The Flowers of Evil: The Balcony

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Frederic Bazille-La Toilette 1870

It is impossible to overestimate the influence  of Charles Baudelaire upon modernity. The entire Symbolism/Decadent movement that so dominated the 19th Century fin-de-siecle in Europe owed its very existence to Baudelaire.

Baudelaire’s importance extends  far deeper that the creation of one transitory artistic school however. Although he didn’t invent the concept of dandyism (that honour belongs to Beau Brummel), his example gave it a wider cultural currency that eventually resulted in the carefully constructed persona of the ultimate aesthete and wit, Oscar Wilde. His wanderings around the Parisian streets led to Walter Benjamin formulating a new type of man, the flaneur. The figure of the flaneur  recurs frequently in Benjamin’s massive, unfinished magnum opus The Arcades Project. The spirit of the Baudelairean flaneur guided the Surrealists in their impromptu flea-market jaunts and nocturnal adventuring. The Situationist International (see Moving Images) took the flaneur a step further and the central tenets of the SI, Unitary Urbanism and psycho-geography are based upon the needs of this recently evolved city-dweller.

Beyond shaping some of the major artistic and intellectual currents of the 19th and 20th Century, Baudelaire presence can be felt in Punk (with his dried green hair and urgent provocations) and dominated Goth (Dreams of Desire 5 (That Look).

His influential art criticism (and the inspiration he provided to visual artists, see The Sleepers) and his re-definition of the poet as cultural agitator and arbitrator paved the way for Guillaume Apollinaire (In The Zone) and Andre Breton (The Pope of Surrealism).

Baudelaire’s fame largely rests upon his volume of poetry, Le Fleurs Du Mal. First published in 1857 it immediately caused a scandal. Baudelaire’s originality lay not in the versification (which is traditional) but in the explicit, morbid subject matter.

Below is a translation of one of his finest love poems, Le Balcon, inspired by his muse and mistress of twenty years, the ‘Venus Noire’, Jeanne Duval (she was a Creole of Haitian-French heritage).

The Balcony

Mother of memories, mistress of mistresses,
you who are all my pleasures and all my duties,
you will remember the beauty of our caresses,
the sweetness of the hearth, the charm of the evenings,
mother of memories, mistress of mistresses.

On evenings lit by the glowing coal-fire
and evenings on the balcony, veiled with pink mist,
how soft your breast was,
how kind to me was your heart!
Often we said imperishable things
on evenings lit by the glowing coal-fire.

How beautiful the sun is on warm evenings!
How deep is space! How powerful the human heart!
As I leant over you, oh queen of all adored ones,
I thought I was breathing the fragrance of your blood.
How beautiful the sun is on warm evenings!

The night would thicken like a wall around us,
and in the dark my eyes would make out yours,
and I would drink your breath, oh sweetness, oh poison!
And your feet would fall asleep in my brotherly hands.
The night would thicken like a wall around us.

I know how to evoke the moments of happiness,
I relive my past, nestling my head on your lap.
For why would I seek your languid beauties anywhere
except in your dear body and your oh-so-gentle heart?
I know how to evoke the moments of happiness!

Will those sweet words, those perfumes, those infinite kisses
be reborn from a chasm deeper than we may fathom
like suns that rise rejuvenated into the sky
after cleansing themselves in the oceans’ depths?
Oh sweet words, oh perfumes, oh infinite kisses!

 

Translation Peter Low 2001

The Passionate Philosopher

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Man Ray-Hommage to D.A.F De Sade
Once the grave has been filled in it shall be sown over with acorns so that afterwards the ground of the said grave having been replanted and the thicket being overgrown as it was before, the traces of my tomb will disappear from the  surface of the earth, as I flatter myself that my memory will be effaced from the minds of men, except none the less from those of the small number of people who have been pleased to love me up to the last moment, and of whom I carry into the grave a most tender recollection.

Marquis De Sade-Last Will and Testament

Regardless of your opinion of the Divine Marquis, it has to be admitted that he got it spectacularly wrong in his prediction that his memory would be effaced from the minds of men. Although he certainly didn’t invent the sexual pathology that bears his name, he does hold the world trademark rights. Rarely has a writer, and a writer so rarely read, achieved such lasting notoriety far beyond the narrow confines of literature and philosophy. Sadism is an important concept in psychology, jurisprudence and is a boon to journalists, not to mention has given rise to an increasingly visible sub-culture, of which Fifty Shades of Grey is the most prominent and commercially succesful.

