by Gerald Boerner
While Charles Baudelaire is known primarily for his French poetry, he was also a vocal critic, not just of literature, but of modernity, in general, and photography, in particular. He was a close friend with Nadar (of areal photography fame); he learned photography from him. We offer this coverage as an attempt to place photography within the more general context of the art world. GLB
“A portrait! What could be more simple and more complex, more obvious and more profound.”
“…an industry which can furnish results identical to nature must be the absolute in art.”
“Photographers, you will never become artists. All you are is mere copiers.”
“From that moment onwards, our loathsome society rushed, like Narcissus, to contemplate its trivial image on a metallic plate. A form of lunacy, an extraordinary fanaticism took hold of these new sun-worshippers.”
“The photographic industry was the refuge of all the painters who couldn’t make it, either because they had no talent or because they were too lazy to finish their studies. Hence this universal infatuation was not only characterized by blindness and stupidity, but also by vindictiveness.”
“If photography is allowed to complement art in some of its functions, the latter will soon be ousted and ruined by it, thanks to the natural confederacy which will have grown up between photography and the crowd. Therefore photography must return to its proper duty which consists in being a servant to the sciences and the arts.”
“As the photographic industry became the refuge of all failed painters with too little talent, or too lazy to complete their studies, this universal craze not only assumed the air of blind imbecile infatuation, but took on the aspect of revenge…the badly applied advances of photography, like all purely material progress for that matter, have contributed to the impoverishment of French artistic genius.”
“In these sorry days a new industry has arisen that has done not a little to strengthen the asinine belief… that art is and can be nothing other than the accurate reflection of nature… A vengeful god has hearkened to the voice of this multitude. Daguerre is his Messiah.” “If photography is permitted to supplement some of art’s functions, they will forthwith be usurped and corrupted by it, thanks to photography’s natural alliance with the mob. It must therefore revert to its proper duty, which is to serve as the handmaiden of science and the arts.”
Baudelaire: French Poet and Critic of Modernity
Charles Pierre Baudelaire (1821 – 1867) was a nineteenth-century French poet, critic, and translator. A controversial figure in his lifetime, Baudelaire’s name has become a byword for literary and artistic decadence. At the same time his works, in particular his book of poetry Les fleurs du mal (The Flowers of Evil), have been acknowledged as classics of French literature.
Baudelaire was educated in Lyon, where he was forced to board away from his mother (even during holidays) and accept his stepfather’s rigid methods, which included depriving him of visits home when his grades slipped. He wrote when recalling those times: “A shudder at the grim years of claustration […] the unease of wretched and abandoned childhood, the hatred of tyrannical schoolfellows, and the solitude of the heart.” Baudelaire at fourteen was described by a classmate: “He was much more refined and distinguished than any of our fellow pupils […] we are bound to one another[…] by shared tastes and sympathies, the precocious love of fine works of literature”. Later, he attended the Lycée Louis-le-Grand in Paris. Baudelaire was erratic in his studies, at times diligent, at other times prone to “idleness.”
At eighteen, Baudelaire was described as “an exalted character, sometimes full of mysticism, and sometimes full of immorality and cynicism (which were excessive but only verbal).” Upon gaining his degree in 1839, he was undecided about his future. He told his brother “I don’t feel I have a vocation for anything.” His stepfather had in mind a career in law or diplomacy, but instead Baudelaire decided to embark upon a literary career, and for the next two years led an irregular life, socializing with other bohemian artists and writers.
Baudelaire began to frequent prostitutes and may have contracted gonorrhea and syphilis during this period. He went to a pharmacist known for venereal disease treatments, on recommendation of his older brother Alphonse, a magistrate. For a while, he took on a prostitute named Sara as his mistress and lived with his brother when his funds were low. His stepfather kept him on a tight allowance which he spent as quickly as he received it. Baudelaire began to run up debts, mostly for clothes. His stepfather demanded an accounting and wrote to Alphonse: “The moment has come when something must be done to save your brother from absolute perdition.” In the hope of reforming him and making a man of him, his stepfather sent him on a voyage to Calcutta, India in 1841, under the care of a former naval captain. Baudelaire’s mother was distressed both by his poor behavior and by the proposed solution.
