demimonde.  Nothing is real and everything changes and, above all, nothing is natural.  Baudelaire understands that art is not a copy of nature.  Art is inherently and definitionally artificial, as artificial as fashion, as ephemeral as a fad.  The role of the artist is not to re-imagine the “eternal” or the antique but to seize upon the passing fancy, that salient detail that captures the mood of the moment.

The Painter of Modern Life predicts the paintings of Manet, such as The Street Singer of the same year—-a grisette (low level prostitute), or street entertainer, strides past the flâneur.  She is eating cherries and glances briefly at the spectator and is caught in a brief instant of time, and quickly moves on, her wide skirts embellished in the latest fashionable embellishments.   The idea of the passive observer who merely records, the demand that that watcher react quickly to what the photographer, Henri Cartier-Bresson, would call “the decisive moment,” looks forward to the Impressionist artists who were much less cynical and sophisticated than the art writer.  Baudelaire did not live long enough to see a group of painters embrace the sketch-like approach of “the painter of modern life,” but his essay became foundational in its description of modernity: all that is “transitory” and “fugitive.”   It has been a hundred and fifty years since The Painter of Modern Life was published and with the benefit of hindsight one can only marvel at how much our world resembles that of the poet.

See also “Baudelaire as Art Critic” and Baudelaire and Modernity”

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

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

info@arthistoryunstuffed.com

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Charles Baudelaire, Author of Modernism

BAUDELAIRE AND MODERNITY

Every age needs its observer and every era requires an interpreter.  That individual has to be an odd cross between a poet and a reporter, to elevate the culture above mere description.  Charles Baudelaire (1821 – 1867) was a renegade poet, a syphilitic art critic, and above all a disaffected and alienated student of a society under the pressure of a transition.  That Baudelaire was a marginal character who lived on the fringes of a cynical consumer society was crucial to his ability to describe and define the new phenomenon, “modernité.”  Although the poet wrote extensively on a variety of topics, he is especially significant for essays, prose poems, poetry and art criticism that articulated a new way of life. In 1947, Jean-Paul Sartre accused Baudelaire of “bad faith” due to the many contradictions in his life and work.  However, a self-destructive poet and drug addicts, who lived in debt on the run from creditors, while, at the same time, taking part in the intellectual and artistic life of Paris, can hardly be expected to be consistent.  The very times of Baudelaire were paradoxical.

The art critic straddled the divide between waning Romanticism and emerging Realism, watching Eugène Delacroix after his creative peak and not living long enough to see Èdouard Manet reach his full artistic potential.   While there may never have been an artist who coincided with the poet’s desire to describe modernité, Baudelaire addressed the unfolding of a new way of life in a dense urban environment of the “crowd” and the impact of technology upon society and art.   By the 1840s, not only was Romanticism over but the art produced by the salon system was also becoming increasingly irrelevant.  The excuse for academic art was that it portrayed the “heroic” life of the ancient world, but, for Baudelaire, it was necessary for artists to be of their own time.  But what that “their time” mean?

The industrial revolution came slow and late to France, not in small part because many of the technological changes had been developed in the homeland of their hated enemy, England.  While England was already adjusting to industry, France, by mid-century, was just beginning to cope with the transition from an agricultural society to an urban and industrial one.  It is possible to see the process of artistic adjustment to these changes in the paintings of Jean-François Millet and Gustave Courbet.  Millet presented the countryside as frozen in time while Courbet showed the class tensions even in small villages.  Meanwhile, the mainstream salon artists chose to ignore the present in favor of the historical past. Few artists had to ability to see their age in all its uniqueness.  To be fair, the cultural changes caused by the Industrial Revolution were so extensive and far-reaching that it was easier to look away.  The problems for the artists during this transition period were, first, content of art—contemporary or traditional? and what new artistic techniques would be appropriate for the new age?

More than anyone, Baudelaire articulated both the new content and the new way of expressing the new content.  In doing so, he impacted many of his contemporaries and influenced later generations of writers and poets.  As an art critic who had to work the salon beat, it was his job to discern a trend or a concern with each annual exhibition.  One of his most important salon statements was penned in 1846.  In an essay published as a section of “The Salon of 1846″: “On the Heroism of Modern Life,” Baudelaire argued that modern life was as heroic as ancient life and that men in frock coats were as brave in their own time as the Roman gladiators were in the arena:

