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The Painter Of Modern Life And Other Essays Online

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Baudelaire's 'the Painter Of Modern Life'

In what ways did artists satisfy the criteria for the painting of the modern world set out in Baudelaire's 'The Painter of Modern Life'?

Date : 25/10/2015

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Uploaded by : Rachel
Uploaded on : 25/10/2015
Subject : Art

The backdrop against which Charles Baudelaire wrote the essays collected in 'The Painter of Modern Life'1 was one of extreme urban and social transformation. Since 1850, under the instigation of Napoleon III, the prefect of Paris Georges Euge`ne Haussmann had been radically redesigning and modernizing the French capital to the point of non-recognition. This colossal rebuilding program introduced new urban institutions and technologies such as hired cabs and street lighting, and democratized considerable spaces such as the boulevard and the public park, which became the setting for new modes of experience.2 It is therefore not surprising that Baudelaire should equate modernity with "the ephemeral, the fugitive, the contingent".3 A certain awareness of the horrifying contrasts brought about in this modern society, "the spectacle of fashionable life and of thousands of roaming existences - criminals and kept women - drifting about in the undergrounds of a great city",4 is clear in writings from as early as 1846. This idea of modernity as a fleeting quality, whose immediacy places it forever in the 'now' of its own epoch, is, however, a vital half of Baudelaire's definition of beauty as a composite entity, "whose other half is the eternal and the immutable":5 Beauty is always and invariably of a double composition [...] made up of an eternal, invariable element, whose quantity it is excessively difficult to determine, and of a relative, circumstantial element.6 Applied to art, and more specifically to the painting of the modern world, these two key definitions of beauty and modernity form the basis for a new set of criteria to be met by Baudelaire's ideal painter in order to 1 'The Painter of Modern Life' contains several essays written in 1860 and published in 1863 in Le Figaro. 2 See D. H. Pinkney, Napoleon III and the Rebuilding of Paris, (Yale, 1972), quoted in F. Frascina, Modernity and Modernism: French Painting in the Nineteenth Century, Yale University Press in association with The Open University, (New Haven and London, 1994), pp. 80-81 3 C. Baudelaire, The Painter of Modern Life and Other Essays, Phaidon, (London, 1995), p. 12 4 C. Baudelaire, Ouvres Comple`tes, Gallimard, Bibliothe`que de la Ple?iade (Paris, 1961), p. 1277 5 Baudelaire, The Painter of Modern Life, p. 12 6 Ibid, p. 3 ?2 accurately render the heroic aspect of his own era;7 namely through the alchemical task of "[extracting] from fashion whatever element it may contain of poetry within history, to distil the eternal from the transitory".8 Throughout his essays, Baudelaire established various archetypal characters of modern city life, and proceeded to define their respective place and role in a newly transitioned society. The one character who, most of all, could perceive the paradoxical heroism of modernity was the fla^neur, "the 'passionate spectator' [...] who was in his element wandering amid the ebb and flow of the urban crowd and whose most guarded possession was the anonymity made possible by life in the city."9 His attempt to "decipher the nature and biographies of the kinds of characters who became common in the new city - absinthe drinkers, fashionable women on display, ragpickers [...]"10 yet remained linked to "the fugitive pleasure of circumstance".11 The painter of modern life, through his capacity to extricate, as we have seen, eternal beauty from the beheld passing moment, thus transcended the vision of the mere fla^neur. Interestingly, the aforementioned Baudelairean elucidation of beauty as the sum of two opposite yet crucially complementary elements appears as a middle ground stemming from the opposition occurring in the French art world at the time between the Romantic ideal of 'Art for Art's sake', and the belief that art should act as an austere and objective reflection of actuality, championed by the Realist movement.12 While Baudelaire dismissed excessively idealized art as being "beyond our powers of digestion or appreciation, neither adapted nor suitable to human nature"13; the utmost importance he placed on the artist's faculty of imagination, "by which he penetrates beyond the banality of observable appearances"14, also defied the precepts of Realism. The artistic space envisaged by Baudelaire's modernity, was consequently so novel in the early 1860s, that it can, in a sense, be interpreted as prescient, a reasoned speculation on the impending 7 See Baudelaire on 'The Salon of 1845' in Selected Writings on Art and Artists, Cambridge University Press, (London, 1981). 