The arduous trip, however, did nothing to turn Baudelaire’s mind away from a literary career or from his casual attitude toward life, so the naval captain agreed to let Baudelaire return home. Though Baudelaire later exaggerated his aborted trip to create a legend about his youthful travels and experiences, including “riding on elephants,” the trip did provide strong impressions of the sea, sailing, and exotic ports, that he later employed in his poetry. Baudelaire returned to Paris after less than a year’s absence. Much to his parents’ chagrin, he was more determined than ever to continue with his literary career. His mother later recalled: “Oh, what grief! If Charles had let himself be guided by his stepfather, his career would have been very different… He would not have left a name in literature, it is true, but we should have been happier, all three of us”.
Soon, Baudelaire returned to the taverns to philosophize, recite his unpublished poems and enjoy the adulation of his artistic peers. At twenty-one, he received a good-sized inheritance of over 100,000 francs, plus four parcels of land, but squandered much of it within a few years, including borrowing heavily against his mortgages. He quickly piled up debts far exceeding his annual income and, out of desperation, his family obtained a decree to place his property in trust. During this time he met Jeanne Duval, the illegitimate daughter of a prostitute from Nantes, who was to become his longest romantic association. She had been the mistress of the caricaturist and photographer Nadar. His mother thought Duval a “Black Venus” who “tortured him in every way” and drained him of money at every opportunity.
While still unpublished in 1843, Baudelaire became known in artistic circles as a dandy and free-spender, buying up books, art and antiques he couldn’t afford. By 1844, he was eating on credit and half his inheritance was gone. Baudelaire regularly implored his mother for money while he tried to advance his career. He met Balzac around this time and began to write many of the poems which would appear in Les fleurs du mal. His first published work was his art review “Salon of 1845,” which attracted immediate attention for its boldness. Many of his critical opinions were novel in their time, including his championing of Delacroix, but have since been generally accepted. Baudelaire proved himself to be a well-informed and passionate critic and he gained the attention of the greater art community.
That summer, however, despondent about his meager income, rising debts, loneliness and doubtful future, because “the fatigue of falling asleep and the fatigue of waking are unbearable,” he decided to commit suicide and leave the remainder of his inheritance to his mistress. However, he lost his resolve and wounded himself with a knife only superficially. He implored his mother to visit him as he recovered but she ignored his pleas, perhaps under orders from her husband. For a time, Baudelaire was homeless and completely estranged from his parents, until they relented due to his poor condition.
In 1846, Baudelaire wrote his second Salon review, gaining additional credibility as an advocate and critic of Romanticism. His support of Delacroix as the foremost Romantic artist gained widespread notice. The following year Baudelaire’s novella La Fanfarlo was published.
Baudelaire took part in the Revolutions of 1848. For some years, he was interested in republican politics; but his political tendencies were more emotional positions than steadfast convictions, and spanned Blanquism, sympathy with the ideas of Histoire de la Raison d’Ėtat of Giuseppe Ferrarias well as with the ultramontane critique of liberalism of Joseph de Maistre. His stepfather, also caught up in the Revolution, survived the mob and was appointed envoy extraordinary to Turkey by the new government despite his ties to the deposed royal family.
In the early 1850s, Baudelaire struggled with poor health, pressing debts, and irregular literary output. He often moved from one lodging to another and maintained an uneasy relationship with his mother, frequently imploring her by letter for money. (Her letters to him have not been found.) He received many projects that he was unable to complete, though he did finish translations of stories by Edgar Allan Poe which were published in Le Pays. Baudelaire had learned English in his childhood, and Gothic novels, such as Lewis’s The Monk, and Poe’s short stories, became some of his favorite reading matter, and major influences.
Upon the death of his stepfather in 1857, Baudelaire received no mention in the will but he was heartened nonetheless that the division with his mother might now be mended. Still strongly tied to her emotionally, at thirty-six he wrote her: “believe that I belong to you absolutely, and that I belong only to you”.
Baudelaire’s influence on the direction of modern French (and English) language literature was considerable. The most significant French writers to come after him were generous with tributes; four years after his death, Arthur Rimbaud praised him in a letter as ‘the king of poets, a true God’. In 1895, Stéphane Mallarmé published a sonnet in Baudelaire’s memory, ‘Le Tombeau de Charles Baudelaire’. Marcel Proust, in an essay published in 1922, stated that along with Alfred de Vigny, Baudelaire was ‘the greatest poet of the nineteenth century’.
