Project The Flaneur

In his influential essay, The Painter of Modern Life,  Baudelaire describes a character called the Flaneur,a man of leisure who is  able to experience the city as a detached spectator. The Flaneur was part of the crowd but could at the same time invisible within it. His character is based on an illustrator for the London Illustrated News, called Constantin Guys whom Baudelaire describes as ‘a passionate lover of crowds and incognitos’.

Deux grisettes et deux soldats (c.1860) by Constantine Guys

Baudelaire was putting Guys (anonymously) forward as a role model for the Modern artist. He saw Modernism as a concern with the ‘ephemeral, the fugitive, the contingent’ , as opposed to the ‘eternal and immutable’. In Guys he saw someone who captured the essence of Modern life in his illustrations. In these Guys showcased his interest in the different ‘types’ in the scene and the importance of fashion His stamping ground was the Arcades of Paris which were covered shopping areas which allowed the Flaneur to roam freely within the crowd and to observe and ultimately record the scene.

Walter Benjamin posits in his description of the Flaneur that “Empathy is the nature of the intoxication to which the Flaneur abandons himself in the crowd. He . . . enjoys the incomparable privilege of being himself and someone else as he sees fit. Like a roving soul in search of a body, he enters another person whenever he wishes”. In this way the Flaneur is dredging the scene for material for his next work. The Flaneur is associated with observation, with the gaze, rather than being seen as an active participant in the crowd. In this sense the Flaneur and Flanerie serve as an exploration of understanding the viewing habits of the mass-media audience.

What influence did this phenomenon have on the world of the artist

The fascination of artist with Modern life can be seen with the emergence around the mid nineteenth century of the Realist painters, although painters such as Courbet were concerned more with figurative and landscape subjects rather than urban life. The Realists were  followed closely by the Impressionists. It was Baudelaire’s friendship that gave Manet the encouragement to plunge into painting urban life, and in doing so to become the true painter of Modern life. The impressionists in general devoted much of their work to capturing the hurly burly of urban life and there is no doubt that Manet set the direction for this.

The Music in the Tuileries by Edouard Manet

With the increasing ubiquity of photography it could be argued that artists turned their back on representative art and moved towards abstraction. The preoccupation with the everyday did however remain. Cubism, Futurism and the many other ism’s of the early 20th century were concerned with subjects extracted from the world around them. Photography nevertheless has become the principle medium for realistic representation. It is interesting to see how the genre of ‘street photography’ developed. There are many parallels in my opinion between the flaneur and the street photographer, although Baudelaire object strenuously to photography’s use as an artistic medium. Henri Cartier Bresson’s stealthy movement within the crowd, capturing his ‘decisive moments’ with his Leica feels to me  very much like a modern day Constantin Guy.

It is also possible to view the Flaneur as a metaphor for the gaze. In this way the concept’s influence goes beyond simply the recording of the Modern or everyday. The Flaneur is most clearly a masculine figure and as such would be a subject of interest for post modernist artists concerned with gender, patriachy and the male gaze. The Flaneur has become a target for the critique by late 20th and early 21st century artists.

Sources

Baudelaire,  C, Mayne, J. (ed.)  (1995) The Painter of Modern Life and Other Essays London:Phaidon

Benjamin, W. (1989)  Charles Baudelaire: A Lyric Poet in the Era of High Capitalism, Harry Zohn, trans. (London, 1989)

Schwarttz, V. Walter Benjamin for Historians, Website, http://www.historycooperative.org/journals/ahr/106.5/ah0501001721.html , 22/11/2011

Bowness, A. (1994) Poetry & Painting: Baudelaire, Mallarmé, Appolinaire and their Painter Friends Oxford:Clarendon Press

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