8 Baudelaire, The Painter of Modern Life, p. 12 9 Frascina, Modernity and Modernism: French Painting in the Nineteenth Century, p. 54 10 Ibid, p. 82 11 Baudelaire, The Painter of Modern Life, p. 12 12 See Courbet, Le Courrier du dimanche, (September 1st, 1861), in which he defines Realism as the antithesis of Romantism. 13 Baudelaire, The Painter of Modern Life, p. 3 14 M. Calinescu, Faces of Modernity : Avant Garde, Decadence, Kitsch, Postmodernism, Duke University Press, (Durham, 1987): "...into a world of 'correspondences', where ephemerality and eternity are one.", p. 54 ?3 development of contemporary aesthetic canons. Hence the work of Constantin Guys, whilst chosen by Baudelaire to exemplify his propos, seems to be little more than an alibi for a demonstration which greatly exceeds it: the definition of an incipient art, the imminent advent of which is but predicted in 'The Painter of Modern Life'. As a result, these innovative criteria for the painting of the modern world resonate more relevantly in the equally groundbreaking contemporary works of Edouard Manet, which, in turn, paved the way for the Impressionist movement of the following decade to carry out Baudelaire's ideals. No. 'Music in the Tuileries Gardens', an exemplary rendition of "the spectacle of urbane existence"15, is instantly recognizable as a sketch of manners, a "depiction of bourgeois life and the pageant of fashion"16 to which Baudelaire devoted the second chapter of 'The Painter of Modern Life'. Indeed, among the crowd portrayed here, one could distinguish figures from contemporary Parisian society such as the composer Jacques Offenbach, the painter Fre?de?ric Bazille, Baudelaire, and the painter himself, clothed in fashionable crinolines and top hats, and engaged in a just as fashionable activity. The title is in fact a direct evocation of the actual 15 See Baudelaire on 'The Salon of 1845' in Selected Writings on Art and Artists. 16 Baudelaire, The Painter of Modern Life, p. 4 ?E?douard Manet, Music in the Tuileries Gardens, 1862, oil on canvas, 76.2 x 118.1 cm (The National Gallery, London) ?4 concerts, which were given twice a week in the Tuileries, for the bourgeoisie of the Second Empire to enjoy. The contemporaneous atmosphere of the Tuileries gardens would have been observable even in features such as the iron chairs in the foreground of the painting, the previous wooden ones having been replaced the very same year. Manet's conveyance of modernity transcends subject matter in a way that is utterly characteristic of his ouvre: in keeping with Baudelaire's stipulation that "For the sketch of manners, [...] the technical means which is the most expeditious [...] will obviously be the best",17 the fleeting present is also related through the painter's idiosyncratic, elliptical technique. "The figures [are] painted more or less sketchily - some stand out, some are 'caught sight of', others are not, even though they seem to stand closer to the picture plane."18 This arbitrary treatment of space not only reconstructs this scene of urban reality, but also the optical experience of it. The spectator's 'passing glance', randomly glimpsing certain faces amid the crowd, sweeping over one face and catching on another, regardless of their proximity to the picture plane, is faithfully translated through Manet's unevenly definite brushstrokes. For instance, the face of the painter Fantin-Latour is painted with more precision than that of Baudelaire which, although he is standing nearer to the front, is but a mere blur. Two other elements in Manet's work further echo Baudelairean conceptions. By placing his self-portrait at the extreme left of the canvas, the artist purposely identified himself as a fla^neur, part of the crowd and yet 17 Ibid, p. 4 18 Frascina, Modernity and Modernism: French Painting in the Nineteenth Century, p. 30 ??5 somewhat aloof from it. The composition too is a reflection of its time, and more specifically of gender attitudes in Nineteenth Century France: whereas the men are standing and active, immersed in conversation for example; the women are almost all seated, passive and 'on display', a notion reinforced by the bright colours of their dress. In that it is a depiction of a modern subject realized in an equally