In the English-speaking world, Edmund Wilson credited Baudelaire as providing an initial impetus for the Symbolist movement, by virtue of his translations of Poe. In 1930, T. S. Eliot, while asserting that Baudelaire had not yet received a “just appreciation” even in France, claimed that the poet had “great genius” and asserted that his “technical mastery which can hardly be overpraised… has made his verse an inexhaustible study for later poets, not only in his own language”.
At the same time that Eliot was affirming Baudelaire’s importance from a broadly conservative and explicitly Christian viewpoint, left-wing critics such as Wilson and Walter Benjamin were able to do so from a dramatically different perspective. Benjamin translated Baudelaire’s Tableaux Parisiens into German and published a major essay on translation as the foreword.
In the late 1930s, Benjamin used Baudelaire as a starting point and focus for his monumental attempt at a materialist assessment of 19th century culture, Das Passagenwerk. For Benjamin, Baudelaire’s importance lay in his anatomies of the crowd, of the city and of modernity.
Baudelaire was also an influence on H. P. Lovecraft, serving as a model for Lovecraft’s decadent and evil characters in both “The Hound” and “Hypnos”.
In 1982, avant-garde performance artist and vocalist Diamanda Galás recorded an adaptation of his poem The Litanies of Satan (Les Litanies de Satan).
“…a new industry has arisen which contributes not a little to confirming stupidity in its faith and to ruining what might have remained of the divine in the French genius. The idolatrous crowd postulates an ideal worthy of itself and appropriate to its nature — that is perfectly understandable. As far as painting and sculpture are concerned, the current credo of the sophisticated public, above all in France.. is this: ‘I believe in Nature, and I believe that Art is, and cannot be other than, the exact reproduction of Nature….Thus an industry that could give us a result identical to Nature would be the absolute of art.’ A vengeful God has granted the wishes of this multitude. Daguerre was his Messiah. And now the public says to itself: ‘Since photography gives us every guarantee of exactitude that we could desire (they really believe that, the idiots!), then photography and Art are the same thing.’ From that moment our squalid society rushed, Narcissus to a man, to gaze at its trivial image on a scrap of metal… Some democratic writer ought to have seen here a cheap method of disseminating a loathing for history and for painting among the people…”
His Criticism of Photography
Baudelaire resisted the invasion of photography on French art, especially on the basis that those who couldn’t success as artists (e.g., Daguerre) became successful photographers. While he did experiment with photography himself through his association with Nadar, he offered the following observations in his “On Photography”:
Charles Baudelaire, father of modern art criticism, was deeply ambivalent about modernity. Some of his concerns about the creative situation for the artist in a mechanically progressive age are displayed in this commentary on photography from the Salon review of 1859, the year most Baudelaire scholars consider his most brilliant and productive. In the twelve years between the 1846 review and this one, the poet’s contempt for the values of the middle-class establishment and the egalitarian “mob” had deepened. After a brief, disillusioning engagement at the barricades in 1848, the 1851 Bonapartist coup d’état, and the coronation of Napoleon III the next year, whatever hope he might have held for the politics of his era vanished. His alienated modernism gained further assurance in early 1852 from his discovery of Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849), the American poète maudit whose vision Baudelaire recognized as his own. Poe’s influence can be detected in the 1857 Flowers of Evil, a collection of poems that was immediately banned by the censors of Napoleon III. After a famous trial, six of the poems were judged an offense against public morality, and Baudelaire’s break with establishment culture was complete.
In 1846 Baudelaire had declared his admiration for the beauty of modern dress and manners and sought the painter who would capture it. In 1860 he expanded on these views in an article published in 1863, The Painter of Modern Life. Yet this 1859 commentary on photography, despite the absolute modernity of the medium, expresses scorn for its ubiquity and overwhelming popularity. Apparently putting aside his search for the artist who will represent modern life and his close ties to realists Courbet, Manet, Daumier, and the photographer Nadar, Baudelaire here asserts that “It is useless and tedious to represent what exists, because nothing that exists satisfies me…. I prefer the monsters of my fantasy to what is positively trivial.” Baudelaire’s poem, Correspondences (c.1852-6) [see chapter 12] likewise reduces the Realist aesthetic to irrelevance. Nature becomes an immaterial “forest of symbols,” a poet’s dictionary of subjective associations, metaphorical forms rather than concrete phenomena. The anti-materialist perspective of Correspondences and this commentary on photography will have a formative influence on Symbolist poets and artists in the decades after Baudelaire’s death. Its cultural prestige will reach far into the 20th century to give critical support to nearly every modernist movement from Fauvism and Cubism through Abstract Expressionism.
