Baudelaire, or of relentless aesthetic curiosity

Por: Daniel Céspedes Góngora

To Rufo Caballero

“… perhaps because he was the best critic of his century, perhaps to finally find that originality that he so interestedly sought, even if to look for him he could not think of anything better than sending the artists of our century to New York garages where it has only been possible to paint or write with senequist attitudes and quirky carryings of mechanical dolls.”

Enrique Vila-Matas


Like every critic, Charles Baudelaire (1821–1867) is debated between the writing commission and the expressive disposition. Perhaps it is all that leads us to wonder about the circumstances and abilities of the one who, at twenty-four years old, writes Salon of 1845 (1845) and later Aesthetic Curiosities, volume appeared superhumously in 1868. If we look at the chronology from one text to another, it has not been that long, given that the renowned poet and translator would insist on art criticism during his short life.

Now, do you expect skills because of the circumstances or when they emerge those are already waiting? For the promotion and consumption of works of art there does not have to be an audience, but rather classes of audiences. Difference given by the purchasing possibility of wealthy patrons and individuals and by the verdict of experts. The former tend to buy when the latter legitimize, in writing, the beginnings of an artist or aatch his obstitions. Spaniard Fernando Castro Flórez has not been able to explain it better: “I think the best art critics are those who exclude and include at the same time; that is, those who by their way of writing and behaving are able to escape the atonality or absence of nuances and who are able to say what they think, that it is finally the imperative of criticism.”

The critic, bold by connoisseur, bursts into exhibition spaces as a passing dependent on other people’s creativity. In short, he is an inevitable mediator of artistic destiny or an aesthetic canon. Earn bread or not by writing about receptive art, ease and sincerity, also chopped into “necessity and goodwill”, are defining conditions of the trained in taste that guides his judgment.

In Salon of 1846 (1846) Baudelaire catapulted the now classical Eugenie Delacroix, who preferred the company of literates and musicians to that of painters. In fact, it is in a literary salon where the painter meets the critic. Friendship arises and Delacroix is promoted like never before. In 1863 Baudelaire resumed the author of La libertad guiding the people and a year later he joined a group in Henri Fantin-Latour’s painting Homenaje a Delacroix.

Could Baudelaire’s art critics be interested in? There’s no doubt about it. The critic is measured by his talent as a writer. They concern good ideas. But in order for them to appear as such, they must be enunciating them through printed discourse. No communication is expected without expressive effectiveness. While for the curiosity of a contemporary reader, we suspect that you will care more about what or who Baudelaire comments on and even what his criteria are about criticism itself: the issue on the subject or, better, the issue with the subject as a backdrop. Baudelaire and art critics are presented as an epochal testament to the cultural considerations of the poet’s critic and those ideas that make up his aesthetic creed.

What do we find in his art critique? First, orders from situations (gallery foundations, museums and private collections) that, in principle, have varied little. There is a multitude1 – not all – eager for artistic offers. However, to educate her in taste it is necessary to know in advance what can offer her, beyond the spaces, without this being a single or homogeneous proposal to confine the frankness of the gaze. It may take the public to become familiar with the just vision, conquered through the progressive knowledge that is enjoyed. Knowledge without delight is not worth it. Here the critic evokes the maxim of St. Thomas Aquinas: “Have a love of your cell if you want to enter the wine cellar”.

For all it seeks, the Baudelerian reflection on criticism is, without hesitation, current. Refer to the following examples: “I sincerely believe that the best criticism is the one that is entertaining and poetic; not that other cold, algebraic one that, under the pretext of explaining everything, has neither hatred nor love and is voluntarily stripped of all kinds of temperament”; he later adds: “To have reason to exist, criticism must be partial, passionate, political, that is, made from an exclusive point of view, but that is the point of view that opens up the greatest number of horizons.” Partial, passionate and political… this is not just understood by critics of critics.

In these texts we also notice requests to authors. For example, that of amparating with knowing artistic vitality. But first, the writer advocates the individuality and spontaneity of the creator, both attitudes related to the idea of originality that, in baudelaire’s case, seems to be neglecting distant references and even the comparative method. “I know no problem more disconcerting for philosophism and pedantry than to find out by virtue of what law artists most opposed by their methods evoke the same ideas and agitate similar feelings in us,” he writes in 1855. Should we see if he applies it to his person regarding ancestor art critics like Diderot? To tell you the truth, being against the official art of his time, he externalizes his confrontation with artists of the past and new creators. So he compares and knows how much academic tradition or mastery of “illustrious painters” means to different artistic temperaments. This connects him to José Martí.

