of Cosmetics” from The Painter of Modern Life (1863)
Charles Baudelaire is acknowledged as the nineteenth-century poet and critic who defined modernity as a question and a style. He understood his calling in wide terms: for him the poet was to assume the guise and identity of the marginal figures inhabiting the city. His writing is thus embedded in the experience of urban life, particularly in scenes played out in the streets of his native Paris. The essays reprinted here are all taken from The Painter of Modern Life, a collection that elucidates the worldview expressed in his poetry.
Baudelaire celebrates the transitory and the artificial as a deliberate rejection of romantic and classical theories that insist on the existence of eternal values in art. At times his comments are clearly polemical, intended to shock and disturb comforting notions of beauty. He was interested in fashion precisely because it was considered neither beautiful nor worthy of the title “art.” The cosmetics and extravagant dresses of nineteenth-century style were far removed from the simplicity of antique dress. Rather than decry the artificiality of fashions, he reveled in its fakeness.
By reviving the tastes of the baroque and rococo eras, Baudelaire invented a new concept of modernity. The Enlightenment had already introduced the idea that clothes and household goods should be designed as useful rather than decorative; this utilitarian aesthetic has reappeared often since the eighteenth century. The history of modern design and fashion has seen many revolutions that did away with ornamentation. Baudelaire presents a tradition of modernist aesthetics much at odds with the utilitarian and the natural look. For him, fashion is exciting precisely because it so fleeting. Clothes portray a momentary look only to be superseded by another. If anything is truly modern, then it is this awareness of time, Baudelaire argues. To cling to antique art as eternally beautiful is to disapprove of one's own era. The modern artist captures the conditions of his own existence; thus, he must look to ordinary citizens and passersby, and not the all-powerful simulators of ancient beauty.