Academic journal article The Romanic Review

Baudelaire: Sculptor of Words

Academic journal article The Romanic Review

Baudelaire: Sculptor of Words

Article excerpt

That Baudelaire was conscious of the close relationship between and writing is something no one disputes. The son of a artiste manque, and one of the most important French art critics of the mid-19th century, he has often been portrayed as someone who wanted to do with words what painters do with color, line, and form: ut pictura, poesis.(1) In dedicating Les Fleurs du Mai to Theophile Gautier, however, Baudelaire implied that he also knew how to "sculpt, file, and chisel" words on the page, not just "paint" them, as it were. Gautier had, of course, already set forth this new type of poetics in the manifesto-like poem "L'Art" closing his 1852 Emaux et Camees, in which he urged poets to write as if they were sculptors. Only through such sculpting could the "reve flottant" of the artist be sealed, according to Gautier, in "le bloc resistant" of marble, bronze, and, by (literary) extension, wordson-the-page. Poetic images fabricated in this manner were presumably meant to strike readers like statues and monuments that dazzle their observers.

Yet, the earlier essays in Baudelaire's Salons of 1845 and 1846 do not paint a pretty picture of sculpture. Indeed, in one of the better known of these essays, he attempts to explain "pourquoi la sculpture est ennuyeuse" (section 16 1846). In it Baudelaire assails sculpture because of what he calls "la consequence neessaire de ses moyens." Using a comparison reminiscent of many of his later invectives against Nature as well as his many eloges of artificiality, he describes sculpture as being "brutale et positive comme la nature [...] et en meme temps vague et insaisissable ...." The main problem, it seems, is that "elle montre trop de faces h la fois... [le spectateur] pent choisir cent points de vue differents, excepte le bon..." Painting, on the other hand, "n'a qu'un point de vue; elle est exclusive et despotique: aussi l'expression du peintre est-elle bien plus forte." At this early stage of his career, Baudelaire thus did not think much of sculpture compared to painting, neither as a visual art form in itself, nor as a potential model for his poetry.

This is probably because, as his complete commitment to Poe's Poetic Principle attests, Baudelaire qua poet was what we might now vulgarly label a control-freak. As the above passage implies, Baudelaire feared that when artists do not control what their spectators or readers see or read, the latter will always choose the wrong point of view. When, on the other hand, artists assume despotic control over the observer's perspective or perception, the power of their artistic expression is much greater. One could say, as a result, that whenever one had the option of seeing a text from many points of view, and was free to see whatever one wishes, this created a monstrous aesthetic situation with respect to Baudelaire's early aesthetic theories. One can only imagine how disgusted Baudelaire would have been by the whole critical controversy surrounding his sonnet "Les Chats," which a few years ago pitted countless readers and readings, theories and methodologies against one another.

In any case, the monstrosity of this situation immediately forces us to reexamine his poem "Le Masque," dedicated precisely to a contemporary sculptor, Ernest Christophe, and subtitled "Statue allegorique dans le gout de la Renaissance." While walking around a sublime statue of a woman (and consequently, observing it from several different perspectives), the narrator discovers a shocking sight behind what turns out to have been a misleading mask. Just like the narrator who reels at the sight of a still-warm hangman, whose horridness dramatically undermines the otherwise presumed beauty of Venus' island in "Un Voyage a Cythere," here, too, he is shaken into accepting a specifically grotesque point of view from among a wide range of sublime possibilities, exclaiming:

O blaspheme de l'art! o surprise fatale

La femme au corps divin, promettant le bonheur,

Par le haut se termine en monstre bicephale! …

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