Charles Baudelaire

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Baudelaire's exploration of modernity in "The Painter of Modern Life" and its connection to the roles of the modern painter, the dandy, and the mnemonic arts


In "The Painter of Modern Life," Baudelaire explores modernity by emphasizing the painter's role in capturing the fleeting essence of contemporary life. He associates the modern painter with the dandy, who embodies elegance and detachment, and with mnemonic arts, which preserve transient moments. Together, these elements reflect Baudelaire's vision of art as a means to document and immortalize the ephemeral nature of modern existence.

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Why is Baudelaire's painter "searching" for "modernity" in "The Painter of Modern Life"?

At the time when Baudelaire wrote "The Painter of Modern Life," his native France was experiencing rapid social change. In the midst of such a dynamic society, it was all the more important for the modern artist to discover beauty. The rapid development of society and the economy often led to the ruin of man's environment. Amidst all the filth, noise, and crowded squalor, it was increasingly difficult to find anything that could be described as beautiful.

Difficult yes, but certainly not impossible. And this is where Baudelaire's notion of modernity enters into the equation. For Baudelaire, modernity is the inconstant element of beauty, that which is ephemeral—here today and gone tomorrow—as well as contingent and circumstantial. The modern element of beauty can be contrasted with the eternal element, which relates to that which transcends time and place to endure from one generation to the next.

The talented modern artist is therefore someone who seeks out and captures modernity, as defined as contingent beauty, beneath the constant flux of modern society. This is by no means an easy task, but it can be done. An example of a painter who excelled at this task was Edgar Degas. He captured the beauty of little moments, such as a ballerina adjusting her slipper in "The Dancers." Like Constantin Guys, whom Baudelaire regards as the epitome of the modern artist, Degas was able to find beauty in the transient moments of everyday life. In that sense, he was a true modern artist.

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How does Baudelaire's concept of the modern painter relate to his understanding of modernity?

In his article "The Painter of Modern Life," written in 1860 but not published until 1863, Baudelaire attempts to define modernity and its relation to beauty. There is an eternal beauty, he says, which has always been captured by artists, but there is also a specific modern beauty which is defined by its transience. He then gives a definition of modernity which has been highly influential for the pioneers of Modernism:

By "modernity" I mean the ephemeral, the fugitive, the contingent, the half of art whose other half is the eternal and immutable.

The modern artist, according to Baudelaire, can learn painting techniques from the Old Masters but should not attempt to paint similar subjects, either by copying nature or by painting the biblical or classical scenes that had been popular in the early nineteenth century. Baudelaire asserts that one cannot be modern by painting a bygone age and is thoroughly contemptuous of natural landscapes, which barely change with the decades. The modern painter is a keen observer, looking closely at fleeting details.

The painter whose work Baudelaire examines most closely (indeed, the ostensible subject of the article, though it is easy to forget this when reading it) is Constantin Guys, not a particularly famous artist then or now. Baudelaire appreciates in Guys precisely what the artistic establishment of the time despised. Guys paints like a journalist, recording incidental details of costume and even cosmetics which will be quite different in six months time. For Baudelaire, this focus on the ephemeral makes Guys the quintessence of modernity in painting.

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How does Baudelaire's concept of the modern painter relate to his understanding of modernity?

Similarly to many artists, Baudelaire understands beauty to contain an eternal element, an element which allows works of art to speak to successive generations long after they were created. It is only because beauty is partly eternal that people today are able to enjoy works of Renaissance art. Those works were created during a completely different time, place, and culture, but they continue to speak to us because they hold some of the eternal, that which transcends the contingencies of time and place.

But for Baudelaire, there's another side to beauty. He calls it the "relative, circumstantial element." This element deals with what is ephemeral and contingent; it is here today and gone tomorrow. And it is this element of beauty which Baudelaire regards as synonymous with modernity.

For one of the most notable features of modernity is its fleeting nature. Everything is in a state of rapid change, and so the modern artist, in depicting this world, somehow needs to capture this dynamic quality. However, at the same time they must reveal the eternal aspect of beauty that exists within the world around us. In other words, the modern artist must do justice to both elements of beauty, the eternal and the temporal, the necessary and the contingent.

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How does Baudelaire's concept of the modern painter relate to his understanding of modernity?

Charles Baudelaire's idea of the painter of modern life, as laid out in his essay, is that an artist must understand the nature of "present-day beauty," although Baudelaire believes that good artists can learn techniques from the old masters and their works. Nevertheless, the artist must have a sense of curiosity about what is occurring in the modern world.