It is true that this great tradition has been lost, and that the new one is not yet established.  But what was this great tradition, if not a habitual everyday idealization of ancient life—a robust and material form of life, a state of readiness on the part of each individual…?  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 peoples have had their own form of beauty, so inevitably we have ours. That is the order of things…But to return to our principle and essential problem, which is to discover whether we possess a specific beauty, intrinsic to our new emotions…The pageant of fashionable life and the thousands of floating existences—-criminals and kept women—which drift about in the underworld of the great city; the Gazette des Tribunaux and the Moniteur all prove to us that we have only to open our eyes to recognize our heroism.  For the heroes of the Iliad are but pigmies compared to you—-who dared not publically declaim your sorrows in the funeral and tortured frock coat which we all wear today!—you the most heroic, the most extraordinary, the most romantic and the most poetic of all the characters that you have produced from your womb!

The “hero” is male but not just any male.  The poet’s hero is not the contented businessman who as prospered under the Citizen King, Louis Philippe, but the hero of la bohème, a cultivated and well-educated man who was also an outsider: the dandy.  “…a dandy can never be a vulgar man,” Baudelaire said.  The dandy wears the new uniform, the habit noir, the black suit with distinction, proclaiming middle class status.  And yet the dandy keeps himself apart from the bourgeoisie by moving with the “crowd,” without ever being part of the crowd.  Being a dandy, standing aside and watching, is a strategy of self-defense.  But a dandy, par excellence, is also a man who is able to walk the city, freely.   Baudelaire is the new man, the flâneur, the person who strolls the side streets, peruses the new arcades and watches the carriages pass down the wide boulevards.  At the same time the arcades were ushering in a new form of looking, the spectacle of window-shopping, a new nocturnal Paris sprang into being with the introduction of gaslight in the 1820s.   Here, in the darkness, is where we find the poet’s world of marginal people who live a “floating existence,” and it is here were we find the female counterpart to the dandy, the prostitute, the only kind of woman allowed to go abroad at night.  Modernism and its heroes is not for the respectable nor the faint-hearted.

Baudelaire, like many inhabitants of the changing city, felt the stresses of the transition.  The city he had been born in was vanishing before his very eyes.  According to one of Baudelaire’s greatest biographers, the German writer, Walter Benjamin, Baudelaire was part of Bohemia, la bohème. A Marxist writer, Benjamin linked Baudelaire to the territory of the dispossessed by quoting Marx on the precarious position of this social class:

…Their uncertain existence, which in specific cases depended more upon         chance than on their activities, their irregular life whose only fixed stations were the taverns of the wine dealers—the gathering places of the conspirators—and their inevitable acquaintanceship with all sorts of dubious people place them in that sphere of life which in Paris is called la bohème….the whole indeterminate, disintegrated, fluctuating mass which the French call la bohème….

By the time of the Second Empire, the chasm between rich and poor had stranded a number of middle class people on the wrong side of prosperity.   “It is bourgeois society that Baudelaire holds guilty of the suffering of the post-aristocratic period, and not the least that art has gone to rack and ruin, that poets and artists like himself now belong to the déclassés,” John E. Jackson remarked in 2005.  Thus Baudelaire wrote as an outsider, not an insider, taking advantage of an unprecedented expansion of the press.  Over the past two decades, new opportunities had emerged for writers such as Baudelaire who was able to find his unique voice and to carve out a position as an observer and witness.  The poet was a character composed of unabashed contractions who had no problem in proclaiming,  “Any newspaper, from the first to the last is nothing but a web of horrors….” As a writer (who wrote for newspapers) he tried to defend traditional art making against the onslaught of technology, mainly photography, while, at the same time, rushing out to be photographed many times.  In “The Salon of 1859,”  there was a section,  “The Modern Public and Photography,” where Baudelaire complained about the clash between art and photography:

Poetry and progress are like two ambitious men who hate one another with an instinctive hatred, and when they meet upon the same road, one of them has to give place.  If photography is allowed to supplement art in some of its functions, it will soon have supplanted or corrupted it altogether, thanks to the stupidity of the multitude, which is its natural ally.

These two essays, written over ten years apart, are indicative of the contradictions and confusions over the role of modern life in art.  On one hand, Baudelaire was convinced that the “heroism of modern life” was worth of depiction but on the other hand, that depiction had to be hand made, done in the old fashioned “art” way.   A machine can never replace art.  But more should be said of the difficulty of writing in a moment of social becoming, for Baudelaire, like Denis Diderot, was looking for the artist who could capture modernité or the pulse of his (or her) own time.  Courbet painted contemporary life, but this life was rural and, hence, not the “urban modern” condition that was the daily life of Baudelaire.  The poet was clearly looking for someone who expressed modern life in Paris, the city that Walter Benjamin called “the Capital of the Nineteenth Century.”