Martí relates the concept of originality and even authenticity to the origin and interpretation of sources, as Misael Moya Méndez recalls.2 Creation, so do not declare it, advances with sources or influences. Read when you link Velázquez and Goya to later pictorial speeches such as Impressionism. For his part, for Baudelaire novelty in art concerns his opinions on the spontaneity and authenticity associated with imagination. To imagine is to create. The opposite is the literal tracing: “The artist can radiate an exquisite technique, but – if it is reflected in a memetic, repetitive way and with a cold intention of reproducing rather than creating – acceptance decays in the eyes of critics such as Baudelaire or Martí.”3

For Romanticism, the unconscious—which is not synonymous with imagination—is the foundation of spiritual existence and it is within man that the original being dwells. It is, above all, for the poet to share that experience of apprehension of the Absolute through language. Hence Novalis, before Baudelaire, conceives poetry as the representation of the unpresentable: “See the invisible, feel the unresponsive. Art is a religion created by poetry.” Now, imagining for the French critic is not a distance from the clarity of consciousness. Imagination begins with (and is based on) the intimacy of things to enrich them. In a letter to the ornithologist Alfhonse Toussenel confesses that “imagination is the most scientific of faculties, because only she understands the universal analogy, which a mystical religion would call correspondence.”4 When required of artists, she recalls: “The imagination that sustained those great teachers lost in their academic gymnastics, imagination, that queen of faculties , it’s gone.” He, like Rimbaud, does not renounce the beauty of the sensitive world. Neither does Oscar Wilde, for whom the mystery is manifest. However, Baudelaire is a romantic who embraces symbolism since the publication in 1857 of The Flowers of Evil.

More than symbolic figures, perhaps, not in his poetic work, but in his art criticisms, alegoresis should be examined as a precursor way of deciphering images from subjects and issues in artistic productions. Not in vain would I admit, “Everything to me becomes allegory.” The question becomes more tempting when we know that he – with the exception of the photographic invention, which he serves – suspects modern progress by virtue of technological advances such as steam, electricity…, “mediators” of a better quality of life. We also add to the importance it attaches to the psychological and the influence of the political-social on the personality of the artist. Can anyone who lands too much on worldly exteriority adopt symbolism? It’s no problem for a creative, focused intellectual like Baudelaire. He knows how to separate things and relativize. His critical affinity with allegory will be – if it has not already been – timely content for a new essay. It’s not the point of delving into this prologuist at the moment.

In attending to his most direct ideas, they pee as if Baudelaire himself were asked: Beyond the commission, what is behind the work of art? What are the creator’s pretensions? What have you achieved? And before the previous questions, which artist am I in front of? From time to time, the critic teaches more described than argued images. But it is not seen, because by intuition or retentive, it displays at the same time an appreciative lucidity so suggestive that it causes to follow it. Impressionist Baudelaire? Yes, but not as many times as has been said. It doesn’t even bother someone who, like him, is not afraid to take sides to instantly establish affinities between the arts: music, painting, theater and literature.

Although they may coexist, artistic interrelationship with the eclectic is not confused. The more and better you choose between variety, eclecticism can reveal care for the known or by welcoming a novelty. It departs from the monothematic, although it does not decipher from specialization. His thing is the opportunity to discern and dispose between unequal postures. What does Baudelaire say? It is not care what the eclectic reveals, but doubt. Doubt has engendered eclecticism and its supporters are not concentrated. Bored right away, “they lack a passion.” We understand the Baudelrian arguments until, in the closing of his text “Of eclecticism and doubt”, he affiliations artistic interrelationship with eclecticism. This leads you to counter the content of your pages. It calls into question what he practices as a critic by virtue of analogies. Read: “Doubt has led some artists to beg for the relief of all other arts. The essays of contradictory resources, the usurpation of one art in the field of another, the import of poetry, from ingenuity and feeling to painting, all those modern miseries are particular vices of the eclectic.” Eclecticism could be counterproductive when the diversity of the views assumed in favour of a sought-after harmony is not controlled. As long as the set does not prevent the appearance of something fed up with identifiable: a personal criterion in the case of a style, a taste, a poetic…, welcome the selection here and there, yesterday and today. Eclectic is, for Baudelaire, a mariposeant subject, although when he wants to be affectionate he attributes “an intelligence as restless” to an eclectic like L. Coignet.

