Friday, 24 April 2009

Extracts from 'The Painter of Modern Life and Other Essays' by Charles Baudelaire

These are all taken from ‘The Painter of Modern Life and Other Essays’. Reading them was easy and enjoyable since most of the ideas set out and discussed by Baudelaire in this book overlap with my own prejudices to the point where the reading of it was like spending an evening with an artist friend who is passionate, repressed and indignant about all the same things as you, and the time you spend together flies past in discussions containing only varying insights around consonant opinions, never a disagreement whether fundamental or contingent, just enraptured complicity…

In contrast to the academic theory of an unique and absolute beauty; to show that beauty is always and inevitably of a double composition, although the impression that it produces is single -for the fact that it is difficult to discern the variable elements of beauty within the unity of the impression invalidates in no way the necessity of variety in its composition. Beauty is made up of an eternal, invariable element, whose quantity it is excessively difficult to determine, and of a relative, circumstantial element, which will be, if you like, whether severally or all at once, the age, its fashions, its morals, its emotions. Without this second element, which might be described as the amusing, enticing, appetizing icing on the divine cake, the first element would be beyond our powers of digestion or appreciation, neither adapted nor suitable to human nature. I defy anyone to point to a single scrap of beauty which does not contain these two elements.

Stendhal [] approached the truth more closely than many another when he said that ‘Beauty is nothing else but a promise of happiness’

The child sees everything in a state of newness; he is always drunk. Nothing more resembles what we call inspiration than the delight with which a small child absorbs form and colour. I am prepared to go even further and assert that inspiration has something in common with a convulsion, and that every sublime thought is accompanied by a more or less violent nervous shock which has its repercussion in the very core of the brain. The man of genius has sound nerves, while those of a child are weak. With the one, Reason has taken up a considerable position; with the other, Sensibility is almost the whole being. But genius is nothing more nor less than childhood recovered at will –a childhood now equipped for self-expression with manhood’s capacities and a power of analysis which enables it to order the mass of raw material which it has involuntarily accumulated.

The genius of childhood –a genius for which no aspect of life has become stale.

That only too difficult art –sensitive spirits will understand me- of being sincere without being absurd.

The spectator is a prince who everywhere rejoices in his incognito.

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

This transitory, fugitive element, whose metamorphoses are so rapid, must on no account be despised or dispensed with. By neglecting it, you cannot fail to tumble into the abyss of an abstract and indeterminate beauty, like that of the first woman before the fall of man.

In short, for any ‘modernity’ to be worthy of one day taking its place as ‘antiquity’, it is necessary for the mysterious beauty which human life accidentally puts into it to be distilled from it.

Evil happens without effort, naturally, fatally; Good is always the product of some art. All that I am saying about Nature as a bad counsellor in moral matters, and about Reason as true redeemer and reformer, can be applied to the realm of Beauty. I am thus led to regard external finery as one of the signs of the primitive nobility of the human soul.

Fashion should thus be considered as a symptom of the taste for the ideal which floats on the surface of all the crude, terrestrial and loathsome bric-a-brac that the natural life accumulates in the human brain: as a sublime deformation of Nature, or rather a permanent and repeated attempt at her reformation. And so it has been sensibly pointed out (though the reason has not been discovered) that every fashion is charming, relatively speaking, each one being a new and more or less happy effort in the direction of Beauty, some kind of approximation to an ideal for which the restless human mind feels a constant, titillating hunger.

The whole visible universe is but a store-house of images and signs to which the imagination will give a relative place and value; it is a sort of pasture which the imagination must digest and transform. All the faculties of the human soul must be subordinated to the imagination, which puts them in requisition all at once.


I spoke a moment ago of the remarks of certain bricklayers. By this word I wish to categorize that class of heavy and boorish spirits (their number is legion) who appraise objects solely by their contour, or worse still, by their three dimensions, length, breadth and height –for all the world like savages and rustics. I have often heard people of that kind laying down a hierarchy of qualities which to me was unintelligible; I have heard them declare, for example, that the faculty that enables one man to produce an exact contour, or another a contour of supernatural beauty, is superior to the faculty whose skill it is to make an enchanting assemblage of colours. According to those people, colour has no power to dream, to think or to speak. It would seem that when I contemplate the works of one of those men who are specifically called ‘colourists’, I am giving myself up to a pleasure whose nature is far from a noble one; they would be delighted to call me ‘materialistic’, reserving for themselves the aristocratic title of ‘spiritual’.

‘I remember very well (he [Eugene Delacroix] used to say sometimes) that when I was a child, I was a monster. The understanding of duty is only acquired very slowly, and it is by nothing less than pain, chastisement and the progressive exercise of reason that man can gradually diminish his natural wickedness.’

Truth has nothing to do with Song. Everything that goes to make up the charm, the grace, the irresistible fascination of a Song would only take away from Truth her authority and power. Cool, calm and unimpassioned, the demonstrative mood rejects the gems and flowers of the Muse; it is thus the absolute opposite of the poetic mood. Pure intellect has as its goal Truth, Taste informs us of the Beautiful, while the Moral Sense teaches us Duty.

To find a critic turning into a poet would be an entirely new event in the history of the arts, a reversal of all the psychical laws, a monstrosity; on the other hand, all great pets naturally and fatally become critics. I pity those poets who are guided by instinct alone: I regard them as incomplete. In the spiritual life of the former a crisis inevitably occurs when they feel the need to reason about their art, to discover the obscure laws in virtue of which they have created, and to extract from this study a set of precepts whose divine aim is infallibility in poetic creation. It would be unthinkable for a critic to become a poet; and it is impossible for a poet not to contain within him a critic. Therefore the reader will not be surprised at my regarding the poet as the best of all critics.

Poetry exists and asserts itself first, and then gives birth to the study of the rules.

As far as art is concerned I admit that I am no enemy of extravagance; moderation has never seemed to me to be a sign of a robust artistic nature.

Observe also that it is with his tears that man washes the afflictions of man, and that it is with his laughter that he sometimes soothes and charms his heart; for the phenomena engendered by the Fall will become his means of redemption.

Laughter is satanic: it is thus profoundly human. It is the consequence in man of the idea of his own superiority. And since laughter is essentially human, it is, in fact, essentially contradictory; that is to say that it is at once a token of an infinite grandeur and an infinite misery –the latter in relation to the absolute Being of whom man has an inkling, the former in relation to the beasts. It is from the perpetual collision of these two infinities that laughter is struck.

As humanity uplifts itself, it wins for evil, and for the understanding of evil, a power proportionate to that which it has won for good.

Those artists who are the most inventive, the most astonishing and the most eccentric in their conceptions are often men whose life is calm and minutely ordered. Several of them have had the most highly-developed domestic virtues. Have you not often noticed that there is nothing more like the perfect bourgeois than the artist of concentrated genius?

The toy is the child’s earliest initiation to art, or rather for him it is the first concrete example of art, and when mature age comes, the perfected examples will not give his mind the same feelings of warmth, nor the same enthusiasms, nor the same sense of convictions.

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