Specifically, the artist must be a “man of the world, man of the crowd, and child.” The true artist must therefore remain current about modern trends in order to keep his or her art vibrant. He or she must be an observer of the crowds who can then translate the observations onto the canvas or via the written word.

Baudelaire's view, in some ways, is that the artist must be almost like a journalist or a reporter. A good artist must maintain an interest in the crowds, in terms of painting a picture of the masses for future generations to understand.

Moreover, a good artist must also be able to modernize old world concepts of art to present day. For instance, Manet painted a courtesan as a modern day Venus. In Baudelaire's opinion, what Manet did was to modernize a typical subject matter of an Old World painting. Baudelaire writes,

The pleasure which we derive from the representation of the present is due not only to the beauty with which it can be invested, but also to its essential quality of being present.

He believes that part of the beauty of modernity is its ephemeral quality; it is constantly changing. The artist must respond by constantly being up-to-date with his or her art. Baudelaire believes that the artist’s job is to provide a glimpse of modernity for future generations to both enjoy and to learn from—in other words to understand what the current day was like.

Capturing the beauty of the current day makes art timeless, in Baudelaire's view. Baudelaire wants modern day artists to break away from certain rules that are taught in academic institutions. He believes that scenes showing stagnant people posed in classical clothes is the type of art that provides no added value, but the art from antiquity that captured the beauty of its time and imparts an understanding of the time still resonates with people today. Modern artists must be able to capture the beauty of the present day and communicate it via his or her art, almost in a way that enables future generations to understand what was happening behind the scenes.

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How does Baudelaire's concept of the modern painter relate to his understanding of modernity?

The Painter of Modern Life is an 1863 essay by the French poet Charles Baudelaire. In the essay, Baudelaire describes his conception of the truly modern artist, offering his friend, a painter referred to as Monsieur G, as the prime example.

According to Baudelaire, modernity is defined by the “transitory” and “fugitive,” and it is the job of the modern artist to be a “passionate spectator” and “lover of life,” with both a child’s curiosity and a journalist’s eye for detail. The flaneur, as he was known, is a “man of the crowd” who “makes the whole world his family,” a boulevard-strolling urban philosopher and “painter of the passing moment.” To Baudelaire, it’s not just Monsieur G’s painting that makes him such the epitome, or ideal, of the modern artist, but also his representation of a type of character who embodies certain qualities essential to this new evolution.

In the 1930s, German philosopher Walter Benjamin used Baudelaire’s concept of the flaneur as the central theme of a Marxist analysis of the recent history of capitalism. For Benjamin, the flaneur was emblematic of the social changes caused by industrial capitalism in the nineteenth century, because the flaneur was necessarily alienated from the city he observed so lovingly. He was not interested in participating in the newly expanding economy, but neither did he fit in among the bourgeois urban experience. Instead, he lives in cool resistance as an outsider.

Benjamin admired the flaneur as much as Baudelaire but believed that the type could no longer exist in the twentieth century: the age of mass consumption made it impossible for people to live without participating in the modern economy.

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How does Baudelaire's concept of the modern painter relate to his understanding of modernity?

Baudelaire is uncompromising in his requirement that the modern painter should paint modern subjects. The painter's technique may be influenced by the old masters, but he should not paint landscapes or scenes from classical antiquity, or even (as Baudelaire says too many painters do) contemporary figures in outdated costumes. The key characteristics of modern life, according to Baudelaire, are its dynamism and its transience. Although the modern world still contains forests and fields, they do not change: it is the city, with its surging crowds and fleeting fashions, that captures the true spirit of modernity.

The modern painter should seek out modernity with a penetrating eye for detail. Those seemingly insignificant trends in fashion and cosmetics which only last for a few months should attract his eye and furnish his subject. Baudelaire points out that this spirit animated the great painters of the past, who painted what they saw around them. Although the fashions they painted are now out of date, they are perfectly harmonious within the paintings, because they suit the figures and other details. The modern painter should situate himself within the crowd in a great city and transfer to his canvas the energy that surrounds him. Art consists of two halves, says Baudelaire: the ephemeral and the eternal. The painter's skill and the permanence of the medium provide the eternal element, while the fleeting, restless nature of modernity itself furnishes the ephemeral.

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What is Charles Baudelaire's understanding of modernity?

In both his poetry and his art criticism Baudelaire understood, as few of his contemporaries did, the nature of the rapid social and economic changes transforming French life. In particular, Baudelaire understood that this new era, the era of modernity, needed a new kind of art to reflect the changes taking place in society. Baudelaire did not see this development as something to be lamented. Rather, he welcomed this exciting new historical and cultural epoch as a source of new aesthetic and political insights.

