Managing Imitation: Translation and Baudelaire's Art Criticism

By Pappas, Sara | Nineteenth-Century French Studies, Spring-Summer 2005 | Go to article overview

Managing Imitation: Translation and Baudelaire's Art Criticism


Pappas, Sara, Nineteenth-Century French Studies


One of the most frequently analyzed aspects of Charles Baudelaire's aesthetic writings is his advocation of imagination and originality as the primary creative forces in making art. In his art criticism, Baudelaire arranges imitation and imagination into polar opposites which launch a set of equally contrary related ideals: realism is disparaged while interpretation is most encouraged. (1) Whatever the plastic arts represent ("nature," the visible or material world, a particular historical scene or literary work, etc.), in Baudelaire's ideal aesthetic system, is first filtered through the mind of the artist. Because of his critique of imitation, and of any literary or artistic movement related to realism or positivism, Baudelaire is often regarded as one of the foremost representatives of modern aesthetics and subjectivity in the arts. (2) He is also regarded as a key figure in the origins of modern art. My goal is not necessarily to contest this view of Baudelaire, but rather to argue that it is only a partially accurate reading of Baudelaire's art critical writings that ultimately ignores the role of imitation in Baudelaire's theory of art. My analysis will take a closer look at how Baudelaire's insistence on imagination and interpretation in the arts is constructed and how he has to strategically eliminate any traces of "imitation" from his ideal art and artists. Crucial to this discussion is how the metaphor of translation functions in the creation of the imitation/imagination binary in Baudelaire's art criticism. Throughout his aesthetic writings, Baudelaire refers to paintings consistently as translations. Despite Michele Hannoosh's 1986 call for more work on the prevalence of the translation metaphor in nineteenth-century art criticism, there continue to be very few published analyses of how the concept of translation was used in aesthetic debates of the period. (3)

Critics have long noted the paradoxical nature of the theories of art put forth in Baudelaire's aesthetic writing. (4) Although at first glance Baudelaire's art criticism seems to be the ultimate triumph of imagination over any type of "imitation," close analysis of his writings in fact reveals an aporetic structure to his theory of art that can be located precisely in the space between the old and the new, between contemporary nineteenth-century artists and past artists, and between originals and translations. For instance, artistic talent is supposed to occur involuntarily and without lineage, as Baudelaire writes in the Exposition universelle of 1855: "Dans l'ordre poetique et artistique, tout relevateur a rarement un precurseur. Toute floraison est spontanee, individuelle" (Baudelaire 2: 581). (5) Many effects visible on the canvas are to happen without the artist's preconceived will, unconsciously," a son insu," an expression that Baudelaire uses consistently across almost twenty years of writing on art. Baudelaire's artist is supposed to proceed, then, individually, involuntarily, ideally without education, and yet be able to recall the art of the past. (6) Baudelaire notes his own paradox as he describes how Delacroix paints par hasard, yet draws on all sources: "Cette intervention du hasard dans les affaires de peinture de Delacroix est d'autant plus invraisemblable qu'il est un des rares hommes qui restent originaux apres avoir puise toutes les vraies sources, et dont l'individualite indomptable a passe alternativement sous le joug secoue de tous les grands maitres" (2: 432). Elsewhere Baudelaire criticizes artists, especially the followers of David and Ingres, for imitating anyone and charges them with being independently faithful to their own artistic vision: "l'artiste, le vrai artiste, ne doit peindre que selon qu'il voit et qu'il sent (sic). Il doit etre reellement fidele a sa propre nature. Il doit eviter comme la mort d'emprunter les yeux et les sentiments d'un autre homme, si grand qu'il soit; car alors les productions qu'il nous donnerait seraient relativement a lui, des mensonges, et non des realites" (2: 620). …

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