Sunday, November 23, 2008

Charles Baudelaire: The Artist and Critic

A guitly pleasure is reading the art critism of Charles Baudelaire (1821-1867). He was on the forefrontof defining the modern novel, modern artist and poet. In this collection of writings he is not happy with the predominant art scene in Second Empire France. He refers to artists as “spoilt children” with a handful of exceptions. This majority he also sees “very skilled brutes, mere manual laborers, village pub-talkers with the minds of country bumpkins” (397). His hostility to the conservative Academy with its stranglehold on the public’s understanding of the aesthetic is evident through his razor sharp sarcasm and humor. His ideal artist serves the imagination as a lover of life, observing the crowd, finding joy in that which is transient. The common human experience is beautiful and deserves a perceptive eye to best express “human being and their luminous explosions in space (409). Baudelaire’s understanding of the role of the art critic is one of communion with the artist’s vision, sharing in experience and ephemeral curiosities. The activity of defining beauty is also central to the critic’s role. This is clear through Baudelaire, himself a critic, by his own propensity to cleave to the various meanings of beauty.

Baudelaire deplores the French taste for realism and the attempt to replicate nature in landscapes, historical or genre paintings. As to the doctrine of meticulously coping nature as the highest of arts, Baudelaire notes that the imaginative man would reply – “I regard it as useless and tedious to copy what is there in front of me, because nothing of that satisfies me. Nature is ugly, and I like the figments of my own fantasy better than the triviality of material reality” (298). The realist and artist of imagination, according to Baudelaire, are diametrically opposed. The realist imitatively and mechanically reproduces that which has been done. Art, for him, must be the projection of dreams, presenting visions of beauty incapable of being extracted from meticulous landscapes or history paintings, those most common as the Salon in Paris. Baudelaire sees the French art world as retrogressive due to the artists’ habitual mania with antiquity. This obsession ignores the transitory, which is ever so important for dealing with the human experience.

Beauty, according to Baudelaire, has a duality: it includes both that which is eternal and that which is variable or transient. This reflects the duality of man, therefore also reflecting further upon the art world and its objective and subjective expressions. Baudelaire links the ‘eternal’ with the soul of art, and the variable as its ‘body’ (393). The ‘body’ is what has been neglected in the French art world. Baudelaire is a dazzling humanist above all else. He longs for the brilliance of human ideas with their unique or obsessive passions. He seeks the expression of the ‘body’ and ‘flesh’ of common day labors and joys.

Baudelaire writes of a German peasant who desires a painter to capture him and his family; his wife by his side, with daughters preparing supper, and sons returning from the field. The peasant insists on the painter capturing the armchair in which he sits, inherited from his father, and the smoke of his pipe through the setting sun. This common peasant scene is highly worthy of admiration for Baudelaire, “Loud Cheers for that peasant! Without knowing it, he has understood painting” (291). The affection and magnificence of the common life stands in contrast to the French publics’ fascination with historical scenes of grandeur, of Caesars, and Napoleonic conquests.

Nature, as a basis for all things beautiful, as idea championed by the highly conservative Academy, Baudelaire rejects with fervor. “Nature,” teaching nothing – with the exception of compelling man to “sleep, drink, eat and to protect himself as best he can against the inclemencies of the weather” (425). The “natural human,” from the womb essentially has a corrupted nature bound to physiological demands and uninspired behavior. The cure to this misplaced aesthetic of nature, for Baudelaire, is the perfect art – the human imagination – which freed from external realities, indulges in the most fantastic of dreams.

The painter who searches for the transient and fleeting body of majesty aims for ‘modernity.’ This quest to extract beauty from the contemporary fashions of the day contrasts the inclination for many French painters to stagnate in the fashions of Renaissance, Greek, or times of Roman glory. He accuses these painters who resort to the past of neglecting the present: “You have no right to despise the transitory fleeting element, the metamorphoses of which are so frequent, no to dispense with it” (403). Painters of the Renaissance and those of antiquity remained loyal to modern fashions, not rejecting them. He deplores this deprived imagination and the failure to bring out the significance wrapped up in the exceptional beauty of contemporary dress. He insists on the artist’s responsibility to represent each age with its fashions and fleeting trends with honesty and charm – thus highlighting beauty held within a unique circumstance.

Baudelaire writes of color, contour, sound, and scent as providing the imaginative man with moral significance. These things hold critical value in his aesthetic tastes – complementing or challenging line and form as the leading means of representation. Baudelaire describes encountering a dear friend who as a child paid close attention to his father dressing: “…he had always been filled with astonishment, mixed with delight, as he looked as the arm muscle, the colour tones of the skin tinged with rose and yellow, and the bluish network of veins” (398). Baudelaire’s fascination with the recounting of this childhood experience sheds light on the importance of examining common memories with an eye for feeling and color, which in turn intensifies the impact of sensory, historical, and emotional value. The inclusion of his friend every day encounter with a specific memory also reveals an understanding of man and woman, each with his or her individual passions and curiosities, as the center of creative expression and output, as opposed to a certain corporate school with a carefully defined aesthetic.

An anonymous artist is described who fulfils and surpasses the criteria for an imaginative artist. Baudelaire sees him as a “man of the world (flattering term)” – and one who understands the world and its customs: “he wants to know, understand, assess everything that happens on the surface of this spheroid” (397). The origin of this knowledge lies in curiosity. This curiosity is the kind most clearly seen in that of a child.

This “childish” genius can be linked with the importance of the “unconscious” – a word Baudelaire uses to describe this summit of artistic expression. On this concept he writes, “moral reflections and musings that arise form the drawing of an artist are in many cases the best interpretation that the critic can make of them; the notions they suggest are part of any underlying idea, and by revealing them in turn, we may uncover the root idea itself” (422).

As a value of an aesthetic, the word “unconscious,” not yet popularized by Freud, may have rallied many fellow critics to an entirely new concept, thus adding to a much needed vocabulary for the Impressionists waiting in the wing. For Baudelaire, the young receive beauty in the form of impressions ripe with “the joy the child feels in drinking in shape and color” (398). Like the child, the true artist, shares in this drink – casting his joyous impressions in inks and watercolors from the shadows of the crowd.

Baudelaire suggests the artist should express the intricacies of beauty in seemingly mundane human experience without yielding to the rigidity of the official art system. The critics job lies in living the transient, appreciating the imaginative lover of life as the center of artistic expression.
Quatations from Art in Paris, 1845-62: Salons and Other Exhibitions Reviewed by Charles Baudelaire

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