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

Premonition

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Premonitory Portrait of Appollinaire-Giorgio de Chirico 1914
Although the relationship between the Italian artist Giorgio de Chirico and the Surrealists was an uneasy one to say the least; the Surrealists were highly critical of anything he painted post 1919 and de Chirico doesn’t have a good word to say about his dealings with the group, in his memoirs he  describes Breton & Co as cretinous and hostile, it was de Chirico’s paintings of the metaphysical period that were undoubtedly the greatest single influence on visual Surrealism.His eerie vision of deserted piazzas and  frozen cityscapes inspired and influenced Ernst, Dali, Magritte, Tanguy and Balthus among many others.

The 1914 painting of the poet and instigator of many a avant-garde movement, Guillaume Appollinaire (who also was the man to coin the term sur-realism, which he used to describe the Cubist ballet Parade, composed by Erik Satie) conveys a sense of enigmatic menace. A classical bust of a man wears the dark glasses of a blind man. His blindness paradoxically means that he can see what others can’t. He is the poet as seer. To his right there fossils of a fish and a sea-shell stamped on a precarious column. In the background there is a shadow of a man, the poet Apollinaire with a white outline marked on his cranium and shoulder, the suggestion is unmistakably of target areas. In WWI Apollinaire enlisted and was wounded in the head by shrapnel that led to a series of operations immediately before his death from influenza.