The pioneering sexologist Krafft-Ebing introduced the term Sadism in 1890 based on the content of his works. In many ways De Sade anticipated both Krafft-Ebing and Sigmund Freud by placing sexual desire and sexuality as the prime, motivating factor in human behaviour, and furthermore  categorising all the possible aberrations inherent in humanity.  It was another German psychiatrist Ewan Bloch who first published The 120 Days of Sodom, De Sade’s most extreme and surely the darkest book ever to be written, in 1904, further spurring interest in his work.

Although it was the psychiatrists who brought De Sade back to public attention in the 20th century, it was the poets who venerated him as the ultimate rebel . Apollinaire proclaimed him ‘the freest spirit to have ever lived’, and in the First Manifesto of Surrealism Andre Breton noted that ‘De Sade is surrealist in sadism.’ Georges Bataille entire oeuvre is a marriage of Sade and Nietzsche. Barthes and Foucault wrote extensively (and infuriatingly) about a figure they saw as an important post-modern predecessor.

Outside of France, Henry Miller was an early champion and a number of Beats either translated his work or produced Sadean erotica for the Olympia Press. In recent years biographies have proliferated (with good reason, De Sade’s life reads better than most novels, no matter how imaginative) and Penguin Classics just issued a new translation of The 120 Days of Sodom, the original manuscript of which was recently sold for 7 million euro at auction.

The Marquis or characters from his novels has made many a cameo in movies as well. In L’Age D’or by Luis Bunuel the coda contains the blasphemous suggestion that Jesus Christ was one of the libertines of the Chateau de Silling. Bunuel would later feature a vignette of De Sade in La Voie Lactee. A sardonic De Sade is the main character of Peter Weiss’s Brechtian film Marat/Sade, while more recently  the Philip Kaufman directed Quills  re-imagines the Marquis’s time in Charenton in gothic horror fashion. And one shouldn’t forget Pasolini’s highly controversial Salo or his influence upon the pornographic and sexploitation genres, especially Jesus De Franco.

Two centuries after his death it is safe to say that De Sade isn’t going away any time soon. Whether he is viewed as the destroyer of traditional values or the apostle of radical liberty, his vision of a total, impossible freedom will continue to haunt the imagination.

Yet Another Effort

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Imaginary Depiction of Marquis De Sade-H.Biberstein 1912

J.G Ballard once noted that the Marquis De Sade remains the spectre at the feast of European letters and thought. On the rare occasions when anyone decides to let him in from the cold, he leaves bloody footprints on the welcome mat.

A fiercely contrarian spirit, the  Marquis has been variously called, by admirers and detractors alike: revolutionary, radical, reactionary, an anarchist, a socialist. Depending on who you read he is either a much maligned libertarian or he paved the theoretical way for the homicidal tyrants of the 20th century.  No one can quite decide where the Marquis lies  on the political spectrum. The debate is probably fiercest regarding his views on gender and pornography, understandably so as the body in De Sade is always the locus of power and freedom, but even here views diverge. Virulent misogynist whose fiction continually degrade and devalue women, or a radical feminist who, in one of his darkest fictions, Juliette, shows the possibility  of complete female emancipation?

Illumination cannot be found in his life either. Strangely enough for a man who is know for transgression and excess, his behaviour as a free citizen in Republican Paris shows an unexpected moderation. De Sade didn’t avail himself of the unique opportunities present during the Terror, instead he kept a cool head while others were losing theirs.

After his release from prison in 1790 he lived in Paris with his mistress Marie Constant Quesnet and her six year old son. His long suffering wife Renee-Pelagie, after standing by him during the long years of imprisonment had obtained a divorce by this time. De Sade was elected to the National Convention and was appointed to the local Section Des Piques, one of the forty eight administrative divisions in the new Republic. It was in this position that he could have condemned his loathed in-laws, especially his mother-in-law, La Presidente who was responsible for the lettres de cachet that had caused him to be under lock and key for over a decade, to death. But he refrained; the Marquis De Sade had always been a principled opponent of the death penalty. This restraint and his criticism of Robespierre led to the Marquis being detained again in 1793, where he narrowly escaped execution due to a clerical error.

De Sade wrote a number of stirring pamphlets in defence of the Revolution, notably the famous Yet another effort, Frenchman, if you would become Republicans, nestled in his libertine classic La philosophie dans le boudoir (Philosophy in the Bedroom). In this text De Sade gives an outline of his version of Utopia, a minimal state that interferes as little as possible with the rights of the individual. I shall  by reviewing this work in greater depth and further detail in the next post on the Marquis.

