The Last of Cubism: French Artists at the World’s Fair, 1937, Part Three

French Artists at the World’s Fair

The Last of Cubism, Part Three

For Robert and Sonia Delaunay, the opportunity to decorate two buildings, one dedicated to airplanes and the other featuring trains, was too good to refuse. Both artists had long been painting modern life and both lived immersed in technology—Robert in his Talbot—and in cutting edge fashions–Sonia’s “simultaneous” dresses–so that doing murals on modern transportation–trains and airplanes–the pavilions for the International Exposition of Arts and Technics in Modern Life in 1937 would be extensions of the lives they were already leading. By the late 1930s, the painting of Robert Delaunay had stiffened and thickened, lacking the translucence of color they had possessed before the War. The designs for the two buildings were the final expression of Orphism, distilled into a formula, hardened into a composition of colored discs as a signature motif. The circular forms that had once referred to the halos of light surrounding the new electric lamps for the streets of Paris could be translated into the rushing wheels of a locomotive or the swirling propellers of an airplane. The earlier works of both artists, Robert’s 1914 painting Homage to Bleriot and Sonia’s 1913, La prose du Transsibérien et de la Petite Jehanne de France, an account of a journey on a train by poet Blaise Cendrars, designed by Terk-Delaunay.

The particular buildings for the Fair, Palais des Chemin de Fer and the Palais de l’Air, designed by architect Félix Aublet, which were decorated by the Delaunays became the swan song for the couple’s collaboration and, not incidentally, for Orphism and for Cubism itself. For years, Robert Delaunay had been isolated by choice, allowing Sonia to take the lead, but the chance to do murals on such a grand scale tempted him to make his presence known to the public once more. As his friend and art historian Jean Cassou explained, “In this spirit of intuitive and amorous synthesis of Orphic cubism, Delaunay always aspired to accomplish vast works which would express some great idea collective. His isolation in our age stems from the fact that he escaped the temptation of the easel painting in order to learn of possible techniques that would reconcile painting and architecture.”

The maquette for the entrance to le Palais des chemins, representing clouds of smoke and the layout of tracks, by Robert Delaunay

Sonia Delaunay. Voyages lointains (1937) also for the Palais des chemins

Delaunay had a long friendship with Walter Gropius and László Moholy-Nagy and had seen the Parisian debut of the latter’s famous Licht-Raum Modulator, an amazing apparatus that was a beautiful machine casting light and forming shadows. The artist was interested in collaborating with architects because he had been impatient for years with easel painting. In fact, The City of Paris of 1910-1912, shown in the Salon des Indépendants in 1912, was four meters long. Then, when he was invited by the well-known architect, Robert Mallet-Stevens, to produce a mural for the building Society of Decorative Artists for the famed Art Deco exhibition of 1925, Delaunay painted The City of Paris, the Woman and the Tower. This mural was an answer and a sequel to the earlier The City of Paris, and once more he had been called upon to do murals for an international fair. Murals in a building would give him the opportunity to increase the size of his paintings to the monumental, enveloping the viewer with discs of color.

Robert Delaunay. The City of Paris, the Woman and the Tower (1925)

This triptych was one of the last major figurative works by Robert Delaunay. By the 1930s, he had made the definitive move to total abstraction and he produced a series of paintings called Rhythms, consisting of colored discs. He translated these paintings to “wall coverings,” geometric designs featuring circular shapes applied directly onto the wall itself. The pigment substitutes, such as plaster and casein or plaster laced with sawdust or textured cement, produced raised surfaces of designs that could withstand exterior climate changes. The Reliefs were shown in a Parisian gallery in 1935 and it was at this exhibition that Delaunay met Félix Aublet, who was looking to employ unemployed artists for the upcoming world’s fair. Two years later, Delaunay had, not a wall, but the interior of an entire building to plan and decorate.

Palais de l’air with the murals visible on the back wall in 1937

Exterior of the Palais de l’air in 1937

According to the Centre Pompidou, which organized a retrospective for Delaunay in 2015 (with occasional translation assists from the author) “The Air Palace, located on the Esplanade des Invalides, with an area of approximately 6300 m2, is contrary to the Palais railway, a building designed for exhibition. All metal, it consists of two curiously heterogeneous parts: a transparent tapered lobby and a long opaque gallery, covered with cement slabs..The upper segment was 25 m by 36 m wide, the dome, which overlooks the lobby, is entirely covered with Rhodoïd, transparent material and multicolored, which are associated light projections. In the middle of colored ellipses that recall the rings of Saturn and airplane flight paths, a bridge hanging in the attic allows the public to discover, an airplane suspended in the from the ceiling, in the air, as it were. At night, the transparent walls of the hall allowed a view, from the outside, of this extraordinary cosmic composition, while the fires of three rotating lights come intensify chromatic vibration of color. Under this facility, designed by Delaunay and Aublet, two other aircraft and the latest engine models are exposed on the ground.”

Sonia Delaunay. Murals for the Palais de l’air (1937)

Robert Delaunay. Hélice et Rythme (1937)

For the married couple, the murals were a dazzling achievement. The success of the International Exposition of Arts and Technics in Modern Life is perhaps more in its place in history as one last bit of international cooperation than in any coherent manifestations of the themes. For many of the artists whose work appeared in the pavilions and palaces, it would be their last mature work before the Second World War, after which they would disappear from history. Artists like Fernand Léger would live another twenty years, long enough to see French art eclipsed by American art. Historians tend to prefer to discuss easel painting and often ignore the entire oeuvre of an artist. And yet the 1930s was a Golden Age for mural painting. It is rare to find an account of Paris between the Wars that goes beyond Surrealism, but many artists were drawn to the alternative of Social Realism which was diametrically opposed to the flight from reality and the journey into the unconscious taken by the Surrealists. Again, art history has shied away from political art and Surrealism, with its apparent lack of politics was more comfortable, because the politics of Surrealism–and Surrealism was political–were easier to ignore than with Social Realism. Diego Rivera left Cubism in pursuit of an art that expressed its own age and its needs in an era of social struggles and class divides. The Russian Revolution and the rise of the Soviet Union, expressed in the Pavilion, had stirred sympathies for the working classes and a desire for a more egalitarian justice.

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Fernand Léger. Le Transport des Forces. Palais de la Découverte (1937)

Joies essentielles, plaisirs nouveaux. Pavillon de l’Agriculture, Paris, Exposition Internationale (1937)

Fernand Léger, trapped between the avant-garde Surrealists, who were on the wane, and the concrete abstraction of Le Corbusier, sought a New Realism that would express its own time, the modern age of the thirties, in a readable–realism–fashion without being didactic and while retaining recognizable avant-garde features. Léger said, “It’s easier to look backward, to imitate what is already done, than to create something new.” Like the Delaunays, he sought connection with modernity. The murals he did for the pavilions at the 1937 Fair showed the impact of the current debate over the role of the artist in a society increasingly dedicated to listening to the needs and demands of the working class. In France, a new government had been elected in 1936 and the forty hour work week and paid holidays became part of a worker’s right. Léger, politically inclined towards supporting the proletariat, insisted that photomontages were an avant-garde solution to Socialist Realism and its didacticism. In Realism, Rationalism, Surrealism: Art Between the Wars, Paul Wood pointed to Léger’s use of photomontage in his murals in his work for the fair as indicative of the ongoing debate of what art should be in an age of social urgency, trapped between Communism and Fascism. To anyone used to Dada photomontage, the use of mass media in a mural scale is a contradiction in terms and there is no doubt that Léger’s sincere idea was a clumsy mural, a bad solution. Like the position of the French government–in between–the struggle of French art to find the secure footing it had once enjoyed. Something had happened since the great fair of 1925 and the murals, commissioned by a government embarrassed that, in the supposed capital of the art world, their artists needed employment. And yet the argument–realism or abstraction? and if realism, what kind?–was suspended when the Second World War ended the debate, leaving important questions dangling in the margins.

The late or post-Cubists works of Robert Delaunay are rarely discussed within art history and only recently has the career of Sonia Delaunay been reconsidered. Of Robert, one must read between the lines and consider the possibility that being thought of as a “deserter” because he refused to serve in the military during the Great War might have hampered his post-war career in Paris. But the lively social life of the Delaunays suggests that the career of Robert might have stalled on its own, while Sonia continued to thrive and grow as an artist. The work he did for the Fair of 1937 was among his finest and would, sadly, constitute the end of his career. In a year, Robert became ill with what was diagnosed with cancer and he struggled for three more years to survive. However, the Nazis marched into Paris and immediately the life of Sonia who was Jewish was in danger. The couple fled south to Vichy territory where they found safety. In 1941, Robert Delaunay died of cancer, leaving a wife who would outlive him some thirty years and a son, Charles, who would become a world recognized jazz expert.

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Thank you.