His liking and mortifications abound. Write of Ingres, David, Courbet, Géricault, Goya, Daumier, Hogarth, Cruikshank, Pinelli, Brueghel… and, of course, his admired Delacroix. Some of them related to figures mentioned as Raphael, Poussin, Carracio, Rembrandt, Rubens, the Veronés… It highlights painters who remain on the way or interesting one by one for their time such as Haussolier and Chazal. He likes Constantin Guys, George Catlin, Watteau, Corot… Ladies Frédérique O’Connel and Lizinska Aimée Zoé Rue! He hates Horace Vernet and sometimes disparages Meissonier and Manet.

Analyze the color, the line, the light, the atmosphere. He thinks that both the subject and the style should be verified according to the unity of what is represented. His opinions on landscape, portraiture, historical paintings, caricature, sculpture in relation to painting are very sharp. It is worth saying that, for him, sculpture is an additional and isolated manifestation, while painting is an art of deep reasoning that can only be enjoyed by those who demand a particular initiation.

How do artists assume their writings? What is known about your dealings with colleagues by profession? How much do you read to John Ruskin and Walter Pater? How much does Oscar Wilde study it? Thomas de Quincey does definitely influence him. His coterraneo Sainte-Beuve, formerly his friend, is very severe with him. Some inquina staff intervenes. However, legitimizing feathers of the time such as that of Barbey d’Aurevilly and Théodore de Banville recognize him the writing merits. As for baudelaire’s “progeny” it is still too extensive to mention names.

When we read it, we appreciate how much criticism of Martyrdom art influences details and generalities. Despite the similarities between the two, Martí is kinder and just as demanding and creative. What kind of criticism does Baudelaire conceive of? Descriptive, entertaining and insightful. Could it be contradicted, sometimes. Going through writing stages, you have the right to vary how much you think. It happens that, when reading the texts separately, as if they were independent, it seems that the Frenchman is always right. He often amuses in his attempt to slow down his stern tone. If he is not sarcastic, then he lets that jocholy attitude flow as when he approached the sculptor James Pradier he writes: “He has spent his life thickening some old torsos and adjusting by the neck hairstyles of maintained girls.”

How to read Baudelaire and art critics? Initially, linearly. It’s standard for appreciating stylistic transitions and aesthetic thoughts. But the work resists, without inconvenience, disorderly, free and organic reading. Once the reader discovers Baudelaire or is consulted or studied. It determines neither the sequential nor the autonomous reading, but the appreciative intensity.

His art criticism is reasonable and passionate as his own life. He tries, but he’s having a hard time being a dandy par excellence. He doesn’t enjoy promising fortunes like George Bryan Brummell’s or Lord Byron’s, nor can Oscar Wilde likes it before he goes downhill. When more, he is part of a dandism badly degraded by his excessive oversights: constant debts and even an attempt at suicide. A sifilytic and a victim of gastric crisis, he is still a Don Juan. Try mitigating physical and spiritual pain by using drugs such as opium and hashish. When he died on August 31, 1867, he was forty-six years old. You can tell the suffering inside and out. His body is like that of an elderly man. Friends and scholars record many critical books in the work of the cursed literate. No more than poetry. There is an explanation: Charles Baudelaire always wanted to enliven the territories of art as a poet. Ω


[1] Baudelaire says in “To the bourgeois”, in Salon 1846: “And never, in any noble enterprise, have you left the initiative to the unconforming and suffering minority who, moreover, is the natural enemy of art, for to let themselves be advanced in art and politics is suicide, and a majority cannot commit suicide.”

2 Misael Moya Méndez: José Martí: originality in art, Santa Clara, Editorial Capiro, 2003.

3 David Leyva González: Notes by a poet at the foot of the paintings, Havana, Centro de Estudios Martianos, 2016, p. 24.

4 Several authors: Epistolar Literature, Preliminary Study by Alfonso Reyes, Ocean Conaculta, Spain, 1999, p. 157.

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