Charles Baudelaire

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Charles Pierre Baudelaire (1821 – 1867) was a French poet, essayist, art critic, and a translator of Edgar Allan Poe. His work reflected the changing nature of beauty, as Paris modernised and industrialised, and his poetry influenced a myriad of others – including Paul Verlaine, Arthur Rimbaud and Stéphane Mallarmé.

Baudelaire coined the term Flâneur in his essay The Painter of Modern Life (1863). A Flâneur is a rather dilettante observer, a person of leisure, an urban explorer.

According to Wikipedia, Baudelaire is also credited with the term modernity, meaning the fleeting, ephemeral experience of life in an urban metropolis, and the responsibility of artistic expression to capture that experience.

Baudelaire, like Swedenborg and Kandinsky, had Synaesthesia. And he used marijuana to heighten consciousness. His work defined ‘Romanticism’,

It is a very long time since I have read any Baudelaire, though this week’s lecture prompted me to do a little research. Two of Baudelaire’s works came to the fore. First, his poem Correspondances (1857), and, second, his essay On Photography: Salon of 1859.

Correspondances was in Baudelaire’s book, Flowers of Evil (1857). Whilst some critics considered it a masterwork of passion and poetry, others saw it as so unpleasant (dealing with sex, death, lesbian love and so on) that they took legal action to suppress it. T. S. Eliot called it the greatest example of modern poetry in any language.

Here is the poem, with my comments.


Nature is a temple whose living colonnades
Breathe forth a mystic speech in fitful sighs;
Man wanders among the symbols in those glades
Where all things watch him with familiar eyes.

I read from this that we make symbols, abstractions of nature, in all of our art. We cannot capture it exactly, only represent it. That is especially so in photography.

Like dwindling echoes gathered far away
Into a deep and thronging unison
Huge as the night or as the light of day,
All scents and sounds and colors meet as one.

Our collective consciousness gives a shared sense of existence. Art, in all of its forms, aids that sense.

Perfumes there are as sweet as the oboe’s sound,
Green as the prairies, fresh as a child’s caress,
—And there are others, rich, corrupt, profound

Baudelaire’s synaesthesia is at work, here. He is hearing colours, yielding a mystical experience. Would that we were all so lucky.

And an infinite pervasiveness,
Like myrrh, or musk, or amber, that excite
The ecstasies of sense, the soul’s delight.

This all leads to some kind of ‘artistic correspondence’ between our individual soul and the Divine spirit, which excites and pleases us.

I consider that Baudelaire is consigning considerable swathes of ‘art’ to the rubbish tip. We use nature to create symbols, and any attempt to simply depict nature ‘as it is’ is doomed to rest in some kind of non-artistic, soulless place. Equally, not attempting to reconcile the facts, beauty and even contradictions in the world will lead to an equally fruitless result.

Jonathan Mayne (1955) comments:

‘Baudelaire’s poem, Correspondences … reduces the Realist aesthetic to irrelevance. Nature becomes an immaterial “forest of symbols,” a poet’s dictionary of subjective associations, metaphorical forms rather than concrete phenomena.

The anti-materialist perspective of Correspondences and this commentary on photography will have a formative influence on Symbolist poets and artists in the decades after Baudelaire’s death. Its cultural prestige will reach far into the 20th century to give critical support to nearly every modernist movement from Fauvism and Cubism through Abstract Expressionism’.

Walter Benjamin (1997) thought Baudelaire was suggesting the decline of the aura,  and thus supporting his own thesis that photography (and especially the aspect of mechanical reproduction) was part of our collective movement away from true art.

To quote Pascal Michon (2010):

‘Benjamin considers Baudelaire as one of the first witnesses both of the decline of the aura, which is specific to works of art, and of the degradation of experience due to the life in the Great City. According to him, this situation accounts for the importance of the theme of the “correspondances” in Baudelaire’s poetry’.

Baudelaire was a severe critic of ‘photography is de facto art’, and he placed it clearly as a mechanical servant of the sciences and arts in his other work (see below), a point I agree with.

Yet, again to quote Michon:

‘Concerned by the new forms of social interaction in the ‘enormous cities’ … Baudelaire invents a new kind of poetry which must simultaneously enable him to represent those new features of modern world and to oppose them through a ‘personal prosody’, a poetic rhythm, which reinstalls the conditions for a full experience and enables other people to fight back’.

Whilst there is nothing intrinsic in the apparatus of photography to make it an ‘art’ in its own right – no more than there is anything intrinsic in a  pencil – it does have a place in this new poetics advanced by Baudelaire.

Photography does have a unique ability to reflect reality, though not be reality.

In On Photography: Salon of 1959, Baudelaire wrote:

‘Comme l’industrie photographique était le refuge de tous les peintres manqués, trop mal doués ou trop paresseux pour achever leurs études, cet universel engouement portait non seulement le caractère de l’aveuglement et de l’imbécillité, mais avait aussi la couleur d’une vengeance.

As the photographic industry was the refuge of every would-be painter, every painter too iIl-endowed or too lazy to complete his studies, this universal infatuation bore not only the mark of a blindness, an imbecility, but had also the air of a vengeance’.

His essential argument is that a slavish adherence to the view that ‘photography is art’ can dull one’s perceptions and feelings for ‘real’ art.

‘ … a result identical to Nature would be the absolute of Art. A revengeful God has given ear to the prayers of this multitude. Daguerre was his Messiah. And now the faithful says to himself: “Since photography gives us every guarantee of exactitude that we could desire (they really believe that, the mad fools!), then photography and Art are the same thing:’ From that moment our squalid society rushed, Narcissus to a man, to gaze at its trivial image on a scrap of metal.

Are we to suppose that a people whose eyes are growing used to considering the results of a material science as though they were the products of the beautiful, will not in the course of time have singularly diminished its faculties of judging and of feeling what are among the most ethereal and immaterial aspects of creation?’

Who can really argue that point?

An artist’s job is to use whatever tools are available to him or her, to create the work that they want to create. And an artist’s goal is often to reconcile the contradictions in life – art, beauty, science, modernity – with new ideas, new visual language.

An audience’s role is to look past the technology and technique employed, to deduce the meanings of the work.


Header: Etienne Carjat. c 1862. Portrait of Charles Baudelaire. Available at:Étienne_Carjat,_Portrait_of_Charles_Baudelaire,_circa_1862.jpg (accessed 27/03/2019).


BAUDELAIRE, Charles. Undated. Wikipedia entry. Available at (accessed 26/03/2019).

BAUDELAIRE, Charles. 1857. Flowers of Evil. 2008 Edition. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Available at (accessed 26/03/2019).

BAUDELAIRE, Charles. 1859. On Photography: Salon of 1859. Available at (In French – accessed 26/03/2019).

BENJAMIN, Walter. 1997. Charles Baudelaire: A Lyric Poet In The Era Of High Capitalism. London: Verso. Part available at (accessed 26/03/2019).

MAYNE, Jonathan, 1955. Charles Baudelaire, The Mirror of Art. London: Phaidon Press.

MICHON, Pascal. 2010. Rhythm, Organization of Significance and Subjectivity in Baudelaire’s Correspondances. Rhuthmos, 25 June 2010. Available at: (accessed  26/03/2019).

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