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L'oeil de Baudelaire

Muse de la Vie Romantique

16, rue Chaptal, 9th arrondissement
September 20, 2016 - January 29, 2017
Published at Hyperallergic as Pairing Charles Baudelaires Words with the Art of His Time

Les Fleurs du mal (The Flowers of Evil)

On the 150th anniversary of Charles Baudelaires death from a syphilis-induced cerebral
hemorrhage, the flneur, pote maudit (cursed poet) of ennui, translator of Edgar Allan Poe, and
art critic is the subject of an eye-catching exhibition at the charming Muse de la Vie Romantique.
Titled L'oeil de Baudelaire (Baudelaires eye), the show gazes upon and bolsters the dandys
deserved reputation as a discerning and frequently witty art critic by demonstrating his relationship
to life and Romanticism the cultural movement inspired by the writings of Edmund Burke and
the French philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau, among others, that focused on individual passions
and inner struggles. It produced a new outlook for the time through a positive emphasis on the
emotional artistic imagination.

Many of Baudelaires art and philosophical proclamations were considered provocative, such as
when he opined that everything beautiful is beautiful by calculation. The exhibition supports that
claim by resuming the dialogue between Baudelaires critical texts and the works of art they
described. Included are some strikingly beautiful paintings, including Eugne Delacroixs tender
La Madelaine dans le dsert (Mary Madelaine in the desert, 1845), Octave Tassaerts erotic
Nymphe couche (Nymph in Bed, 1845), Jean-August-Dominique Ingress gallant Tte de la
Grande Odalisque (Head of the Grande Odalisque, 1814), and Alphonse Legross somber ExVoto (1860). There are two painted portraits of Baudelaire, one by Emile Deroy (from 1844) and
the other by Gustave Courbet (1848), which hints at the writers rapture with words and a sense of
doom. There are also some tantalizing and salacious anonymous prints from 1830 that situate us
within the brothels that Baudelaire frequented. Finally, there are the many majestic photographs
of the poet, including Etienne Carjats Baudelaire avec estampe (Baudelaire with prints, 1836).

Anonymous Paris, Les amans et les poux dans le recueil Scnes galantes (1830)
Very early Baudelaire theorized that the painting and poetry of his day should continue in the
tradition of the classical sublime and be judged according to individual, subjective reactions. His
first published work was a bold and prophetic 1845 art review championing Delacroix, whom he
saw as the perfect artistic representation of the age. The year after, he wrote his second art review
where he established himself as a high-minded advocate of romantic critical theory by claiming
that painting should emphasize emotions, while also stressing 18th-century ideas of sublimity. He

also maintained that sincerity is an essential requisite of both creator and creation, defending
Delacroix against what he deemed the malice and ignorance of other critics.
For Baudelaire, a sustained interest in the contemporary world is crucial to engaging with art and
poetry. Certainly, Baudelaires proto-modern use of worldly subject matter was seen as a critique
of traditional poetry and had a far-flung effect on subsequent poems, from Authur Rimbauds Les
Illuminations (1886) to modernist experimentations with form. Likely influenced by Emanuel
Swedenborg, Baudelaires Doctrine of Correspondences outlined his belief in the synchronicity of
the physical and spiritual world. This view, characteristic of his thought, is presented in
Baudelaires poem Correspondences (1857), about a forest of symbols by which the poet portrays
his profoundly mystical belief in the worlds basic unity. This fairly optimistic point of view is
surprising, as Baudelaire had attempted suicide by that time, in 1845, and lived perilously, moving
from odious hotel to hotel in the seamy sides of Paris to escape creditors. But he remained tethered
to his otherworldly visions, writing Les Paradis artificiels, Opium et Haschisch (The Artificial
Paradise, Opium and Hashish) in 1860 where he resumed an interest in drugs he had first
investigated in Du Vin et du haschisch (On Wine and Hashish) (1851). Notably, he never lost his
keen, critical, even piecing eye as rendered in a self-portrait drawing Autoportrait et croquis
(Portrait and Sketches) that he drew between 1844 and 1847.

Charles Baudelaire Autoportrait et croquis (entre 1844 et 1847)

In his text Le Peintre de la vie moderne (The Painter of Modern Life), which appeared in Le Figaro
in 1863, Baudelaire propounds that beauty must encompass the absolute and the particular, the
eternal and the transitory. Referencing the work of the artist Constantin Guys, he maintained, with
anti-classical lan, that modern life be the inspiration for art. He specifically defines arts
modernity as based in the transitory, the fugitive, the contingent mixed with the eternal and
immutable. By combining the quotidian with the otherworldly, the poet gave a cosmic cast to the
ordinary. A new way to inhabit time.
In his brilliant book Potique de l'espace (The Poetics of Space) Gaston Bachelard speaks of
Baudelaires frequent use of the word vast, which is, Bachelard claims, one of the most
Baudelairian of words: one that, for this poet, defines the infinite experience of an intimate space.
Whenever Baudelaire uses the word in his writing, it is used to add grandeur to some manifestation,
consideration, or fancy. It is no overstatement to say that for Baudelaire, the word vast took on
a metaphysical dimension, where the vast world and our vast thoughts are united.
In Baudelaires writing, the unfathomable depths of personal thought correspond to a melting of
the individuals boundaries, which were formerly sharply outlined by social convention. He
embraced a new kind of awareness, put forth by Swedenborg, who posited that matter consists of
particles that are indefinitely divisible, and that these particles are in constant swirling motion.
Moreover, Swedenborg wrote voluminously about the relationship between the spiritual and the
material planes, believing there was an infinite, indivisible power to life an idea which
reinforced the neo-Platonic sublime ideals of Romanticism.
Stphane Mallarm, Paul Verlaine, and Rimbaud openly sang Baudelaires praises for capturing
the essence of ephemeral experience. Based on my reading of Baudelaires prose-poem Les Fleurs
du mal (The Flowers of Evil, 1857) and Les Paradis artificiels, and now this brilliant exhibition, I
certainly agree with them. Baudelaires expression of transformative time-objects expresses an
opaque but lustrous intellectual space that is connected and vast. That is why, with this show,
Baudelaire has once again ingratiated himself into the incalculability of our actual lives.
-Joseph Nechvatal