Baudelaire found his candidate, “The Painter of Modern Life,” in a fellow member of the fringes of society, an obscure illustrator named Constantin Guys.   The result of the relationship between the poet and the illustrator, both inhabitants of la bohème, was a long essay, almost book length, which described the condition that Baudelaire called modernité. That essay was the famous The Painter of Modern Life.  The poet states, “By ‘modernity,’ I mean the ephemeral, the fugitive, the contingent, the half of art whose other half is the eternal and the immutable…”  Guys, an illustrator and a quick sketch artist, was the outsider, who, because of his position on the fringes, was able to produce hundreds of quick studies of all that was fast-moving and fleeting in modern life.  Modernism, for both Baudelaire and for Guys, becomes defined by the concept of constant change, or what the art critic, Harold Rosenberg, would term, a hundred years later, “the tradition of the new.”

See also: “Baudelaire as Art Critic” and “Baudelaire and The Painter of Modern Life

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

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

info@arthistoryunstuffed.com

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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”

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

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

info@arthistoryunstuffed.com

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The Origins of Art Criticism

The Origins of Art Criticism

The Salon established the art exhibition as an independent entity, and, even though the exhibition was sponsored by the crown and was intended to show off the talents of France, any political or nationalistic goals were soon overshadowed by the presence of “art”, existing in its own right, to be looked at.  The role of art began to shift.  The new “art public” and its spokesmen, the art critics, began to redefine the social task of art.  Art should have a moral effect but what lesson should be taught?  Denis Diderot, who is considered the first important art writer, had a royal audience, but preached Enlightenment ideals.  Although Diderot learned about art through studio visits with the artists, his audience, European despots who sported the sobriquet “enlightened” were informed of French art through an internationally distributed newsletter, edited by Friedrich-Melchior Grimm and not subject to French censorship.  The irony of Diderot extolling middle class virtues to the lusty Czarina of Russia, Catherine, is intriguing and one can only wonder what the great queen thought when she read in his review of the Salon of 1763, “First, I like genre–it is moral painting”.  Unlike 20th century art writers, Diderot did not believe in art-for-art’s-sake: times were too perilous.  His art writing was engaged and political, a model for Marxist writers two hundred years later.  Like many French thinkers, Diderot was indebted to English writers, especially the philosopher John Locke and the novelist Samuel Richardson, author of Pamela.  He joined his fellow intellectuals in creating a new kind of literature and sought a new art form for the new class that would define this class through Enlightenment ideas of reason and order.

When viewing the works of François Boucher, Diderot wrote in 1765, “Depravity of morals has been closely followed by the debasement of taste, color, composition,” and suggested a year later that an appropriate alternative to aristocratic frivolity would be antiquity: “It seemed to me that we should study the antique in order to learn to see Nature”.  But Diderot demanded more than mere stylistic servitude, “First of all, move me, surprise me, rend my heart; make me tremble, weep, shudder, outrage me, delight my eyes, afterwards, if you can.”  “Whatever the art form, it is better to be extravagant than cold”.  Although Diderot did not live long enough to witness either Neoclassicism or Romanticism, both of which are anticipated in his writings, he articulated many important concepts in his art writing with his emphasis on naïveté, which led to primitivism (simplicity and clarity) and the grand ideal of Poussin: “Paint as though in Sparta.”  Diderot believed that art should teach moral development but at the same time believed in the idea of genius.  Although the moral sentiments of the works by Greuze were admirable, Diderot lamented that he was “no longer able to like Greuze” and preferred Chardin who was not only morally sound but also the superior artist.

The early to mid-Eighteenth Century period is one of transition, for intellectuals found it hard to either predict the future or to foresee the logical consequences of the newly forming ideals of “reason,” “democracy,” and “equality.”  Diderot’s public counterpart, the art writer, La Font de Saint-Yenne, also took a middle path and equated the aristocrats with the ancients.  The aristocrats, in turn, took the prudent course of denouncing decadence and corruption and joined in the vogue for the natural by praising simplicity and order.  Threatened by the wayward behavior of their hapless monarchs, the French nobles attacked royal despotism of King Louis XVI and his Austrian-born Queen, Marie Antoinette, in defense of their own privileges and positions.  The new French government reached back into the ancient past to justify and legitimate the new ideas of “liberty.”  Old ideas of Roman virtue and Greek democracy were revived to promote and explain the radical changes.  Previous artistic styles, Baroque and Rococo, were jettisoned because of their unseemly connection to aristocracy and vice.  Artists turned to ancient art, fortuitously available due to the recent discovery of ancient Roman cities, Pompeii and Herculaneum, buried by an eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 in the 1740s.