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Jean-Léon Gérôme, Part One

JEAN-LÉON GÉRÔME: History Painter

Part One

Jean-Léon Gérôme (1824 – 1904) was on the wrong side of history. Many people have been on the wrong side of history, and, like the segregationist Senator, Strom Thurmond, they deserve to stay there. However, art history is more subjective than history-history, which is supposedly based upon verifiable facts. Art falls into the perilous zone of subjectivity and art and artists are subjected to the rise and fall of critical preferences and of aesthetic judgments. Gérôme was art history’s most vile villain, most reliable enemy to all things Modernist. He was the perfect foil to Édouard Manet (1832-1883), Claude Monet (1840-1926), and Paul Cézanne (1839-1906), not because he was a popular and successful Salon artist but because he railed against his Impressionist counterparts, often and in public, on the record. But since the 1980s, a “younger” generation of art historians, in search of new material for dissertations, began to revive the dead dinosaurs of “official” French art. And Gérôme was among the Salon artists most in need of revision. Without championing Gérôme, it can be said that it is necessary for him to be re-placed in the history of Nineteenth-century art, if only to better understand the Modernist artists and their accomplishments and their courage. It is important to understand the vast differences between Gérôme and the Impressionists in terms of painting techniques and the subject matter in order to comprehend the reception of the art audience and Salon goers.

When the real art history of the Second Empire and the Third Republic in France was restored by the new art historians, it was revealed that Gérôme was genuinely popular with the art audiences and collectors of his time because his art was immensely innovative, decidedly novel, technically proficient (not outstanding but good enough), and, above all, featured sex and violence. A can’t miss combination. The reason why he fell off the art history pantheon was, as all art historians know, because of the Theory of Modernism. Beginning somewhere around the art critic, Charles Baudelaire (1821-1867), migrating to the British critic, Roger Fry (1866-1934) and culminating in the American critic, Clement Greenberg (1909-1994), this theory put forward an entity called “Modernism,” both a state of mind and a period of time, that produced an artistic attitude called “art-for-art’s sake,” which led to avant-garde art, a reaction to modernité.

According to the teleology of Modernism, the founding fathers (no mothers allowed) were Gustave Courbet (1819-1877) and Édouard Manet (1832-1883) and their progeny, the Impressionists, the Post-Impressionists and all the “isms” of the twentieth century, climaxing with Jackson Pollock (1912-1956). Any artist, no matter how historically famous and successful, could not be a Modernist unless he (not she: women were not considered) was part of that select group. The artists of the Salon were eliminated, the “official” artists were purged, English and American artists were left out, and only a small group of French male artists were allowed to be part of the club. The result was an art history based upon an evolutionary theory of a progressive march taken by art from representation to abstraction. The Greenberg story of art was an excellent metanarrative, as Jean-François Lyotard (1924-1998) would later call it, but it was not a proper history of art. Modernism was a construct, a convenient fiction, complete with heroes and villains.

The Artist and the Public

Art Historian Gerald Ackerman (1928-), whom I met while I was in graduate school, began the revival of Gérôme’s art if not his reputation. At the time, Ackerman told me he had been working on Gérôme for twenty years and it is his pioneering effort that is the foundation of scholarship for today’s writers. Current scholars point out that, even in his own time, Gérôme was as controversial with the critics as the avant-garde artists. Like the latter, Gérôme had to court and please the bourgeoisie, and the career-minded artist created a juste milieu path between erudite, orthodox, high-minded history painting and low-caste genre scenes of everyday life (“Molière Breakfasting with Louis XIV,” 1862). Taking a page from the playbook employed by Ernst Meissonier (1815-1891), Gérôme rethought history painting and made it accessible and entertaining to the middle class art audience (“The Tulip Folly,” 1862). In place of classical knowledge, understandable to scholars and specialists, the artist inserted carefully researched archaeological and ethnographic detail (“Solomon’s Wall, Jerusalem,” 1876). In place of the relentless ordinariness of Realism and the remorseless observation of Naturalism, Gérôme substituted panoply of information, educating the viewer. Instead of heroes and noble characters, he created a cast for his theater of history and used the actors to tell arresting stories about life in another place and another time.

Gérôme’s art presents the viewer spectacle on two levels, echoing the culture of scopophilia and observation of the Other that was the basis of Second Empire power and Third Republic imperialism and the control of men over women. First, Gérôme’s art provided the kind of sheer spectacle that once held sway during the Roman Empire and moved it to the Salon for the delectation of the art public. Bread, circuses, food and entertainment–if you provide the people with these two necessities, they will tolerate any amount of tyranny. Whether or not this conscious policy is smart or despicable depends upon one’s political point of view. To the middle-class French people, survivors of multiple revolutions and uprisings among the disempowered, a firm hand on the wheel may have seemed a good idea. Second, there is no reason to assume that Gérôme was trying to anything more than present interesting subject matter to his audience. There was probably not much sub-text in his work. Indebted to his imperial patrons, Gérôme was a conservative who would be unwilling to offend his collectors. All he asked of the viewer was to look and enjoy. Clearly he had worked out a formula: sex and violence sells; and the exercise of imperialism in the direction of helpless people comforting to a second-class power.

Gérôme’s paintings of the Roman Empire enshrine the pleasure of looking, of seeing violence that happens to others and not to you, a pleasure called by philosopher Edmund Burke (1729-1797), the “sublime.” That heightened and intense emotion that Edmund Burke wrote of was, not incidentally, in relation to the excitement of the French Revolution. For excitement, beheadings notwithstanding, sheer terror and scenes of violence, nothing has out-classed the Roman Empire in its ruthless suppression of any and all acts of dissent or disturbance. No Empire has ever been more blatant in its faithful provision of circuses for its well-fed citizens, even in the provinces. The site of a panoply of horrors was the arena, a word meaning “sand,” which covered the floor in order to absorb the inevitable blood. In the Roman arena, there are no victors, only victims of a system of witnessing what was an imperial display of the Emperor’s power over life and death, preferably death.

Gerome-1859

The gladiators, who were slaves, saluted the Emperor before they died in Ave Caesar, Morituri, Te Salutant (1859) and the Christians, who in actuality were prosecuted in very small numbers, provided the fledgling religion with its first martyrs, were favorite characters for the artist. It should be pointed out, that while Christians were expendable, gladiators were not. Expensive to train and to house, the fighters were investments on the part of their owners and it was rare that any of them died in what was usually staged combat. Indeed, Maxime de Camp (1822-1894), photographer of the Middle East, complained that Gérôme was inaccurate, and the artist did, indeed, take liberties for dramatic effect. His painting of Christian martyrs showed human beings used as torches but the scene is set in daytime, while the Emperor Nero put on such a show only at night. In The Christian Martyrs’ Last Prayers (1863 – 1883), the lion approaches the huddling worshipers.

christian_martyrs_last_prayer

Much has been written of Gérôme’s prediction of film and his use of the long pause in a narrative and, indeed, the viewer can see the emerging head of other felines coming into the sand surface of the Coliseum. Like the martyrs, we wait. As opposed to Gathering up the Lions in the Circus (1902), in real life, animals had no interest in attacking humans and had to be taught, even forced to pounce. During these centuries of arena entertainment, wild animals, entire species were either wiped out or put in danger, due to the overindulgence of the Romans who did love their spectacles. The Roman audience in Pollice Verso (1872) came to the arena to be entertained. Some commentators and historians have since suggested that the blood lust acted as a kind of drug, dulling the senses, reducing human carnage to a mere theatrical exercise. There was an endless supply of slaves and criminals to put to death in an exercise of punishment and control.

pollice-verso1

Although Gérôme could not have imagined modern film, his paintings of the Roman Empire became sources of inspiration for Hollywood film directors, from movie directors C. B. De Mille (1881-1959) to Ridley Scott (1937-). But that observation raises a rather interesting question: why are we still so fascinated with an imperial power, which used human beings as stage lights, crucified even the most insignificant dissidents, rewarded the few and persecuted the many, keeping everything in balance through constant spectacles of blood and violence? Why does Hollywood not make movies about the Greeks, unless they are fighting the Persians in tiny leather uniforms? Do we conclude that we are superior to the Romans in the arena because we are addicted only to movie violence?

In a world where schools have long since sidelined history, most of us learn of the past from the History Channel and Oliver Stone (1946-). Today we could call Gérôme a “popularizer.” If he were a history professor today, he would be complimented for helping the students identify with the events of the past. However, history painting in nineteenth-century France was not necessarily supposed to be popular, only revered and respected. Unlike Gustave Courbet (1819-1877), who dis-respected the Salon system by portraying unattractive uninteresting modern types on a large scale, reserved for history painting, Gérôme kept most of his works small or medium sized. He was, in effect, using the rules to create a new space for what the system had already approved. In the end, he slipped past his many detractors and found fame, fortune, and many honors. As Scott Allan pointed out in his “Introduction” to Reconsidering Gérôme, the artist was “appointed professor at the newly reorganized École des Beaux-Arts in 1863…. (was given) a seat in the Institut de France in 1865…(and was) nominated grand officier of the Legion of Honor in 1898.” Son-in-law to the grand impresario of art reproduction, Adolph Goupil, Gérôme was one of the most reproduced and widely distributed artists of the nineteenth-century. But was he a “good” artist?