Baudelaire famously defined modernity as

[T]he ephemeral, the fugitive, the contingent, the half of art whose other half is the eternal and the immutable.

What he meant by this was that modernity took its inspiration from the rapidly developing world. Everything was changing at an alarming pace, and yet people were still able to produce enduring works of art that aspired towards the eternal.

Baudelaire strongly insisted, in contrast to many advocates of Neoclassicism, that the modern age was one of heroes. And for Baudelaire, what was heroic was the quasi-superhuman ability of artists such as Guys and Delacroix. People such as them could derive something timeless from the fleeting sensations of the world around us, while at the same time capturing the pulse of their own historical moment.

In other words modernity in art was a recognition that something of value still existed amidst all the constant flux of daily life. That value could be retrieved from it by the visionary artist. Artists who were in tune with Modernity could produce something that was firmly rooted in the contemporary world but at the same time transcended that world and aspired towards the eternal.

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Why does Baudelaire discuss "the dandy" and "dandyism" in "The Painter of Modern Life," and how does it relate to his concept of modernity?

Baudelaire is deeply fascinated by the figure of the dandy, whom he sees as epitomizing the modern attitude in all its finery. At the time when Baudelaire was writing, French cultural life was in the process of rapid change. The dominant Neoclassical aesthetic, which looked to the artistic works of Ancient Greece and Rome as providing the exemplification of beauty, was under attack from Romanticism, with its emphasis on the imagination as the true source of what was beautiful and sublime.

For Baudelaire, the figure of the dandy, with his unique sense of style, epitomized the Romantic spirit. Far from copying the past, the dandy strives to realize and personify the ideal of beauty through his own self-fashioned image. In short, the dandy is both artist and artwork, creating in himself a true work of art. Effectively, the dandy's richly-attired body is the canvas on which he paints an image of beauty.

Most Romantic artists weren't dandies, to be sure, but they did create works out of themselves, so to speak. They may not have gone around wearing outrageously colorful and fashionable clothes but they adopted the same aesthetic attitude to that of the dandy.

The painter of modern life, argues Baudelaire, captures something essential and permanent in the midst of constant flux. And the dandy, as the epitome of modern man, does much the same thing in the way he conducts himself. To be sure, the dandy isn't a fop, a shallow fellow obsessed with the latest fads and fashions. He is a transhistorical and transcultural figure; that is to say he is a universal figure who transcends the restrictive categories of history and nationality.

If one goes all the way back to Ancient Greece one can find dandies in the form of Alcibiades, the notorious adventurer and pupil of Socrates. Then, in ancient Rome, there was Julius Caesar, a man who epitomized the spirit of dandyism, which Baudelaire calls a "mysterious institution." In all cases, the dandy is a man who embodies in his dress and the way in which he comports himself in society both what is fleeting and what is of lasting value. That is what makes him such an important figure, and what makes him, for Baudelaire, the epitome of modern life.

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How does the "Mnemonic Art" section in Baudelaire's "The Painter of Modern Life" relate to his concept of modernity?

In "Mnemonic Art," Baudelaire discusses a type of artist who he describes as "modern" because they focus not on the details of the world they are trying to capture but emphasize the aspects of the those objects that are most striking in memory. This tendency, may at times, lead to exaggeration, since it is an aid to memory. But paradoxically, this technique is optimal for limning the fleeting nature of the impression that a live spectacle make on human memory. As he says,

The spectator becomes the translator, so to speak, of a translation which is always clear and thrilling.

On the other hand, there is a faithful reproduction, precise in detail, which he dismisses as "myopic" and "bureaucratic," claiming it lacks "harmony," and remains thus forgettable.

All justice is trampled under foot, all harmony sacrificed and destroyed; many a trifle assumes vast proportions; many a triviality usurps the attention.

This quality of seizing on the most salient point of visual experience is especially necessary to truly reflect the "modern" experience of cosmopolitan life. Like all European cities, Paris was growing at a highly accelerated pace during the mid-nineteenth century; this swift, dynamic spectacle required a type of talent equal to the challenge.

In his profile of illustrator Monsieur G., Baudelaire offers just such an artist; one whose work exemplifies the ability to capture an evanescent moment in the midst of urban tumult, a "lover of life [entering] into the crowd as though it were an immense reservoir of electrical energy." If not precisely a "lover of life" himself, Baudelaire also reveled in the daily street-theater of the city as his luminous poetry reveals. He deserves to have the last word on this subject:

Modernity is the transitory, the fugitive, the contingent, which make up one half of art, the other being the eternal and immutable.

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