A Slice of Cake with the Marquis

Portrait of the Marquis De Sade Aged 19-Van Loos 1760
Portrait of the Marquis De Sade Aged 19-Van Loo 1760

I wish it to be a chocolate cake, and of chocolate so dense that it is black, like the devil’s ass is blackened by smoke.’ Marquis De Sade in a letter to his wife Renée-Pélagie from Vincennes prison, May 9, 1779.

During his many years of imprisonment, the Marquis De Sade would bombard his wife, Renée-Pélagie, a woman who expands the definition of long-suffering, with letters containing requests for books, clothes (De Sade was quite the dandy), prestiges (a code word for dildos, to avoid the prison censors redactions) and food. Especially sweets, all kind of sweets.

A typical letter asks for the following in the fortnightly care package sent by Renée-Pélagie, ‘…four dozen meringues, two dozen sponge cakes (large); four dozen chocolate pastille candies-with vanilla-and not that infamous rubbish you sent me in the way of sweets last time.’  Locked in his prison cell and unable to satisfy his numerous passions, De Sade was very specific indeed when it came to the delicacies he could enjoy, as another letter from Vincennes shows, ‘Please send me: fifteen biscuits made at the Palais-Royal, the finest possible, six inches long by four inches wide and two inches high, very light and delicate.’ Frequently, however, the items sent by Renée-Pélagie failed to meet the exacting standards of the Marquis; yet more infamous rubbish, provoking a torrent of scorn and invective from the perpetually outraged prisoner.

In De Sade’s fiction, the pleasures of the table are inexorably linked to the pleasures of the flesh. His libertines are invariably gluttons that indulge in fantastical meals in preparation for their orgies. As Noirceuil explains to Juliette, ‘Our cocks are never as stiff as when we’ve just completed a sumptuous feast.’ Examples abound in his libertine novels of such repasts, which he obviously planned with some care, as the following extract from La Nouvelle Justine of a meal consisting of eighty-nine dishes shows:

They were served two soups: one Italian pasta with saffron, the other a bisque au coulis de jambon, and between them a sirloin of beef à l’anglaise. there were twelve hors d’oeurves, six cooked and six raw. then twelve entrées – four of meat, four of game and four of patisseries. A boar’s head was served in the middle of twelve dishes of roast meat, which were accompanied by two courses of side dishes, twelve of vegetables, six of different creams, and six of patisseries. There followed twenty fruit dishes or compotes, an assortment of six ice creams, eight different wines, six liqueurs, rum, punch, cinnamon liqueur, chocolate and coffee. Gernande got stuck into all of them. some of them he polished off on his own. He drank twelve bottles of wine, starting with four Volneys, before moving onto four Ais with the roast meat. He downed a Tokay,  a Paphos, a Madeira and a Falernian with the fruit and finished off with two bottles of liqueurs des Iles, a pint of rum, two bowls of punch and ten cups of coffee.’

In De Sade’s most notorious and darkest novel, 120 Days In Sodom, the only characters to escape the four libertines murderous frenzy are the cooks, because they are a protected guild who are indispensable in maintaining the libertine’s lusts.

Yet, as always with De Sade, one must be wary of his intentions: do they serve as the delirious wish-fulfilment of a jailed aristocrat or do they indeed possess a satirical edge? After all the ancien regime was the great age of the gourmand, where the tables of the rich groaned beneath the weight of  absurdly baroque and decadent meals while the price of staples such as bread would fluctuate wildly. However the menus De Sade’s sent the chef of the Bastille, where he was also locked up, show a surprising frugality:

TUESDAY

DINNER
-Soup
-A mouthwatering half chicken
-Two little vanilla custards
-Two cooked apples

SUPPER
-Soup
-A small hash of the morning’s leftover chicken

SATURDAY

DINNER
-Soup
-Two delectable mutton cutlets
-A coffee custard
-Two cooked Pears

SUPPER
-Soup
-a little sweetened omelette made of just two eggs and extremely fresh butter

De Sade was also only a moderate drinker. Yet it is safe to say that his inability to resist a slice of chocolate cake, as black as the devil’s ass, combined with the sedentary life lived behind bars contributed to him becoming enormously fat in later life.