The Artist and Technique

Technically speaking, Gérôme was an odd mixture. On one hand, he could handle paint only in a limited manner, for he was essentially a drawer who painted and colored in the lines. On the other hand, he never won the Rome Prize for good reason–he was almost blind when it came to the classical approach to the human figure. Only when he removed himself from the Beaux-Arts tradition did he become at ease with the people he painted. His nude women are borrowed entirely from other artists, especially from Jean-Auguste Dominique Ingres (1780-1867) and Théodore Chassériau (1819-1856) (Character Study for a Greek Interior, 1850), and are boneless and airbrushed to a peculiar blank flatness. But when Gérôme clothed his females, he was completely at ease. His portrait of the daughter of Betty de Rothschild, who was painted by Ingres in 1848, Portrait of Madame la Baronne Nathaniel de Rothschild (1866) is not as stunning as an Ingres portrait, but Gérôme held his own with the master. His Portrait of M. Édouard Delessert (1864) with the subject nattily dressed in blue argyle socks is a genuine character study.

Gerome-CharlotteRothschild

Gérôme. Portrait of Madame la Baronne Nathaniel de Rothschild (1866)

Despite these near-great portraits, Gérôme seemed to have had a hard time integrating actual sites with imaginary people. For example, there is a wonderful trio, featuring Napoléon in Egypt. Napoléon and his General Staff in Egypt (1867) imagines a very large General on a very dainty camel, but it is not the size disparity, it is the startled expression on Napoléon’s face that makes today’s viewer smile. Oedipus (1863 – 86) also plays havoc with scale: Napoléon is on a tiny horse, standing in front of a shrunken Sphinx. But most interesting is Napoléon in Cairo (1867 – 68), a simple little painting with the General standing in full uniform with Islamic mosques in the background. In real life, Napoléon was short and rounded, but here he is tall and slim. The viewer is given a level of information that Meissonier would envy–the details of the uniform are exquisitely rendered and one learns, thanks to the deep shadows of selective folds of his trousers, that the future Emperor “dressed” left. There are probably several reasons for the disparity of scale and proportion in Gérôme’s paintings. One would certainly be his academic training, which taught students to think in pastiche and collage and to “paste,” as it were, standard studio poses into grand backgrounds. Another cause would have been the artist’s use of photography as his source. Photography tended to make minute details available to the human eye, and when Gérôme copied these details, the effect was to flatten the surface with non-hierarchal information that overwhelmed the displaced figures and threw off the scale.

gerome129

Gérôme emerged onto the Parisian art scene as the leader of the “Neo-Grec” school (according to the critics of his day) with The Cock Fight in the Salon of 1847. The genre painting tells a story of cocks, both seen and unseen, as a young boy orchestrates a contest between two roosters while a young girl shrinks away, as well she might. However, Gérôme did not confine himself to antiquity and the choice of his subjects says a great deal about what was going on in France during his career. Just as his mentor Paul Delaroche (1797-1856) spoke obliquely about the French Revolution (matricide and patricide) with The Execution of Lady Jane Grey (1833), Gérôme saluted the Second Empire by celebrating the current Emperor’s uncle, Napoléon I, in a number of paintings, some direct references, some indirect. The rather marvelous The Reception of the Siamese Ambassadors at Fountainebleau (1864) was a direct steal of Jacques-Louis David’s The Coronation of Napoléon (1807). Two other wonderful paintings, The Grey Cardinal (1873) and the Reception of the Duc de Condé at Versailles (1878) were painted after the fall of the Second Empire and could be interpreted as a warning against secret power (the Cardinal and by extension the late Empire) and a plea for reconciliation (Duc de Condé) after rebellion, but, given the inherent political and painterly conservatism of Gérôme, the works could be more comfortably read in relation to the nostalgic Bonapartism and a desire for a monarchy, which marked the unsteady early decades of the ill-fated Third Republic.

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Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

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Roland Barthes: Writing Degree Zero

ROLAND BARTHES (1914 – 1980)

PART ONE

Writing Degree Zero (1953)

One of the most interesting facts of the life of Roland Barthes was that he was struck by a laundry van and, after lingering for a month, died of his injuries. “The Painter of Modern Life,” Constantin Guys had also been struck down in a similar fashion: almost a century earlier, he was run over by a cab and his legs were crushed. Guys died more slowly and succumbed ten years later. If being run down by a laundry truck when walking home from lunch with the future President of France, seems an odd way to die, Barthes had always walked an uneven path. He was unfortunate enough to come of age at a time where homosexuality was not a public matter and he spent his life in the closet, living with his only parent, his mother, his entire life. As he got older and became less attractive to the young men he desired, he declined to impose himself upon them. Barthes, who preferred a quiet life in the home he shared with his mother, was so fond of his colleague and intellectual confident, Julia Kristeva, he wished he was a heterosexual.

Although to outsiders, especially dazzled Americans, he seemed to be the chain smoking quintessential French intellectual, he was something of an autodidact whose education was never completed. Barthes had taught himself the prevailing French ideas floating through the post-war decades, but remained mostly an essay writer until his new tendencies were publicly criticized by a Sorbonne professor, Raymond Picard. As one of his biographers Jonathan Culler related, from 1965 on Barthes became the intellectual representative of criticism after Existentialism. However, exalted his public persona, Barthes was both in the center and in the margins and, indeed, Michel Foucault was somewhat disdainful of the self-education of Barthes. Barthes finally achieved a place in the scholarly community he at once chided and aspired to when he was elected to a chair in Sémiologie Littéraire at the Collège de France.

Post-war Paris was in a state of intellectual flux. The scholarly community had been united by two elements during the Occupation: hatred for the Nazis and adherence to Marxism. When the war ended, Existentialism emerged as the prevailing philosophy, but Marxism as a philosophy seemed to be discredited by the brutal Stalinism of the Soviet Union. It was the events of 1968 that finally ended the faith in a practical Marxist theory of class revolution and, in the ruins of the “days of May,” Existentialism seemed too focused on the individualistic “act” of a single person, Marxism seemed too political and too tainted with failure, leaving Structuralism as the comfortably apolitical philosophy of the day.

68paris1[1]-1

Paris “Days of May” 1968

Based on the linguistic theories of Ferdinand de Saussure, Structuralism was established by Claude Lévi-Strauss in his 1955 book Tristes Tropiques, which was followed up by Structuralist Anthropology in 1958. The work of Lévi-Strauss moved away from linguistic signs to social signs, from behavior and costumes, rituals and customs. The work of the Structuralist was to reveal the underlying structure of cultural signifiers which were arranged along binaries. Reflecting the structure of the human mind, paired opposites such as the raw and the cooked should be read as part of a larger sign system and gains meaning within a network of other signs. The raw and the cooked, the inedible and the editable, for example, are part of a larger concept of nature and culture.

It is important to understand that by the time Structuralism was introduced to America, it was already “over” in Paris, challenged by newer versions of Structuralism from those who also repudiated Structuralism, such as Foucault and those who undermined it, such as Jacques Derrida. From the late sixties to the mid eighties, works by French and German writers arrived, via translations, in an unsystematic manner and with alien labels, such as “Post-Structuralism.” In the blank space following the exhaustion of New Criticism and the aging of the Anglo-American tradition, French theory fell on fertile ground and was consumed by eager Americans, few of whom were familiar with the very real differences among the scholars in the very competitive universities and colleges of Paris. Instead, the “French” was all lumped together and were not understood as having distinctive intellectual lineages and very distinctive bodies of work. Compared to the scientific work of Lévi-Strauss, to the historical scope and extended projects of Foucault, to the twisted syntax and ever-evolving re-writings by Lacan, to the dense and circular layered writing of Derrida, the books and essays by Roland Barthes are brief, concise, eclectic and, in the case of Camera Lucida, an extended mourning for his mother, very personal. Not a trained philosopher, as were many of his colleagues, Barthes is best understood as a literary critic who used Structuralism as an analytic tool to better foreground “writing” over “literature” and to understand the system of social signs of ordinary life.

However, Barthes came to Structuralism late in his career. The first twenty years of his development was essentially a learning curve, including numerous essays that led to significant books, one of them being his first extended foray into literary criticism in 1953 when he published Le degré zéro de l’écriture. Early in his career, like all young intellectuals, Barthes digested Existentialism and was very inspired by What is Literature? (1947) by Jean-Paul Sartre. “The empire of signs is prose, poetry is on the side of painting, sculpture and music,” Sartre wrote and the reader of the works of Barthes immediately recognizes a famous phrase that would later become the title of a book by Barthes. “Poets are men who refuse to utilize language..he has chosen the poetic attitude which considers words as things and not as signs.” In both accepting this book by Sartre and in slipping away from Existentialism, Writing Degree Zero is very much a transitional book. A reaction against Existentialism, it combines Marxism in its critique of bourgeois literature and moves beyond a class critique to a critique of what Barthes called “Literature,” seeking a new non ideological way of writing. The roots of the short book go back to the late 1940s and is one of the most obvious of his excursions into semiotics.