As you read, note the reasons Baudelaire gives for his attitude toward photography. What does he think of its many admirers, especially the painters? Is he still addressing the bourgeois viewer as he did in the 1845-6 Salon reviews? Who is his intended audience? How do Baudelaire’s observations about the social value of photography compare with the hopes W.H.F. Talbot expresses in the 1841 Pencil of Nature and Walter Benjamin’s views in the 1936 “Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”?
He went on to observe:
As the photographic industry was the refuge of every would-be painter, every painter too ill-endowed or too lazy to complete his studies, this universal infatuation bore not only the mark of a blindness, an imbecility, but had also the air of a vengeance. I do not believe, or at least I do not wish to believe, in the absolute success of such a brutish conspiracy, in which, as in all others, one finds both fools and knaves; but I am convinced that the ill-applied developments of photography, like all other purely material developments of progress, have contributed much to the impoverishment of the French artistic genius, which is already so scarce. In vain may our modern Fatuity roar, belch forth all the rumbling wind of its rotund stomach, spew out all the undigested sophisms with which recent philosophy has stuffed it from top to bottom; it is nonetheless obvious that this industry, by invading the territories of art, has become art’s most mortal enemy, and that the confusion of their several functions prevents any of them from being properly fulfilled.
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. It is time, then, for it to return to its true duty, which is to be the servant of the sciences and arts— but the very humble servant, like printing or shorthand, which have neither created nor supplemented literature. Let it hasten to enrich the tourist’s album and restore to his eye the precision which his memory may lack; let it adorn the naturalist’s library, and enlarge microscopic animals; let it even provide information to corroborate the astronomer’s hypotheses; in short, let it be the secretary and clerk of whoever needs an absolute factual exactitude in his profession—up to that point nothing could be better. Let it rescue from oblivion those tumbling ruins, those books, prints and manuscripts which time is devouring, precious things whose form is dissolving and which demand a place in the archives of our memory—— it will be thanked and applauded. But if it be allowed to encroach upon the domain of the impalpable and the imaginary, upon anything whose value depends solely upon the addition of something of a man’s soul, then it will be so much the worse for us!
I know very well that some people will retort, “The disease which you have just been diagnosing is a disease of imbeciles. What man worthy of the name of artist, and what true connoisseur, has ever confused art with industry?” I know it; and yet I will ask them in my turn if they believe in the contagion of good and evil, in the action of the mass on individuals, and in the involuntary, forced obedience of the individual to the mass. It is an incontestable, an irresistible law that the artist should act upon the public, and that the public should react upon the artist; and besides, those terrible witnesses, the facts, are easy to study; the disaster is verifiable. 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. Nevertheless it is a happiness to dream, and it used to be a glory to express what one dreamt. But I ask you! does the painter still know this happiness?
He concludes that the role of photography may be best viewed as:
“Let photography quickly enrich the traveller’s album, and restore to his eyes the precision his memory may lack; let it adorn the library of the naturalist, magnify microscopic insects, even strengthen, with a few facts, the hypotheses of the astronomer; let it, in short, be the secretary and record-keeper of whomsoever needs absolute material accuracy for professional reasons. So far so good. Let it save crumbling ruins from oblivion, books, engravings, and manuscripts, the prey of time, all those precious things, vowed to dissolution, which crave a place in the archives of our memories; in all these things, photography will deserve our thanks and applause. But if once it be allowed to impinge on the sphere of the intangible and the imaginary, on anything that has value solely because man adds something to it from his soul, then woe betide us!”
Background and biographical information is from Wikipedia articles on:
Charles Baudelaire can be found at…
Charles Baudelaire “On Photography” from the Salon of 1859…
PhotoQuotes.com: Charles Baudelaire…