modern painting method, 'Music in the Tuileries Gardens' is considered a seminal work and a catalyst for Impressionism.19 As indicated by their very appellation, the Impressionist painters of the 1870s strived to translate the fleeting impressions of their surroundings onto canvas. Gustave Caillebotte, despite his realistic style and emphasis on drawing (a loose handling of paint, and focus on colour and light, exemplified in works by Monet, are elements typically associated with Impressionism), shared the Impressionist commitment to rendering the optical experience of transient reality and was closely associated with the group. Gustave Caillebotte, Le Pont de l'Europe, 1876, oil on canvas, 125 x 181 cm (Muse?e du Petit Palais, Geneva) The various components illustrated in 'Le Pont de l'Europe' in Caillebotte's characteristically realistic technique, all contrive to paint an accurate picture of contemporary reality. The quotidian scene depicted here takes place recognizably in one of the newly created spaces of post- Haussmann Paris. Built between 1863 and 1868 as part of the expansion of 19 F. Cachin, Manet: Painter of Modernity, Thames and Hudson, (London, 1995), p. 33 6 ?? the Gare Saint-Lazare - in itself an emblem of the Industrial age and a recurring motif in avant-garde painting-20 the bridge, whose huge iron framework occupies the three right quarters of the painting, visually epitomized the unsettling oddness of modernity. A Paris city guide from 1867 indeed qualified its "bizarre form and immenseness" as astonishing.21 The proximity to the station is signaled in the painting by the steam rising from underneath at the further end of the bridge, presumably from a steam- train, also a relatively recent feature of modern life. The protagonists featured in this setting also embody their own epoch. The figure leaning against the bridge's parapet is clothed in the light grey uniform of the ouvrier, whereas the two passersby are identifiable as bourgeois by their fashionable attire. The top-hatted man is traditionally interpreted as a self- portrait.22 Here again, the painter has chosen to include himself in his own composition, as an onlooker, a fla^neur, thus making his work a mise en abyme of the act of observation. Modernity is not only reflected literally in the subject matter; the experience and effects of it are translated through the striking pictorial construction. The pont hence becomes an allegory of Paris's violent modernization. Its oppressive presence is dramatized "psychologically as well as physically"23 through a clever spatial illusion: the X-shape of the asymmetrical composition echoing the crisscross motif of the trellises, the exaggerated perspective, and the dark shadow it casts, further add to its already imposing mass. The contrasts of social modernity are also marked by the composition, this time not predominantly in terms of gender but of class. Indeed, while the figures of the working-class are engulfed in the despotic shadow of the bridge, the middle-classes stroll by carefreely in the open. The two social strata are shown sharing the same space, but they do not mingle and instead coexist on brutally defined parallel lines. What might seem, at first glance, simply a faithful, photographic rendering of physical reality - elements of "the fugitive pleasure of circumstance", recorded by the "mere fla^neur" - is in fact, embedded in an artificial composition skillfully fabricated, through the "active imagination" 20 Also depicted by Manet (1874) and Monet (1877) ; the vogue of railway themes prompted Zola's remark « Les gares d'aujourd'hui sont les cathe?drales d'hier » (1877). See A. Roggeman, 'Caillebotte : Entre?e en Gare de la Modernite?', L'Oil, No. 593, (July- August 2007). 21 I, Goldberg, « La vision de la ville par les impressionnistes et par Caillebotte », Bulletin du Centre de recherche franc?ais a` Je?rusalem, [Online], Uploaded 20/06/2013, URL: http://bcrfj.revues.org/7059 22 Based on the testimony of the Caillebotte family, reported in M. Berhaut, Gustave Caillebotte, (Paris, 1951). See N. Broude, Gustave Caillebotte and the Fashioning of Identity in Impressionist Paris, Rutgers University Press, (New Brunswick, New Jersey, and London, 2002), p. 15 23 Broude, Gustave Caillebotte and the Fashioning of Identity in Impressionist Paris, p. 11 7 ? commended by Baudelaire,24 to convey the artist's subjective perception of the modern city. In this sense, 'Le Pont de l'Europe' is a successful depiction of Caillebotte's age, "its fashions, its morals, its emotions".25 'The Painter of Modern Life' also carries within its precepts, certain