In her introduction to Writing Degree Zero, when it was translated into English in 1967, Susan Sontag noted that American writers would have difficulty in understanding the book. Part of what disturbed her in the late sixties–the unfamiliarity with French literary criticism–has since passed and the book does not seem difficult at all, but the entire foundation of the book, an analysis of a tradition of literature that is specifically French, remains alien to many Americans. As Sontag pointed out, not only do American have an Anglo-Ameircan literary heritage but the canonical authors are quite different. When Barthes wrote of “Literature,” without explanation, he was referring to the French tradition of classical and official literature that dated back to the 17th century. Because Literature was designed to provide knowledge, information, and received wisdom, it was considered, not a mode of writing but a “natural” and inevitable form of communication. Due to its effectiveness, Literature remained supreme, even after the French Revolution. Early 19th century writers adopted the official language of power and what had once belonged to the ancien regime was appropriated by the “triumphant” middle class.

As an example of the authority of this form of language, Barthes made note of a form of grammar that does not exist in the English language: the “preterite,” or a verb that “implicitly belongs with a causal chain..set of related and oriented actions.” “The Marchioness went out at five o’clock,” was a famous phrase used by Paul Valéry as a convention used for novels and Barthes notes that the same conventions are used for the recitations of history. Barthes stated that “Behind the preterite there always lurks a demiurge, a God or a reciter..the preterite is the expression of an order.” For the contemporary writer, the preterite is a phasing of authority and can be thought of as director’s establishing shot or the screenwriter’s ellipse–a way of moving the narrative from here to there. The order could hold as long as the class system remained intact and the bases of power seemed secure but after the Revolution of 1848, the social organization broke down due to historical forces, from industrialization and the urbanization of society. With the fracturing of the old society, the language of old France, Literature, lost its authority and writers had to find a new way of writing.

According to Barthes, “Literature” is a modern creation, part of a larger system of ownership and property resulting from capitalism and as such, this cultural concept constituted a new or modern form of writing that was “owned” by the “author” and “owned” by the publisher. By the 19th century, in its new version,“literature” was bought and sold and was no longer communal property as were the epic poems of an oral tradition named “Homer.” Bourgeois literature was an art form in the Kantian sense, in that it had no “useful” purpose. Therefore that which was bourgeois writing was distinguished from forms of writing that were considered versions of the “truth,” such as religion. Marxist theorist György Lukács (1885-1971) asserted that Realist writing of the 19th century was based upon seeing, meaning that the writer was merely describing what was seen or witnessed, no matter how painful. The mediation or the apparently neutral description was in fact a political act in that Realism made the power of the middle class seem to be inevitable. Notice that the supposedly distanced and omnipotent position of the narrator mimics the conventions of Literature. It is no accident that the Realist or Naturalistic novels of George Sand and Honoré Balzac and Gustave Flaubert emerged during a period of rising capitalism, the steady of empowerment of the bourgeoisie and the demise of the proletariat.

In Le Degrè zéro l’écriture, 1953, Barthes understood language to be a historical phenomenon and style as an individual feature. Barthes noted that descriptive or naturalistic writing was not innocent and was bound up in its own historical period. The avant-garde, situated in the Generation of 1848, broke with the horizontally and continuity of realism and liberated words from other words. From the 1850s on, the writer is “without Literature” which is in a “tragic predicament,” and the question becomes what is the mark of “good writing” now that Literature had lost its place? Barthes recounted that the late 19th century writers foregrounded “labor” as a value and stressed their bourgeois origins as workers. The new elevation of the “craft” of writing to an independent aesthetic began with Flaubert and modern authors strove to generate “good writing,” or the ability to use words well. The problem for writing became one of extracting oneself from the precincts of power and to find a way for writing to function as writing within a system of language.

Barthes was suspicious of “realism” in theory and in texts and considered realism not a form of seeing or describing that what existed, but as being based upon a set of practices and signification. The texts of the Realists were founded on a set of conventions that limited the text and, in naturalizing society, became a mediator between the bourgeoisie and the working class. For Barthes, the key moment in his analysis of the history of French literature, was the disjuncture between bourgeois realism and avant-garde realism. For the world of visual art, Literature, which was so transparent it appeared to have no style, would have its counterpart in academic art of the mid to late 19th century. Paintings by Jean-Léon Gérôme or Ernst Meissionier were the bourgeois form of Realism as Literature. In contrast, examples of the avant-garde Realism would be the labored working class craft exhibited so proudly by Gustave Courbet or the visible marks of production kept on view by Édouard Manet in their paintings. Understanding the French Classical tradition of Literature which was supposedly invisible to itself but was actually a evidence of power and order allows the art historian to comprehend the cultural anger that met the avant-garde artists who called attention to the “un-naturalism” of “naturalism.”

It would be an exaggeration to see Barthes as a Structuralist in 1953 but he was certainly aware of Saussure and Marx, both of who had built binary models. For Saussure there was langue and parole, or the system of language and the way in which language is used in everyday life. Seeing a conflict with Saussure’s binary system–between the will and the system–Barthes sought a middle term: écriture. Écriture is not translatable into English and is now left in the original French, but in Writing Degree Zero the term is translated as “writing,” a rather colorless term. For Barthes, there is language, the system and style, which is both historical and personal or as he put it “biological.” If the language is social then the style is personal. But in between language and style is writing. As Barthes wrote,

A language and a style are blind forces; a mode of writing (écriture) is an act of historical solidarity. A language and a style are objects; a mode of writing (écriture) is a function; it is the relationship between creation and society, the literary language transformed by its social finality, form considered as a human intention and thus linked to the great crises of History.

For Barthes écriture had a specific relationship of form to content, embodied in the conventions of writing and operating within ethical and political values as a social fact. Always concerned with writing (écriture) as a moral act as a social fact, Barthes set up a ternary schema–a tripod model that would become his trademark–langue, style, écriture, which intimates or gestures at something beyond–a critique. “Writing,” Barthes asserted, “is always rooted in something beyond language, but develops like a seed, not like a line, it manifests an essence and holds the threat of a secret, it is an anti communication, it is intimidating.” Writing Degree Zero breaks down into three major sections with his discussion of the transition from Literature to avant-garde writing in the middle, as the meat in the sandwich, as it were. Having established écriture as a third element, wedged between language and style, Barthes then ended his slim volume of meditation on the French tradition of writing with another middle term: zero degree writing.

Concerned with getting literature out of trap of bourgeois realism, Barthes had little patience with the “craft of writing (which) does not disturb any order.” He includes in those non-disturbers writers, who think they are disrupting the system or can “exorcise this sacred writing by dislocating it,” the still ascendent Surrealists, such as André Breton. Even the attempts of Stéphane Mallarmé to renounce language were equivocal. The solution Barthes put forward was “a colorless writing, freed from all bondage to a pre-ordined state of language.” His new breaking of the binaries centered upon placing “a neutral term or zero element.” The zero element is an aspect of grammar, a term in the middle of the singular-plural binary. As Barthes explained, “..writing at the zero degree is basically in the indicative mode, or if you like, a modal..a journalist’s writing.”

Barthes was interested in the neutral or what Sartre called, the “white writing” of Albert Camus, purged of the characteristic mark of “literature” (mannerism or style), “achieves a style of absence, which is almost an idea absence of style; writing is then reduced to a sort of negative mood in which the social or mythical characters of a language are abolished in favor of a neutral and inert state of form..neutral writing in fact rediscovers the primary condition of classical art: instrumentality. But this time, form as an instrument is no longer at the service of a triumphant ideology; it is the mode of a new situation of the writer, a way of certain silence has of existing; it deliberately foregoes any elegance or ornament, for these two dimensions would reintroduce Time into writing..” Unlike Marxist literature which is a language of “value-judgments” or “professional language signifying ‘presence,” writing should be linked to the project of revolution by renegotiating its relationship to history.

Barthes comes from the exhausted traditions of Marxism and Existentialism and extends their shared values of a moral writing by an engaged intellectual and looks for an ethical dimension in literature. “White writing” negates the false transparency of the algebraic system of the cause-and-effect writing of Literature, in which one element “naturally” follows another in a “logical” fashion. For Barthes the critic’s job is to construct intelligibility for his/her own time and to develop conceptual frameworks for analysis. In this critical and analytical fashion, the critic exposed the habitual ways of making the world intelligible and worked to modify these meanings that seem “natural.” For Barthes, all writing contains social signs, indicating a social mode of writing. No prose is transparent; the author’s language is inherited, while his/her own style is personal, but writing can be “white” or “zero degree.”

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Podcast 35 Painting 1: Preface to the Avant-Garde

Advanced Guard before the Avant-Garde

There is some historical disagreement over when and where the avant-garde movement in the visual arts began. But it is clear that that the notion that changes in art come from the margins not the center came into existence and began to impact painting by the middle of the nineteenth century. What were the aesthetic and cultural conditions that made the avant-garde possible?