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

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

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Podcast Episode 9: Romanticism in France

FRENCH ROMANTICISM

Romanticism in France was an artistic movement that was born of the excitement of Napoleonic art and its depictions of the glory and horrors of total war.  But after the Emperor was deposed, the new generation of artists could find “liberty” only in the refuge of art-for-art’s-sake and freedom existed only in bohemia.  It was in the quarters of unknown artists that the avant-garde was born, but the most successful Romantic artists in France were, in fact members of the establishment.  Although Eugène Delacroix and Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres were often considered as Romantic opponents, they both were chroniclers of their times, depicting an image of an age caught between past glories and the future of industrialism.

Also listen to: “The French Romantics: Gros and Girodet, Part One” and “The French Romantics: Gros and Girodet, Part Two” and “French Romanticism, Ingres, Part One,” and “French Romanticism, Ingres, Part Two” and “French Romanticism, Delacroix, Part One” and “French Romanticism, Delacroix, Part Two” 

Also read: “French Romanticism: The Historical Context” and “The French Academy: Painting”  and “French Romanticism: Subject Matter and the Artist” and “French Romanticism and the Avant-Garde”

 

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to
Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. 

Thank you.
info@arthistoryunstuffed.com

Important Announcement

The Podcasts from this Website

by Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette

are now available through iTunes and can be listened to on your iPad or iPhone

Remember to download the iBooks app to your iPad or iPhone

Art History Unstuffed: The Podcasts

Also the complete

 Art History Timeline Videos

by Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette

are now available and can be viewed on You Tube

This twenty-seven episode series of five minute videos span Western art history, from the Caves to Romanticism. The videos can be used by students and teachers as introductory, supplementary or review material. Each video is written,narrated and produced by the author of this website, and is reinforced by written text and is richly illustrated by many images. The entire Timeline can be accessed through

this link: Art History Timeline

 

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Podcast Episode 8: Formalism and Romanticism

ROMANTICISM AND CHANGING METHODOLOGIES

IN ART HISTORY

What is the impact of methodologies of art history upon the recounting of the history of art?  A methodology is a way of telling or constructing the past. This act of re-construction is, in fact, as Hayden White expressed, “a tropic of discourse.”  However, a trope can be so completely absorbed into the accepted discourse of received wisdom that it become invisible. When the actual documented history of art is filtered through the invisible trope, this lived history is reshaped according—not to events or to objects—but to the trope itself. In the 1980s, the familiar methodology of formalism, which had presented a very particular account of Romanticism, was challenged by a new method, one which stressed the social and historical context for artistic production.

This podcast delineates the connections between the art historical methodology of Formalism, as developed by Heinrich Wölfflin (1864-1947), and the concept of Romanticism. Romanticism was  the movement in which the concepts of painting changed from “academic” to “modern.”   Until New Art History reintroduced the importance of context, the approach of “art history without names” reigned supreme.  How did the uneasy mix of history and methodology change the history of art? What recent corrections were made to retell the history of art history?

Also listen to: “The French Romantics: Gros and Girodet, Part One” and “The French Romantics: Gros and Girodet, Part Two” and “French Romanticism, Ingres, Part One,” and “French Romanticism, Ingres, Part Two” and “French Romanticism, Delacroix, Part One” and “French Romanticism, Delacroix, Part Two” 

Also read: “French Romanticism: The Historical Context” and “The French Academy: Painting”  and “French Romanticism: Subject Matter and the Artist” and “French Romanticism and the Avant-Garde”

 

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to
Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. 

Thank you.
info@arthistoryunstuffed.com

Important Announcement

The Podcasts from this Website

by Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette

are now available through iTunes and can be listened to on your iPad or iPhone

Remember to download the iBooks app to your iPad or iPhone

Art History Unstuffed: The Podcasts

Also the complete

 Art History Timeline Videos

by Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette

are now available and can be viewed on You Tube

This twenty-seven episode series of five minute videos span Western art history, from the Caves to Romanticism. The videos can be used by students and teachers as introductory, supplementary or review material. Each video is written,narrated and produced by the author of this website, and is reinforced by written text and is richly illustrated by many images. The entire Timeline can be accessed through

this link: Art History Timeline

Share