prerequisites for the painting of the modern world that are independent from artistic method, style, and choice of subject matter. Rather, they are intrinsic to the artist-fla^neur sanctified by Baudelaire in that they are concerned with class and gender. For Baudelaire, true genius can only be male: it is "nothing more nor less than [...] childhood now equipped for self-expression with manhood's capacities".26 This gendered conception of artistry denies women the possibility of conveying modern experience, reducing them to "a kind of idol, stupid perhaps, but dazzling and bewitching",27 relevant only when constructed through the male painter's gaze.28 The very equation of modernity with the public sphere of city life, to which women in Nineteenth century Paris had limited access, is proof of Baudelaire's obliviousness to their experience. As we have previously elucidated, the ideal Baudelairean painter stems from the fla^neur, an idler possessed with the means both intellectual and financial to simultaneously be a part of the urban crowd which he so passionately observes and records, yet to remain aloof from it.29 Indeed, Manet and Caillebotte included themselves as such in their respective 'Music in the Tuileries' and 'Le Pont de l'Europe'. Baudelaire's painter of modern life, in addition to being male, was then also, by definition, bourgeois. As a result, the exclusion from the possibility of a first-hand account of modernity extended to the lower classes of modern society who could only exist as features of the middle class artist's observation. With this in mind, we can observe the now familiar Baudelairean process at work in depictions of lower-class women such as 'Street Singer' or 'L'Absinthe' (See page 9). Indeed, the gaze of the bourgeois male painter, while objectifying them as mere features of his own experience of modernity and the passing moment, distills from these figures of a grisette, or a melancholy fallen woman seated beside a drunk, their eternal poetry. 24 Baudelaire, The Painter of Modern Life, p. 12 25 Ibid, p. 3 26 Ibid, p. 8 : In the original French text, Baudelaire refers more drastically to «organes virils » as necessary components of genius. 27 Ibid, p. 30 28 See J. Wolff, 'The Invisible Fla^neuse : Women and the Literature of Modernity', Theory, Culture & Society, Vol. 2, No. 37, (November, 1985), p. 37 29 Frascina, Modernity and Modernism: French Painting in the Nineteenth Century, p. 54 ?8 ?Edouard Manet, Street Singer, 1862, oil on canvas, 171 x 106 cm (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston) ?Edgar Degas, L'Absinthe, 1876, oil on canvas, 92 x 68 cm (Muse?e d'Orsay, Paris) 9 BIBLIOGRAPHY Baudelaire, Charles. The Painter of Modern Life and Other Essays, edited and translated by Jonathan Mayne, Phaidon, (London, 1995). Baudelaire, Charles. Selected Writings on Art and Artists, translated by P.E. Charvet, Cambridge University Press, (London, 1981). Baudelaire, Charles. Ouvres Comple`tes, annotated by Y. G. Le Dantec, revised edition by C. Pichois, Gallimard, Bibliothe`que de la Ple?iade, (Paris, 1961). Broude, Norma. Gustave Caillebotte and the Fashioning of Identity in Impressionist Paris, Rutgers University Press, (New Brunswick, New Jersey, and London, 2002). Cachin, Franc?oise. Manet: Painter of Modernity, Thames and Hudson, (London, 1995). Calinescu, Matei. Faces of Modernity: Avant Garde, Decadence, Kitsch, Postmodernism, Duke University Press, (Durham, 1987), pp. 46-58. Chilvers, Ian. The Oxford Dictionary of Art & Artists, fourth edition, Oxford University Press, (Oxford, 2009). Clark, T. J. The Painting of Modern Life: Paris in the Art of Manet and His Followers, revised edition, Thames and Hudson (London, 1999). Frascina, Francis ... [et al.]. Modernity and Modernism: French Painting in the Nineteenth Century, Yale University Press in association with The Open University, (New Haven and London, 1994). Goldberg, Itzhak. « La vision de la ville par les impressionnistes et par Caillebotte », Bulletin du Centre de recherche franc?ais a` Je?rusalem, [Online]. Uploaded June 20, 2013. Accessed August 6, 2015. URL: http://bcrfj.revues.org/7059 Lebel, Hopi. Manet, Une Inquie?tante E?trangete?, France Te?le?visions Distribution, (Paris, 2011): documentary complementing the exhibition 'Manet: Inventeur du Moderne' at the Muse?e d'Orsay (Paris, 4 April to 3 July 2011). Roggeman, Anouchka. 'Caillebotte: Entre?e en Gare de la Modernite?', L'Oil, No. 593, (July-August 2007). Wolff, Janet. 'The Invisible Fla^neuse: Women and the Literature of Modernity', Theory, Culture & Society, Vol. 2, No. 37, (November, 1985), pp. 37-46. ?10