 

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Also the complete

Art History Timeline Videos

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are now available and can be viewed on You Tube

This twenty-seven episode series of five minute videos span Western art history, from the Caves to Romanticism. The videos can be used by students and teachers as introductory, supplementary or review material. Each video is written,narrated and produced by the author of this website, and is reinforced by written text and is richly illustrated by many images. The entire Timeline can be accessed through

this link: Art History Timeline

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Podcast Episode 32: Whistler, Part One

Whistler, Manet and The White Girl

One of the most overlooked avant-garde pioneers was the American in Paris (and London), the expatriate, James Whistler. Whistler was one of the first international artists, who showed in London and Parisian Salons. Although overshadowed in art history by his good friend, Édouard Manet, Whistler was the other scandal in the Salon des Refusés of 1863 with the controversial painting known as The White Girl. and instituted installation techniques later adopted by the Impressionists. Always controversial, Whistler’s art, like that of Manet, established Modernist tenets with his groundbreaking paintings.

Also listen to “Whistler, Part Two”

and “Whistler, Part Three”

 

Important Announcement

The Podcasts from this Website

by Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette

are now available through iTunes and can be listened to on your iPad

Art History Unstuffed: The Podcasts

Also the complete

Art History Timeline Videos

by Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette

are now available and can be viewed on You Tube

This twenty-seven episode series of five minute videos span Western art history, from the Caves to Romanticism. The videos can be used by students and teachers as introductory, supplementary or review material. Each video is written,narrated and produced by the author of this website, and is reinforced by written text and is richly illustrated by many images. The entire Timeline can be accessed through

this link: Art History Timeline


If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

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Podcast 29 Gustave Courbet, Part Two

THE RISE AND FALL OF GUSTAVE COURBET

Part Two

The early career of Gustave Courbet is discussed within the historical context of class struggles during the middle of the nineteenth century. The Realism in Courbet’s paintings of the 1850s manifested itself not only in politically controversial content but also in aesthetic decisions, which challenged Salon conventions. However, through canny self-promotion and his ability to take advantage of opportunity, Courbet rose to prominence in the Salon system. Never popular with the Academicians, Courbet acquired important critical support and had devoted patrons. But in the 1860s his politically active art changed and he seemed to be in the thrall of wealthy collectors, until the Commune of 1871. After the Franco-Prussian War, Courbet seemed to remember his political passions, but this renewed dedication to causes would bring him down.

 

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to
Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed.

Thank you.
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Important Announcement

The Podcasts from this Website

by Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette

are now available through iTunes and can be listened to on your iPad

Art History Unstuffed: The Podcasts

Also the complete

Art History Timeline Videos

by Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette

are now available and can be viewed on You Tube

This twenty-seven episode series of five minute videos span Western art history, from the Caves to Romanticism. The videos can be used by students and teachers as introductory, supplementary or review material. Each video is written,narrated and produced by the author of this website, and is reinforced by written text and is richly illustrated by many images. The entire Timeline can be accessed through

this link: Art History Timeline

Gustave Courbet

AVANT-GARDE REALISM IN FRANCE: COURBET

In 1845, The art critic, Théophile Thoré (who “discovered” the Dutch artist, Jan Vermeer) complained that French art was “…without system, without direction, and abandoned to individual fantasy.” According to another critic, Eugène Fromentin, “…We revolve in a viscous circle. Public taste is injured; that of the painters is no less; and we vainly seek to know which of the two should seek to elevate the other. Sometimes we say that the opinion ought to act as the quality of the work and elevate it; and again, according to a new idea, it must be the works themselves that must act upon opinion and convert it by good example.” Echoing the complaints of other observers, the famous Salon artist and Academic teacher, Thomas Couture, stated, “Alas, we have fallen low…Art has become small and commercial.” The social changes across Europe combined with the lack of purpose within the art world itself combined to give art a new goal, that of social critic and social revolutionary, as artists began to take notice of the neglected peasant, laborer, and the inherent morality of the “timeless” countryside. This new approach, focusing on “low” subjects was called Realism.

For the Realists, art had to be “sincere.” By “sincere,” the artists and writers meant that art had to be of its own time in content, as opposed to imaginary scenes of events that never happened. To sincerity, one can add “authentic.” Art had to be real. Realism can be broken down into two phases in France. The first phase was diverse, including the censored and outspoken political cartoonist and painter, Honoré Daumier, the cautious Socialist, Jean François Millet and his careful social landscapes and the radical lesbian Socialist, Rosa Bonheur and her patriotic celebrations of Second Empire prosperity. Realism developed out of literary Naturalism and became more radical after the Revolution of 1848 with the art of Gustave Courbet (1819 – 1877).

In the beginning of his career, Courbet’s sympathies were with the petit bourgeoisie, the small town dwellers outside of Paris in provinces considered “provincial” by the Parisians. Courbet came from a small town in the undefined middle of the country, called Ornans, and migrated to the sophisticated urban milieu of Paris, where he stressed his “country bumpkin” origins. As a wily outsider artist, with little training, Courbet took what were deficiencies—his accent and his relative lack of training—and transformed them into virtues—only an “outsider” could reform the Academy. The academic artists and their traditional ways were being tested by social and political changes, which were bringing new ideas and new people into the capital, and Courbet was a harbinger of challenges to come.

After a decade of being on the fringes of the closed and rarified world of the Salons, Courbet witnessed, from the safety of the sidelines, the fall of the regime of Louis Philippe and the Revolution of 1848. This Revolution was the moment that Louis Napoléon had been waiting for and the nephew of the Emperor Napoléon returned from exile in London to establish himself as the new head of government. But the Revolution was an opportunity for Courbet as well, because this was the year that the artist changed his entire approach to art. When Courbet arrived in Paris, Romanticism was breathing its last and a nascent realism devoted itself to accurate genre paintings. At first Courbet did not seem inclined to follow the example of Honoré Daumier and use the possibilities of painting contemporary life in order to critique the government.

According to the art historian, Petra Chu, in The Most Arrogant Man in France (2007), Courbet took advantage of the presence of journalism and the spread of newspapers to generate publicity for himself and his art, which was very mainstream. He also made himself a virtual presence through a series of self-portraits that were acceptable and inoffensive. It might seem as if Courbet had built his career backwards: he had a persona, an established identity, he had supporters, but the artist was a man in search of a purpose and a style. However, the inoffensive late Romanticism of his art proved to be a good training ground for the shift in style that would be responsible for his sensational success.

The breakthrough for Courbet came in 1847 when he visited Holland in search of the newly discovered Dutch paintings of the Seventeenth century. The Dutch artists provided an important precedent, and, indeed, the only possible precedent, for an art of the middle class. Painting outside of Holland was classical, devoted to Europeans courts, but the Netherlands was a new country, independent of the domination of the Spanish crown. The Dutch ruled themselves in republic free of class and devoid of aristocrats. Adventurous sailors and tenacious traders, they became prosperous, forming the first European middle class, who created an identity through art. It is perhaps less important to know what the Dutch artists actually intended than to understand what the French artists made of the art.

What the French artists needed was a way out of academic subject matter and a way in which to address the reality of their own lives, from an objective perspective. What the French artists saw in Dutch were paintings of contemporary life, a kind of realism of the ordinary. Without an overt narrative, the Dutch artists captured frozen moments in time, enriched by carefully observed detail, which created a portrait of a particular group of people at a specific point in time. What was especially compelling to the French artists was the sheer ordinariness of the everyday lives of simple people who were unremarkable and unpretentious. Above all, for the French artists, Dutch art was an alternative to Romanticism and a doorway to a new form of Realism.

Courbet used the occasion of the Salon of 1848 to present a summation and a closure to his outmoded Romanticism, and by the time of the Salon of 1849, Courbet was ready to take advantage of his next opportunity: this Salon was juried by his peers—artists who knew him and how understood that he was a good painter. If this salon had been juried by the gatekeepers of the Academy, the painter would have been a modest footnote in art history with his mild romantic paintings. But Courbet’s previous paintings did not prepare the Salon audiences for the work that took the Salon of 1849 by storm: After Dinner at Ornans. Based upon Dutch painting, the genre scene was dark in tone and ordinary in content. It was not the sight of country folk listening to music that was impactful, but the artistic tactics, read as political after the Revolution, caused a sensation.

The strategy of Courbet was to celebrate the everyday world of the inconsequential petit bourgeois, not in small sized genre paintings but in large sized canvases, heretofore reserved for history paintings. That said, the content was neutral enough for Courbet to win himself an award of being hors concours or out of combat. Although technically, this honor meant that his art could not be excluded from the Salon, some of his later works, judged to be pornographic, were refused. But his status allowed, the admission of paintings that were more overtly political in the next Salon. In the Salon of 1850 (which actually took place in 1851), life sized paintings, such as the The Funeral at Ornans, The Peasants of Flagey Returning from the Fair, and The Stonebreakers (destroyed during the bombing of Dresden), asserted the social importance and historical significance of the petit bourgeois class and the sans coulottes. Unlike the middle class elites, these classes had lost all the revolutions of the past four decades, especially the one of 1848.

