All That Glitters: Connecting Baudelaire's Art Criticism and Poetry

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In the many decades since Charles Baudelaire's death, critics have been seeking to understand the relationship between Baudelaire's extensive art critical writings and his poetic project. One of the recurrent themes in studies of Baudelaire's art criticism is the at times problematic relationship between his aesthetic theories and the art he was actually judging. The art critical writings contain many contradictions and paradoxes especially when read against the context of the Salons of the 1840s and 1850s. Baudelaire's emphasis on images that are completely new, on the primacy of imagination over any kind of "imitation," and his critique of overt references in painting to past art or even to literary texts does not easily correspond to the artists he most admired. (1) I have examined elsewhere how Baudelaire's art critical texts maneuver to hide and cloak these paradoxes. I argue that his art criticism restores the images that appeal to him and makes the art of the period new by hiding or displacing what was old. (2) In other words, Baudelaire does not simply privilege the new in his art critical writings; he creates a kind of absolute originality through his writings that is not actually present in the art of the period in the way that he theorizes. This argument has led me to wonder if the cloaking and manipulation of the image have some kind of corollary in the poetry. If Baudelaire's aesthetic theories are not logical or consistent, (3) if the art criticism does not contain some kind of ideal theory of the relationship between the literary and plastic arts that is then put into practice in Les Fleurs du Mal, then what is the relationship between the art critical writings and the poems? What I will propose is that one exemplary relationship is a vocabulary interface involving vision and light between Baudelaire's poetry and art criticism that not only connects the aesthetic writings to the poems but also relates to how Baudelaire negotiates, transforms and deflects the art of his time.

In Baudelaire's Salon writings, as the critic pronounces judgment on what he sees from exhibition to exhibition, there emerges a vocabulary of praise and critique that comes to signal to the reader either satisfaction or scorn. What appears before the eye is transformed into a kind of prose in which the critic not only tells the reader which paintings he likes or dislikes, but also lets a recurring set of terms signify valorized aspects of particular works. Common to the genre of art criticism, these kinds of terms allow for the identification of traits that for the critic are indicative of well-executed art. For Baudelaire, one of the major sets of vocabulary for describing a successful image involves different kinds of light. In the Salon de 1846, Baudelaire claims that the Ingres school has not been effective in landscape painting because "la ligne et le style ne remplacent pas la lumiere, 1'ombre, les reflets et ratmosphere colorante." (4) This goes beyond Baudelaire's usual privileging of color over line (in fact, color is last on his list) and favors the interplay of light, dark, and reflection. The words that return again and again across Baudelaire's Salon writings to praise and commend invoke a pure, clear light: lumineux, transparent, limpide, clair, illuminer, briller. (5) The poem "La Beaute" is frequently associated with the frustration of the poet faced with the enigmatic figure of Beauty. (6) Although the poem implies frustration and anguish in front of Beauty's mysterious nature, it also contains a valorization of that enigmatic allure that connects to Baudelaire's discussions of sculpture in the art criticism; more specifically, "La Beaute" relates to how Baudelaire transforms sculpture into another medium, painting, through his writing. How Baudelaire manipulates sculpture is what connects the art criticism to the poetry through the willful construction of two mirrors that can only reflect one another, along with the aid of light and eyes that cannot see. …