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The Painting of Modern Life, the first show at the Hayward Gallery curated by its American director, Ralph Rugoff, is an ambitious attempt to see how this artistic project stands nearly 150 years after Charles Baudelaire proposed it in his essay ‘The Painter of Modern Life’ (1863). There the poet called for a shift in subject matter – already begun in the practice of Manet and others – away from the grand themes of myth and history, and towards the everyday activities of urban life, especially of middle-class leisure. Such a shift in content implied a shift in form, even in medium; for example, to capture the mobility of bourgeois types on the town, the sketch might be more useful than other means (the exemplar in the essay is not the great Manet but Constantin Guys, who was then known for his quick studies). What better vehicle to convey ‘the ephemeral, the fugitive, the contingent’ – key qualities of the metropolitan kaleidoscope, according to Baudelaire – than the photograph? Yet the poet remained suspicious of the new medium, in part because he did not see its potential for imaginative invention, in part because he did not deem it suited to the ‘other half’ of his mandate for art, which was to extract ‘the eternal and the immutable’ from this protean modernity. The other half was still the province of painting, and so painting – perhaps pressured by photographic attributes – remained the essential medium.

Liu Xiaodong, ‘A Transsexual Getting Down Stairs’ (2001).

The Hayward show picks up the representation of modern life a century later. In the interim, Rugoff suggests in the catalogue, the tense relationship between painting and photography slackened, as painting withdrew into abstraction (a comment on modernity in its own right), and photography became the favoured means of modern imaging (there are many exceptions, of course, but the curator should be allowed his premise). However, as the 1960s began, Rugoff continues, artists associated with Pop and photorealism – Richard Hamilton, Andy Warhol, Gerhard Richter, Richard Artschwager, Vija Celmins and Malcolm Morley – turned again to photography, not only as a source of images but as a way to convey the look of consumer society, already processed as so much of it was through photographic media: that is, through the ads, news photos, amateur snapshots and postcards that the painters had begun to adapt.

The exhibition begins here, and the early work looks superb still, fresh to the eye, however familiar the artists are now, and incisive about its times. In the first galleries Rugoff offers a nice range of photographic effects translated into painting in this initial moment: Hamilton capturing the tabloid glare of celebrity visibility in a lurid image of Mick Jagger handcuffed to the art dealer Robert Fraser after a drugs bust; Warhol eliciting shock cut with indifference with a newswire photo of a car crash silk-screened 11 times across a rust-orange canvas; Richter producing an empathic response in his blurred representation of a pretty woman distorted by grief (we learn it is Jackie Kennedy after the assassination); and so on – so many visions of a world more and more mediated by images, which painting, because of its remove and its delay, is able to explore in ways that photography cannot.

Yet the great interest of the show is the uncertainty – the epistemological ambiguity, the historical instability – visited on both photography and painting over the last four decades. The two media partake of different sign systems: photography is conventionally seen as indexical, a photochemical impression of the world, and (representational) painting as iconic, with a resemblance to the world that is less direct, more mediated by material, touch and tradition. A painting is also worked up over time, and usually taken in over time too; Rugoff writes well about the ‘slowness’ of painting, which in this instance allows us to review and to reflect on its photographic sources. Yet even in the 1960s these different attributes are not easily assigned to one medium or the other.