It would be incorrect to think of Courbet as a “peasant painter,” such as Millet or Jules Bastien-Lepage. The Parisian audience of the Salon was more accepting of traditional labor, especially if the images were sentimentalized, like Jules Breton. The Salon goers liked the images of peasants toiling, where they belonged, in the country, consumed with timeless labor. Instead of maintaining the traditional myth of the countryside as a classless society where all lived in harmony with nature, Courbet revealed the social changes that had transformed the provinces. As a painter of the lower middle class in a small village, Courbet used his own family as models for the newly empowered and newly upwardly mobile petit bourgeois. The Courbet family was typical of the kind of people who had marginally gained from the social changes, wanted no further disruptions, and were, therefore, conservative and apolitical.

But, as T. J. Clark pointed out in his book of 1999, Image of the People, the sophisticated city dwellers were distressed at the sight of the pretentions of the villagers who played at being “upper class.” Although the Dutch of the Seventeenth century had lovingly and unsparingly depicted the lower middle classes, the precedent mattered not to the offended Parisians. Courbet was acknowledged as a great painter but his paintings were condemned as “ugly,” that is, the people he rendered were unattractive and badly dressed. Funeral, a long horizontal painting, crowed with mourning villagers in black and white, was an unlikely combination of a Roman sarcophagus and a Dutch group portrait. Devoid of drama, the sheer boredom of the content was broken only by the open grave at the bottom of the canvas. Perhaps most offensive to the audience was the lack of story and the absence of the opportunity to identify with any of the characters in his paintings. The man and the young boy in The Stonebreakers are in profile to the viewer and no narrative is offered. Instead of eliciting sympathy, the artist presented blunt facts of social deprivation and the toll of unending labor.

Equally disconcerting to the Parisians were the “primitive” techniques employed by the artist, who based his compositional devices upon popular images. The images d’Epinal were widely circulated in the French countryside, made by untrained printers for an unsophisticated reader. The Stonebreakers deliberately failed to integrate the bleak figures into the un-scenic background. The same disregard for the convention of Renaissance perspective was present in Funeral, where the bleak landscape of Ornans stretched out behind the isocephalic composition, like a backdrop in a theater. But these paintings were at least well-organized compared to the deliberate disorder of The Peasants of Flagey Returning from the Fair, which was a clutter of stolid peasants and their equally unremarkable animals. None of these paintings accounts for spatial distances and all ignore academic conventions. Using popular imagery, Courbet succeeded in discarding outmoded training and insisted on the artist’s liberation from tradition.

To back up these unconventional techniques and subjects, Courbet and his supportive critic, Champfleury (Jules Husson), co-wrote their “Realist Manifesto” as the catalogue for his independent exhibition of 1855. Excluded from the Second Empire extravaganza, the Exposition Universalle, Courbet set up his own Pavilion of Realism in opposition to the “official” artists, Delacroix and Ingres. “I have simply wished to base upon a thorough knowledge of tradition, the reasoned and independent feeling of my own individuality,” he said. The Manifesto was a statement against Romanticism and idealism, against exoticism and fantasy, and elitist politics. It was a statement for the ordinary and everyday, for what was apprehensible to the senses alone, even if what was real was unaesthetic to the Salon sensibilities. “To be able to translate the customs, idea, the appearances of my epoch…in a word to create living art, that is my goal,” he stated. Courbet was very modern in the way in which he built his artistic career. First, he created a persona, created a series of artistic scandals, and, finally, in a rare move, he set up his own independent exhibition in 1855. Although the show could hardly be called a financial success, Courbet had asserted himself against the forcible artistic controls of the Second Empire.

For five years, Courbet painted what he preached but in 1854, he once again summed up a phase in his career, with a painting, titled An Allegory of the Last Seven Years of My Life. That The Artist’s Studio was subtitled as an “allegory,” was a signal that Courbet had abandoned optical realism. The Artist’s Studio was a testament to his success in the art world, a masterful exhibition of egoism, a confounding statement about his political concerns, and the beginning of a new phase of his career as an Insider Artist. The Artist’s Studio featured Courbet himself in the center, painting a bright and natural landscape. He is surrounded by allegorical figures: “the nude,” a female model and “the innocent eye,” two small boys. Other allegorical figures are arranged on the left, while on the right, he gathered together his friends and patrons. The iconography of this work is complex, signaling the artist’s next career move.

As the artist acquired more important patrons, his subject matter became less confrontational and more conservative, veering often towards pornography. The lesbian theme of The Sleepers was part of the discourse of la bohème, but outside of the demimonde, the works that were sexually explicit, such as Woman with a Parrot and the very private, The Origin of the World brought Courbet into conflict with the Salon and the public and his friends. By 1858, Courbet had serious disagreements with early supporters, his patron, Albert Bruyas and his best critic, Champfleury, over his suggestive paintings. Meanwhile aristocratic patrons in Germany were demanding princely themes, such the hunt. For many of his former supporters, it seemed that Courbet had lost his way.

Courbet’s political conscience reasserted itself in the aftermath of the Franco-Prussian War in 1870 with his involvement with the short-lived and ill-fated Commune. In the post-war confusion, radical socialists, or the “Reds,” attempted to seize power and bring about some kind of social equality, but the new French government, the Third Republic, defeated the Communards in a long and bloody massacre. Courbet was one of the many sympathizers who were punished after order was restored. Given that thousands were slaughtered, Courbet, who had had the bright idea of toppling the Vendôme Column, got off easy. He was put on trial for the felling of the Vendôme Column and the government made an example of him in its reassertion of authority. Forced to pay the expenses for repairing the Column, the politically naïve Courbet spent the rest of his life in exile in Switzerland, painting for aristocrats, finally abandoning his Realist subject matter. In one of his last works, he painted a Trout, which was helplessly caught on a hook. Less of a hunting picture and more of an autobiography, Trout summed up those last years before Courbet’s time ran out.

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Podcast Episode 28: Gustave Courbet, Part One

THE RURAL REALISM OF GUSTAVE COURBET

Part One

As a self-proclaimed “Realist” in a highly charged political atmosphere, Gustave Courbet challenged the conventions of the French Salon system. For ten years, Courbet had waited his chance to break through in the Parisian Salons but his provincial outsider status made him an “outsider” artist. However, the Revolution of 1848 gave the artist an opportunity and his subject matter changed to life in the small towns of France. During the 1850s, Courbet confronted the indignant bourgeoisie audience of Paris with the realities of small town French life on large scale canvases. These huge paintings elevated peasant life to the status of history paintings and the lower classes to the level of heroes. This podcast follows the construction of the career of Gustave Courbet during the critical decade of the 1850s.

Also listen to “Gustave Courtbet, Part Two”

and “Sincerity and Artifice in French Realism”

and “European Realism, Part One” and “European Realism, Part Two”

Read “Gustave Courbet”

 

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to
Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed.

Thank you.
[email protected]

Important Announcement

The Podcasts from this Website

by Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette

are now available through iTunes and can be listened to on your iPad

Art History Unstuffed: The Podcasts

Also the complete

Art History Timeline Videos

by Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette

are now available and can be viewed on You Tube

This twenty-seven episode series of five minute videos span Western art history, from the Caves to Romanticism. The videos can be used by students and teachers as introductory, supplementary or review material. Each video is written,narrated and produced by the author of this website, and is reinforced by written text and is richly illustrated by many images. The entire Timeline can be accessed through

this link: Art History Timeline

Charles Baudelaire, Author of Modernism

BAUDELAIRE AND MODERNITY

Every age needs its observer and every era requires an interpreter. To elevate the culture above mere description, that individual has to be an odd cross between a poet and a reporter. Charles Baudelaire (1821 – 1867) was a renegade poet, a syphilitic art critic, and, above all, a disaffected and alienated student of a society undergoing the pressure of a transition. That Baudelaire was a marginal character who lived on the fringes of a cynical consumer society was crucial to his ability to describe and define the new phenomenon, “modernité.” Although the poet wrote extensively on a variety of topics, he is especially significant for essays, prose poems, poetry and art criticism that articulated a new way of life. In 1947, Jean-Paul Sartre accused Baudelaire of “bad faith” due to the many contradictions in his life and work. However, a self-destructive poet and drug addict, who lived in debt on the run from creditors, while, at the same time, taking part in the intellectual and artistic life of Paris, can hardly be expected to be consistent. The very times of Baudelaire were paradoxical.

The art critic straddled the divide between waning Romanticism and emerging Realism, watching the painter Eugène Delacroix after his creative peak but not living long enough to see Èdouard Manet reach his full artistic potential. While there may never have been an artist who coincided with the poet’s desire to describe modernité, Baudelaire addressed the unfolding of a new way of life in a dense urban environment of the “crowd” and noted the impact of industrial technology upon society and art. By the 1840s, not only was Romanticism over but the art being produced by the salon system was also becoming increasingly irrelevant. The excuse for academic art was that it portrayed the “heroic” life of the ancient world, but, for Baudelaire, it was necessary that artists to be of their own time. But what did that “their time” mean?

