The painter of modern life


What are some of the major characteristics of our contemporary world? And, what might the painter of today’s ‘modern life’ choose to portray? I thought about these questions after watching the three-part television series on ‘The art of France‘. In the last part of the series the poet and essayist Charles Baudelaire was extensively quoted because, as author of ‘The painter of modern life’, his text could be used to explain the radical new directions taken by art during the latter part of the 19th century.

Baudelaire urged art in general and painting in particular to break free from the orthodoxy that artists should represent the past. Instead, he contributed to a dramatic process that shifted attention onto the subjects of the present. Art historians tell us that Baudelaire’s essay (written in 1860 – but not published until 1863) was central to this process. In it he encouraged artists to confront the realities of the contemporary world. He wanted artists to examine and portray ‘modernity’. Baudelaire’s concern was ‘the painting of the manners of the present.’ His text provided support and good counsel for avant-garde painters and served as a direct precursor of Impressionism, Post-Impressionism and beyond.

In his relatively short and often poetic essay he explores, briefly, the phenomenon of beauty and uses this as a prelude to introducing his concept of modernity. He observes that:

Beauty is always and invariably of a double composition’ comprising an invariable element ‘whose quantity is very difficult to determine’ and of a ‘relative and circumstantial element, which will be …of the age, its fashions, its morals, its emotions.

By associating the idea of beauty with ‘the age and its fashions’ he highlighted the need to appreciate the aesthetics of current circumstances and manners.

Then, in the third section of his essay, he launches into his main account; he discusses a particular character (an illustrator) who is not bound by the past but is fascinated by whatever it is that is happening in front of him, now. The character (a Monsieur C.G.) is seen primarily as a ‘man of the world.’ Unlike most artists a ‘man of the world’ is someone who is interested in every aspect of external reality. He asserts that this Monsieur C. G. is first and foremost defined by ‘curiosity’ – and who, in the freshness with which he embraces reality, resembles a child. These observations are central: they begin to suggest new ways or frames of mind through which the artist could view and expressively portray the world.

What, though, is the ethos of this presenting world? Here Baudelaire explores the emerging character of the present and famously states his concept of ‘modernity’; He writes:

By ‘modernity’ I mean the ephemeral, the fugitive, the contingent, the half of art whose other half is the eternal and immutable…This transitory, fugitive element, whose metamorphoses are so rapid, must on no account be despised or dispensed with. By neglecting it, you cannot fail to tumble into the abyss of an abstract and indeterminate beauty, like that of the time the first woman before the fall of man.

Baudelaire is enthralled and excited by the world of 19th century Paris as it unfolds around him. He engages with this world and is impressed by the sounds and the movement, the glamour, the popular and vulgar, the beautiful and the damned – the quickening pulse of the now. In fact, for Baudelaire, modern life is defined by a new and stimulating urban environment, as well as by new kinds of people, especially the bohemian and the demi-monde. In consequence the actual painter of modern life is certainly not in the business of reproducing historical subjects or heroic representations. He or she, as Baudelaire noted, is an ‘I’ with an insatiable appetite for the ‘non-I’. Through his descriptions and the beauty of his prose Baudelaire helped to create a revolution in the art of France: in no time at all Paris was to see painters such as Manet look directly at this modern world and re-invent the character and meaning of painting. The subjects these avant-garde painters chose were ‘edgy’, unconventional, and subversive.

And it was this concern with the painting of modern life that prompted Andrew Graham-Dixon, the presenter of ‘The art of France’, to imagine what subjects today’s painter of modern life might choose to portray. He thought that a prime candidate would be anything that ‘pricks our conscience.’

But suppose a painter really does ask: What are some of the defining characteristics of ‘modern’ life? and, What types of subject would be representative of the way the world is now?

It’s plainly a media-dominated world – and most of our (most of my information) comes through the media. It’s a world wedded to screen culture. And it all adds up to a very peculiar place. It’s a world made up of everything under the sun.  It’s not just the bohemian world (a world that Baudelaire emphasised) that would be of the now. Nor is it restricted to those moments and events that, as Andrew Graham-Dixon said, ‘prick our conscience’ – the tragic world of refugees, of slaves and cruelty, the world of the abused and exploited. These and a host of other basic subjects make up the modern, the contemporary world. But a world of ‘everything under the sun’ may mean that the really significant subjects get lost in the deluge.

So what do I think? Well, for me, the most important subjects of the contemporary world are those concerning human relationships, of love, sex and aggression and the struggle to achieve rationality and virtue. I’m interested in our limitations – and our psycho-pathologies. I’m interested in the ‘making’ of human being. Perhaps the most important subject of today’s world concerns the extraordinary trajectories taken by the human mind. Perhaps, too the idea of human vulnerability and fragility is central.

But if an artist explores the various phenomena of the human mind how does he or she paint the invisible? How can he or she make the invisible visible?

Footnote 1:

On beauty, Baudelaire wrote:

The idea of beauty which man creates for himself imprints itself on his whole attire, crumples or stiffens his dress, rounds off or squares his gestures, and in the long run even ends by subtly penetrating the very features of his face. Man ends by looking like his ideal self.

Footnote 2:

The essay ‘The painter of modern life’ featuring, in part, an analysis of Constantin Guys, an illustrator for the Illustrated London News, was written in 1860 and would not be published until 1863 in instalment form in Le Figaro.

The photograph just appeals to me – but is it ‘modern life?’

An excellent short review of Baudelaire’s essay by Jeanne S. M. Willette is published on an art history website.

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