Take the vaunted reality effect of photography, affirmed by theorists from André Bazin to Roland Barthes. Some of the artists in the show are not so sure. Richter remarks that photography is ‘a crutch to help me get to reality’, yet that he can approximate this goal only through painting; this leaves him with the paradoxical formulation, ‘I am practising photography by other means.’ For Celmins, whose meticulous translations of a Time magazine cover, military craft and a Los Angeles freeway are on display, it is also painting, and not photography, that puts the image ‘back into the real world – in real time … the here and now’. Moreover, as the show proceeds, the source images become less photochemical, more electronic, less analogue, more digital (they often derive from television, video and the internet), and so what counts as the photographic gets stretched – stretched, in fact, towards painterly manipulations. Hamilton explored this complication early on; as early as 1969 he noted the proliferation of ‘lens-formulated images whatever the chemistry or electronics involved.’

Consider, too, the question of spectatorial distance: is this a photographic quality or a painterly one? For Rugoff, it seems, it is painting that builds such detachment into the work, yet for others this distance is associated with photography: Richter speaks of his photographic blur as a ‘protection’, and Warhol of his photographic repetition as an anaesthesia (‘meaning goes away’). Or consider, conversely, our proximity to the image, as with the photorealist canvases of Morley, who describes his painting as a ‘hallucination’, or of the Swiss artist Franz Gertsch (a welcome rediscovery), whose huge scenes of hippy life loom towards us with garish details: neither strictly photographic nor strictly painterly, this visual intensity is effected through a combination of properties of both media. Indeed, some of the best works in the show mix effects of distance and proximity, the detached and the insistent, through a precise complication of painting and photography. Rugoff describes this mixed quality as ‘uncanny’ or ‘absurd’, but little seems repressed here, and nothing nonsensical; his impression of a ‘denatured’ world is more exact. Abstract painters like Kandinsky, Foucault once argued, did away with resemblance, but still affirmed the real; they simply located it elsewhere, in a transcendental beyond. Surrealist painters like Magritte performed a stranger trick: they held on to resemblance, but allowed the real to slip away; similitude remained while reference vanished. For some of the artists here this appearance without substance is the odd nature of the postwar world, and they bring us back compelling probes of it – of where the real looks lost and where it erupts again.

A divide opens in the show as one moves through it. Is its principal concern the photo-painting relation or the representation of modern life? Some works lean to one side, others to the other, but only the best hold the two subjects together, and they are able to do so precisely because the photographic and the painterly charge each other, and burn the image into its moment (and vice versa). Often in the more recent paintings this tension slackens, and purchase on the world slips as a result (the loose categories – looser than in Baudelaire – don’t help much here: ‘History & Politics’, ‘Leisure & Everyday Life’ etc). Sometimes, too, even as the category of the photographic expands, the use of the photographic contracts; it becomes more traditional, mostly a matter of sources again, with the result that little pressure is put on painting, which in turn can scarcely push back on photography. How different from Warhol, who places nasty news photos in the space of exalted abstraction, or Hamilton, who tests the great tradition of the tableau with the slick devices of advertisements. In short, many of the younger artists allow painting to trump photography too easily. Painting gets the victory, but it is Pyrrhic, and for all its advocacy the show might make some viewers feel less sanguine, not more, about the current state of the art.

The reason this issue is more than academic is that the representation of social existence is at stake here. If, for Baudelaire and company, modernity was a great fiction to celebrate, it was also a terrific myth to interrogate – and how much more so is it for us today. As art historians such as T.J. Clark and Thomas Crow have helped us to see, the great painters of modern life – from Manet to Hamilton – are also its great dialecticians; they are able to celebrate and interrogate it by turns. Hamilton uses the Duchampian phrase ‘ironism of affirmation’ to convey his edgy position on this score. Too many of the artists in this show are neither affirmative nor critical enough – of painting, photography, electronic images or modern life. In 1865 Baudelaire wrote to Manet that he was the first in the ‘decrepitude’ of his art; it was meant as a compliment.

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