The industrial revolution came slow and late to France, not in small part because many of the technological changes had been developed in the homeland of their hated enemy, England. While England was already adjusting to industry, France, by mid-century, was just beginning to cope with the transition from an agricultural society to an urban and industrial one. It is possible to see the process of artistic adjustment to these changes in the paintings of Jean-François Millet and Gustave Courbet. Millet presented the countryside as frozen in time while Courbet showed the class tensions even in small villages. Meanwhile, the mainstream salon artists chose to ignore the present in favor of the historical past. In Baudelaire’s time, few artists had to ability to see their age in all its uniqueness. To be fair, the cultural changes caused by the Industrial Revolution were so extensive and far-reaching that it was easier to look away. The problems for the artists during this long transition period were, first, content of art—contemporary or traditional? and second, what new artistic techniques would be appropriate for the new age?

More than anyone, Baudelaire articulated both the new content and the new way of expressing the new content. In doing so, he impacted many of his contemporaries and influenced later generations of writers and poets who would be known as Symbolists. As an art critic who had to work the salon beat, it was his job to discern a trend or a concern with each annual exhibition. One of his most important salon statements was penned in 1846. In this early essay published as a section of “The Salon of 1846″: “On the Heroism of Modern Life,” Baudelaire argued that modern life was as heroic as ancient life and that men in frock coats were as brave in their own time as the Roman gladiators were in the arena:

It is true that this great tradition has been lost, and that the new one is not yet established. But what was this great tradition, if not a habitual everyday idealization of ancient life—a robust and material form of life, a state of readiness on the part of each individual…? Before trying to distinguish the epic side of modern life, and before bringing examples to prove that our age is no less fertile in sublime themes than past ages, we may assert that since all centuries and all peoples have had their own form of beauty, so inevitably we have ours. That is the order of things…But to return to our principle and essential problem, which is to discover whether we possess a specific beauty, intrinsic to our new emotions…The pageant of fashionable life and the thousands of floating existences—-criminals and kept women—which drift about in the underworld of the great city; the Gazette des Tribunaux and the Moniteur all prove to us that we have only to open our eyes to recognize our heroism. For the heroes of the Iliad are but pigmies compared to you—-who dared not publically declaim your sorrows in the funeral and tortured frock coat which we all wear today!—you the most heroic, the most extraordinary, the most romantic and the most poetic of all the characters that you have produced from your womb!

The “hero” is male but not just any male. The poet’s hero is not the contented businessman who had prospered under the Citizen King, Louis Philippe, but the hero of la bohème, a cultivated and well-educated man who was also an outsider: the dandy. “…a dandy can never be a vulgar man,” Baudelaire said. The dandy wears the new uniform, the habit noir, the black suit, with distinction, proclaiming his proud middle class status. And yet the dandy keeps himself apart from the bourgeoisie, the newly rich and powerful class, by moving with the “crowd,” where classes mixed and mingled, without ever being part of the crowd. Being a dandy, meticulously well-dressed, standing aside and watching the stream of life flow past, is a strategy of self-defense in an urban landscape. Although he moves in cadence with the ebb and flow of pedestrians, all of whom have destinations and purpose, a dandy, par excellence, is also a man who is able to walk the city, free of ties and responsibilities.

Baudelaire is the new man, the flâneur, the detached man who strolls the side streets, peruses the new arcades and watches the ostentatious carriages pass down the wide boulevards, made for spectacle. At the same time the arcades were ushering in a new form of looking, the art and craft of window-shopping, a new nocturnal Paris sprang into being with the introduction of gaslight in the 1820s. Here, in the darkness, is where we find the poet’s world of marginal people who live a “floating existence,” and it is here were we find the female counterpart to the dandy, the prostitute, the only kind of woman allowed to go abroad at night. Modernism and its heroes is not for the respectable nor for the faint-hearted.

Baudelaire, like many inhabitants of the changing city, felt the stresses of the transition. The city he had been born in was vanishing before his very eyes, crumbling under the determination of urban renewal and bending to the will of Georges Haussmann. Former inhabitants were being pushed out and a new group of aspiring writers, poets and artists moved into slums, scratching out a living before Haussmannization eliminated the buildings. According to one of Baudelaire’s greatest biographers, the German writer, Walter Benjamin, Baudelaire was part of Bohemia, la bohème, the new avant-garde, the alienated, the aspiring artists in waiting. A Marxist writer, Benjamin linked Baudelaire to the territory of the dispossessed by quoting Marx on the precarious position of this social class:

…Their uncertain existence, which in specific cases depended more upon chance than on their activities, their irregular life whose only fixed stations were the taverns of the wine dealers—the gathering places of the conspirators—and their inevitable acquaintanceship with all sorts of dubious people place them in that sphere of life which in Paris is called la bohème….the whole indeterminate, disintegrated, fluctuating mass which the French call la bohème….

By the time of the Second Empire, the chasm between rich and poor had stranded a number of middle class people on the wrong side of prosperity. “It is bourgeois society that Baudelaire holds guilty of the suffering of the post-aristocratic period, and not the least that art has gone to rack and ruin, that poets and artists like himself now belong to the déclassés,” John E. Jackson remarked in 2005. Baudelaire actually came from a well-to-do family, but he was terminally unable to manage his finances. His family put him on a budget with an allowance, which he always overspent–usually on clothes–causing him to go into debt. Being reduced to a child was highly irritating to the poet, who was always at pains to remove himself from the class that fed him. Thus Baudelaire wrote as an outsider, not an insider, taking advantage of an unprecedented expansion of the press. But the press, while expanded, was not free or uncensored, as he learned with the publication of Les fleurs du mal in 1857, a scandalizing collection of poems (some of which were withheld from the public) for which Baudelaire was prosecuted.

Over the past two decades of the early nineteenth century, new opportunities had emerged for writers, such as Baudelaire, who was able to find his unique voice as a poet and to carve out a position as an observer and witness, a stance that appeared in his essays and in his art criticism, where he mixed art and social observations. This poet was a character composed of unabashed contractions who had no problem in proclaiming, “Any newspaper, from the first to the last is nothing but a web of horrors….” As a writer (who wrote for newspapers) he tried to defend traditional art making against the onslaught of technology, mainly photography, while, at the same time, rushing out to be photographed many times.

In “The Salon of 1859,” there was a section, “The Modern Public and Photography,” where Baudelaire complained about the clash between art and photography:

Poetry and progress are like two ambitious men who hate one another with an instinctive hatred, and when they meet upon the same road, one of them has to give place. If photography is allowed to supplement art in some of its functions, it will soon have supplanted or corrupted it altogether, thanks to the stupidity of the multitude, which is its natural ally.

These two essays, “On the Heroism of Modern Life” and “The Modern Public and Photography,” written over ten years apart, are indicative of the contradictions and confusions over the role of modern life in art. On one hand, Baudelaire was convinced that the “heroism of modern life” was worth of depiction, but, on the other hand, that depiction had to be hand-made, done in the old fashioned “art” way. A machine can never replace art. But more should be said of the difficulty of writing in a moment of social becoming, for Baudelaire, like Denis Diderot, was looking for the artist who could capture modernité or the pulse of his (or her) own time. Courbet painted contemporary life, but this life was rural and, hence, not the “urban modern” condition that was the daily life of Baudelaire. The poet was clearly looking for someone who expressed modern life in Paris, the city that Walter Benjamin called “the Capital of the Nineteenth Century.”

Baudelaire found his candidate, “The Painter of Modern Life,” in a fellow member of the fringes of society, an obscure illustrator named Constantin Guys. The result of the relationship between the poet and the illustrator, both inhabitants of la bohème, was a long essay, almost book length, which described the social condition Baudelaire called modernité. That essay was the famous The Painter of Modern Life. The poet states, “By ‘modernity,’ I mean the ephemeral, the fugitive, the contingent, the half of art whose other half is the eternal and the immutable…” Guys, an illustrator and a quick sketch artist, was the outsider, who, because of his position on the fringes, was able to produce hundreds of quick studies of all that was fast-moving and fleeting in modern life. Modernism, for both Baudelaire and for Guys, becomes defined by the concept of constant change, or what the art critic, Harold Rosenberg, would term, a hundred years later, “the tradition of the new.”

See also: “Baudelaire as Art Critic” and “Baudelaire and The Painter of Modern Life

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

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Charles Baudelaire and Art Criticism

BAUDELAIRE AS ART CRITIC

“We are going to be impartial. We have no friends—that is a great thing—and no enemies.” Thus Charles Baudelaire began his career as an art critic with the Salon of 1845. With a tone we suspect to be sardonic, the young writer addressed himself to the bourgeoisie, “a very respectable personage; for one must please those at whose expanse one means to live.” The poet completed his introduction, which is his manifesto of art writing, by saying, “We shall speak about anything that attracts the eye of the crowd and of the artists; our professional conscience obliges us to do so. Everything that pleases has a reason for pleasing, and to scorn the throngs of those that have gone astray is no way to bring them back to where they ought to be.” In the Salon of 1846, the writer again targets the middle class art audience, stating that, “…any book which is not addressed to the majority—in number and intelligence—is a stupid book.” In other words, Baudelaire, a member of la bohème, would not be writing to the artistic reader but to those who were woefully in need of education, the middle classes.