Berlin Decadence

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Otto Dix-Metropolis-1927-1928
In 1937 the reigning National Socialist party held an exhibition of Degenerate Art (Die Ausstellung “Entartete Kunst) in the Institute of Archaeology in the Hofgarten Munich, featuring Modernist, Expressionist, Dada and New Objectivity work by Grosz, Nolde, Klee, Ernst, Schwitters and others considered decadent by the regime. It was a huge success attracting over a million visitors in its first six weeks before going on tour nationally. Considerably less successful was the concurrent exhibition of Great German Art (Große Deutsche Kunstausstellung) of approved Nazi art that was meant to serve as a contrast and counterpoint to the Degenerate Art. Even Hitler and Goebbels, failed artist and novelist respectively, thought the works on display at the Great German Art Exhibition were weak, however puerility has never got in the way of good propaganda and it allowed Hitler to rail against cultural disintegration and declare war on the ‘chatterboxes, dilettantes and art swindlers‘ of Modernism.

It was a war that the Nazi’s were bound to lose. The art produced by the various Modernists school in Germany during the period of the Weimar Republic is rightly venerated while the work of the official artists with their banal landscapes and monumental sculptures of a blandly idealised male form never rises above the level of monstrous kitsch (with the exception in the field of architecture; Albrecht Speer definitely possessed talent, but then architecture is in a certain sense fascistic, as a walk around Rome shows).

In a good illustration of Orson Welles quote in The Third Man about the chaotic warring Italian city states that produced Michelango, Da Vinci and the Renaissance, in contrast to Switzerland with its 500 year history of peace and brotherly love that has only given the world the cuckoo clock,  the art of the Weimar Republic possesses its strength because of the decadence of the period, not in spite of. The calamitous defeat of Germany in WWI and the heavy reparations demanded by France and Britain, plus the use of right wing Freikorps by the Socialist government to suppress the Spartacist uprising ( see “Everyman His Own Football”) meant that Weimar Republic was unloved by both right and left. Added to the political turmoil was mass unemployment and the staggering hyper-inflation that led to frenzied consumption in the cafes, cabarets, bars and cinemas as the money in your pocket was being reduced in value by the minute. Factor in the war wounded beggars and prostitutes of both sexes lining the streets that must have resulted in the fevered, nightmarish atmosphere of a society in the midst of collapse, yet paradoxically yielding a exhilarating sense of dangerous freedom, especially sexually. Berlin attracted thrill seekers from outside of Germany who could visit one of the  city’s 500 erotic venues, some of which catered exclusively to homosexuals, lesbians, transvestites and aficionados of BDSM (including the young Francis Bacon).

The main currents of art in the Weimar Republic were Expressionism, Dada and the New Objectivity. Expressionism would have a major, lasting influence on graphic design and film. Many of the artists and intellectuals who fled Nazi Germany ended up working in Hollywood where they would have an immeasurable impact upon the development of the horror and film noir genres

Below are just a few examples of the art of Weimar Republic, concentrating on the bold, innovative woodcuts of the outstanding Kathe Kollwitz;  the chilling New Objectivity portraits of Otto Dix and the unsurpassed satirical savagery of George Grosz’s Ecco Homo series, as well as stills from two highly influential German Expressionist movies, Fritz Lang’s Metropolis and Robert Weine The Cabinet of Dr Caligari.

Berlin was the most decadent city of the 20th Century, as it had two periods of decadence, the Weimar Republic of the 1920’s and 30’s and then the late 70’s in West Berlin, however that is a whole other story.

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Otto Dix-Portrait of Anita Berber 1925
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Otto Dix-Stormtroopers Advance Under Cover of Gas-1924
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Otto Dix-Portrait of the Journalist Syvlia Von Harden 1926
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Otto Dix-War Cripples 1920

Kathe Kollitz-Hunger 1923
Kathe Kollwitz-Hunger 1923
Kathe Kollwitz-Memorial to Karl Liebknecht-1919
Kathe Kollwitz-Memorial to Karl Liebknecht-1919
Kathe Kollwitz-The Widow II
Kathe Kollwitz-The Widow II
George Grosz-Ecco Homo-1923
George Grosz-Ecco Homo-1923
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George Grosz-Praise Beauty 1920
George Grosz-Ecce Homo 1923
George Grosz-Ecce Homo 1923
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Franz M Jensen 8 O’Clock
Fritz Lang-Metropolis 1927
Fritz Lang-Metropolis 1927
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The Cabinet of Dr Caligari-Robert Weine 1920
Degenerate Art Exhibition 1937
Degenerate Art Exhibition 1937