High Art: Charles Baudelaire and the Origins of Modernist Painting

By Sherak, Constance | The Art Bulletin, December 1997 | Go to article overview
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High Art: Charles Baudelaire and the Origins of Modernist Painting

Sherak, Constance, The Art Bulletin


High Art: Charles Baudelaire and the Origins of Modernist Painting University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1996. 220 pp.; 21 b/w ills. $39.50

In his preface to High Art: Charles Baudelaire and the Origins of Modernist Painting, David Carrier recalls the experience of wandering the streets and galleries of New York thinking, "What would Baudelaire say about this scene?" (pp. xvii-xviii). He attempts to answer this provocative question in the pages that follow. In teasing out this conundrum through the encounter of philosophy and art history, Carrier has revitalized Baudelaire's art criticism by making it relevant to the theorization of modernist and postmodernist painting. Ever the critical flaneur, Carrier ventures through intersecting pathways of Baudelaire studies that have been paved by Walter Benjamin, Claude Pichois, Enid Starkie, and Martin Turnell, and subsequently diverted by the likes of literary and art critics such as Ross Chambers, T. J. Clark, Michael Fried, Michele Hannoosh, and Timothy Raser. On the way he revisits the writings of Leo Steinberg and Clement Greenberg on modernism, as well as the experimental drug culture of the 1960s. Brought together within the pages of a single study, these ventures map out a compelling trajectory that repeatedly leads Carrier back to Baudelaire's own art writing.

High Art addresses this writing by seriously reevaluating Baudelaire's key essays. Moving from "Salon of 1846" to "The Painter of Modern Life," and from "Artificial Paradises" to three paintings by Henri Matisse, Carrier integrates structural analysis with philosophical exegesis. The result is a fertile exchange between the languages of modernism and the situation of art writing today. In chapter 1, Carrier takes up Baudelaire's view of history by focusing on the problematics of his divergent theory of painting, one that links an appreciation of Eugene Delacroix to a fascination with the painting of modern life. For Carrier, Baudelaire's linking of color theory to the political debates of his time underscores the mechanism of historical and aesthetic change. He extends this notion of transition to later discussions of high and low art and understands such incompatible claims structurally. In doing so, he finds that this rhetoric of ambiguity serves to enrich Baudelaire's text.

The following two chapters present a history of modernism through an analysis of Baudelaire's narrative structures. Chapter 2 focuses on his writing on Delacroix, while, in chapter 3, Carrier turns to philosophical exegesis to reconstruct Baudelaire's theory of beauty and to trace his anticipation of Impressionism in "The Painter of Modern Life." In chapter 4, Carrier goes on to address Baudelaire's reworking of ekphrasis, or the poetic description of a work of art, as it applies to scenes of contemporary life. Here, he engages both his art criticism and his poetry, which, for Carrier, emblematizes his metaphysics, "a motionless high that does not fall into the miserable lows of everyday life" (p. 9). In chapter 5 Carrier discusses Baudelaire's use of drugs in "Artificial Paradises" as a temporary, unsatisfactory escape. And finally, in his last chapter, he explores the contemporary relevance of Baudelaire's art criticism by situating Matisse's Baigneuses (Bathers by the Stream, 1916-17), La danse (Dance, 1910), and La musique (Music, 1910) in an imagined, idealized space of Arcadia.

Carrier's project is not so much to analyze the l9th-century art world as it is to assess Baudelaire's art criticism in conjunction with recent reevaluations of modernism. For Carrier, Baudelaire's aesthetic way of thinking, viewed from the perspective of the 1990s, illuminates the situation of art criticism today and helps us understand current debates surrounding the status of popular culture within cultural studies and art history. Carrier does not attempt to resolve these debates; instead, he magnifies Baudelaire's rhetorical strategy for creating an ongoing dialogue between artist and viewer and between artist and critic.

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