Baudelaire followed the traditional format of the art critic, a walk through a huge salon exhibition, pausing here and there, giving some artists an entire page and others a mere sentence. Interspersed were pages of commentary on the state of the arts, which, combined over time, created a description of the culture of two decades in Paris. The art writer was a product of the Romantic period. Reading his reviews of the Salons, it is plain that he was imbued with the tenants of Romantic thought, but by the time his career began, Romanticism was on the wane and new ways of thinking about art were being developed. Although Eugène Delacroix was making official art for the establishment, Baudelaire worshiped him and despised his great rival, Jean-Auguste Dominique Ingres, who we now consider an exceptionally innovative and willful artist. “M. Delacroix is decidedly the most original painter of ancient or of modern times…M. Delacroix is not yet a member of the Academy, but morally he belongs to it.” Baudelaire refers to the painter as “a genius who is ceaselessly in search of the new.”

In The Salon of 1846, Baudelaire wrote some of the most definitive words on Romanticism. “…if, by romanticism, you are prepared to understand the most recent, most modern expression of beauty—then…the great artist will be he who will combine with the condition required above—that of the quality of naïveté—the greatest possible amount of romanticism.” As will pointed out in the text, “Charles Baudelaire, Author of Modernism” (Art History Unstuffed), the writer was obviously familiar with Friedrich Schiller’s “Naïve and Sentimental Poetry,” in which the poet compared two artistic types. Schiller’s “naïve” poet (artist) who was “childlike,” and allowed nature to flow through spontaneously creating art through an individual sensibility was the precursor to artistic individualists like Delacroix. “Romanticism,” Baudelaire echoed, “is precisely situated neither in choice of subjects nor in exact truth, but in a mode of feeling. They looked for it outside themselves, but it was only to be found within. For me, Romanticism is the most recent, the latest expression of the beautiful.”

And yet, in the same Salon, Baudelaire acknowledges the pressing conditions of the urban present. For him, and for many artists, Romanticism was the very expression of all that was modern: artistic freedom and the expression of individuality. But in the writer’s section “Of the Heroism of Modern Life,” there are passages that prefigure The Painter of Modern Life. In order to understand the importance of Baudelaire’s writing at this point, it is necessary to remember that the Romantic artists, especially during the time of this Salon, were often involved in historical subjects. Unknowingly working against waning Romanticism and predicting Realism, Baudelaire made a case for modern subject matter.

Before trying to distinguish the epic side of modern life, and before bringing examples to prove that our age is no less fertile in sublime themes than past ages, we may assert that since all centuries and all people have had their own form of beauty, so inevitably we have ours…All forms of beauty,” the writer continued, “…contain an element of the eternal and an element of the transitory—of the absolute and the particular. Absolute and eternal beauty does not exist, or rather it is only an abstraction skimmed from the general surface of different beauties. The particular element in each manifestation comes from the emotions; and just as we have our own particular emotions, so we have our own beauty.

The notion of “beauty” is already an old fashioned one, inherited from the Ancients, would will soon be replaced by a bracing does of realism and the introduction of “ugliness.” Here we see the appearance of Baudelaire’s fascination with fashion that would emerge in The Painter of Modern Life. In contrast to the colorful attire of the past, contemporary fashion for men had become democratized by the uniform of the black suit, which, according to Baudelaire, “…not only posses their political beauty, which is an expression of universal equality.” After reassuring the reader that artists were capable of capturing shades of blacks and grays, something at which Èdouard Manet would excel, he continued, “…our principal and essential problem, which is to discover whether we possess a specific beauty, intrinsic to our new emotions…” and urges the artists to look away from “public and official subjects” to “private subjects which are very much more heroic than these.”

Indeed, Baudelaire moved directly to the world he knew best, the world inhabited by the disenfranchised, including artists and writers, “the pageant of fashionable life and the thousands of floating existences—criminals and kept women—which drift about in the underworld of a great city….all prove to us that we have only to open our eyes to recognize our heroism.” It is in this underworld where modern life existed. Indeed, as Baudelaire pointed out, the comfortable bourgeoisie cannot be a hero; that status is reserved for those who deserve it—those of “floating existences,” the men and women struggling to keep alive in a hostile city. The need for this new kind of heroism intensified, for the gaps that appear in his art writing coincide with the Revolution of 1848 and the establishment of the Second Empire, events that brought about the very “modern life” he predicted. For years, Baudelaire the art writer went dark, while he translated the American poet Edgar Allan Poe and wrote his ill-fated book of poetry Les Fleurs du Mal (1857).

Baudelaire’s silence and withdrawal are interesting. On one hand, one could speculate that the writer was confounded by the death of Romanticism, but, on the other hand, he had been on the cutting edge by predicting the coming of an art that demanded contemporary subjects. But the kind of realism that developed after the Revolution of 1848 was based upon observation of the base and the banal, the ordinary world according to Gustave Courbet. The natural world of the petit bourgeoisie did not appeal to Baudelaire, who, according to Jean-Paul Sartre, “hated and regretted” “naturalness.” “Baudelaire’s profound singularity,” Sartre wrote, “lay in the fact that he was the man without ‘immediacy.’” The art critic is silent during the first decade of the Second Empire until the occasion of the Exposition Universelle in 1855. Picking up his earlier thoughts, Baudelaire returns to the subject of beauty. “The Beautiful is always strange,” he said in one of his most famous statements. “…it always contains a touch of strangeness, of simple, unpremeditated and unconscious strangeness, and it is that touch of strangeness that gives it its particular quality as Beauty.”

Oddly Baudelaire devotes his review of the Exposition to the dialectic of the display of Ingres and Delacroix as the official artists representing France, ignoring the outsider Courbet, his Realist Manifesto, his innovative Pavilion of Realism, and the two decades of works it contained. Halfway into the Second Empire, Baudelaire wrote of “The Modern Artist” and “The Modern Public and Photography” in The Salon of 1859. In writing of photography, Baudelaire also expresses his horror of the new tendencies towards objectivity and of scientific observation. “Each day art further diminishes its self-respect by bowing down before external reality; each day the painter becomes more and more given to painting not what he dreams but what he sees.” “…it is happiness to dream,” the poet protested and, in the next section, wrote on Imagination, “The Queen of the Faculties.” Once again, Baudelaire uses the opportunity to repudiate Realism.

In recent years we have heard it said in a thousand and different ways, “Copy nature; just copy nature. There is no greater delight, no finer triumph than an excellent copy of nature.” And this doctrine (the enemy of art) was alleged to apply not only to painting but to all the arts, even to the novel and to poetry. To these doctrinaires, who were so completely satisfied by Nature, a man of imagination would certainly have the right to reply: “I consider it useless and tedious to represent what exists, because nothing that exists satisfies me. Nature is ugly, and I prefer the monsters of my fantasy to what is positively trivial.

Baudelaire dismissed the realists, “…let us simply believe that they mean to say, ‘We have no imagination, and we decree that no one else is to have any.’ He continued, “How mysterious is Imagination, that Queen of the Faculties! It touches all the others’ it rouses them and sends them into combat.” “…Without imagination, all the faculties, however sound or sharpened they may be, are as though they did not exist…” Speaking of Delacroix (without naming him), Baudelaire elaborated upon the painter’s dictate, “Nature is but a dictionary,” in order to compare the artist to the realists. Earlier the art critic had written of Delacroix that, for the painter, “The entire universe is only a dictionary of images and signs.” “Painters who are obedient to the imagination seek in their dictionary for which the whole visible universe is but a storehouse 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…”

The concept that nature was a dictionary, seen by the artist as a symbolic, not literal, source for ideas was echoed in his poem, “Correspondences” in Les Fleurs du Mal (1857):

La Nature est un temple oû de vivants piliers

Laissent parfois sortir de confuses paroles;

L’homme y passé à travers des forêts de symbols

Qui l’observent avec des regards familiers.

Writing in 1990, the critic, Jonathan Culler, translates Baudelaire’s “forest of signs” as a doctrine of Correspondences in which the poet “seems to disrupt the one-to-one correspondence between natural sign and spiritual meaning that the others promote.” In other words, Baudelaire caused a rupture between the word and the thing, between the act of transcribing and the object recorded. The so-called “correspondences” are arbitrary, making the signs into symbolic substitutes that do not name but suggest. By continuing to insist upon the primacy of the imagination, Baudelaire founded a modern poetry of nuance.

Baudelaire ends his work as an art critic by paying homage to his friend Courbet, “we must do Courbet this justice—that he contributed not a little to the re-establishment of a taste for simplicity and honesty, and of a disinterested, absolute love of painting.” And Baudelaire included a nod to Manet who had yet to become the artist he would be. And so, with the Salon of 1859, Baudelaire moves on to other forms of writing. Somewhere along the way, Baudelaire seemed to find a balance between poetry and prose with his “prose poems” in Paris Spleen in 1869. Waiting almost a decade after his last Salon, Baudelaire seemed to come to terms with Realism, but not in terms of “simplicity and honesty,” but in terms of the artificiality that Sartre insisted Baudelaire preferred. The poet realized that the next life for art would be not in the country scenes of the painters of the lower classes but in the interpretation of “the heroism of modern life” he discussed in The Painter of Modern Life.

See also “Baudelaire and Modernity” and “Baudelaire and The Painter of Modern Life”

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

[email protected]