Search the web for articles on the flâneur. Make notes on the phenomenon and what thinkers like Walter Benjamin have to say on the subject.
- What effect do you think this phenomenon had in the world of the artist in western society from the latter part of the 19th century? Write two or three paragraphs on this subject.
I’m glad that we only have to write 3 paragraphs on this at this juncture, and not only because I feel I really must get on with the course work, work faster and perhaps less methodically or fastidiously (not easy) if I am to finish on time. But also because from what I can see ‘flâneur’ has so many nuanced meanings and all of them difficult to tie down in English, perhaps because it is such an un-English concept. (As I edit I see I have completely failed to write just 3 paragraphs but perhaps the first few paragraphs should be viewed as my notes since the whole subject is like all I come across – big).
I am extremely drawn to the exploration and observation of modernity as a notion. To begin with I thought flâneur meant little more than strolling the streets and observing life, which seems sort of indolent. But I really like the quote “For Fournel, there was nothing lazy in flânerie. It was, rather, a way of understanding the rich variety of the city landscape. It was a moving photograph (“un daguerréotype mobile et passioné”) of urban experience.” – taken from Wikipedia which in this case really does seem to be a very useful resource.
The image of idly strolling through the streets with long lazy strides, dressed in coattails and hat, and perhaps swinging an umbrella doing F-all is a trope I have seen people I know trying to affect. (Sounds good to me, in fact.) However, although that is suggestive of the origins of the word, I know it is far more complex than that.
The flâneur is a product of modernity and a reaction against its ‘purpose’ which is to work, be busy and useful. In fact, I would say we are worse than ever before with that – everyone must be extremely busy at all times and we all put a lot of effort into seeming so. Marx questions this need to be kept busy and suggests humans need not be so busy making and producing things all of the time.
The most useful site I came across (next to Wikipedia) was an official website of The Flâneur where more political aspects behind the word are helpfully explained. Here we are told that although modernity was seen as a positive step forward by most, the flâneur rejects it by refusing to be part of it. Not only that, he (? – she didn’t have the time?) engages with the underside of urban modernity which is much darker and dingier than many were able or wont to admit. With industrial progress came the march of Capitalism and the flâneur rejects this too. By rejecting and instead celebrating aspects of all of this, they are part of the decadents. “Decadent artists challenged bourgeois hypocrisy, and the insistence on didactic/useful art and the productive and useful life. For the Decadents, art, which exists merely for pleasure, reconciles the futility of existence.”
I was interested to see that the word is also described and explained on a site called PsychogeographicReview.com. The gist of that page is about how the flâneur is used to explore the effect of modernity on the human psyche, in particular, urban modernity, which has such an impact on the way we live. I’m so interested in how modern urban structures (physical and meta) have completely transformed the way we live in the last two hundred years and am always amazed by how much has changed in just the last 50, or since the end of WW2.
All of the references online point to Baudelaire’s writings on the subject and later Walter Benjamin’s, who used Baudelaire as a starting point for some of his own.
Do we look at Baudelaire and Benjamin a little later in the course more fully? I can’t remember but I hope so. I understand that both are important figures in the history of visual cultures and photography so extremely briefly here:
Walter Benjamin (b. 1892 d. 1940) is an important voice within literary and art theory. An essayist who wrote about Baudelaire, Geothe, and Kafka amongst others, he was, according to Wikipedia, “An eclectic thinker, combining elements of German idealism, Romanticism, Western Marxism and Jewish mysticism.” His “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Production” has become a seminal text in the study of humanities and something I know will be useful to read in the coming months. His reputation grew after his suicide in 1940.
Baudelaire was a poet and an essayist in France in the 1800s (b.1821 d.1867). His most famous work, “Le Fleurs de Mal” (1857), was not well received as it openly explored lust, prostitution, death and “the oppressiveness of living”. He is known for translating Edgar Allen Poe successfully, and with whom he was a friend. They shared views and had similarly-aged early deaths. Baudelaire was plagued with poverty and illness throughout his life but he was strident and non-apologetic about his work and suggested it would outlive him, which it has, as well as his critics.
Le Fleur de Mal is referenced as a “cornerstone of Benjamin’s massive work on modernity, an uncompleted study of Paris arcades. For Benjamin, the poems record the ambulatory gaze that flâneur directs on Paris”
I see that much of the history of street photography as well as documentary styles are indebted to many of the notions and ideas that originated in the works of these two figures. Alongside some of the earliest photographers, the Impressionists were looking at simple scenes of people drinking wine, sitting around sunbathing and drinking, or bathing in French apartments which was of course very different to earlier western art.
The very first painting I studied when I was about 10 years old at school was of St. Francis of Assisi and I think it was the one of him feeding some birds, although I can’t be certain. (It was definitely a painting by Giotto and funnily enough I recently went to Assisi and saw that fresco in the ‘flesh’, which reminded me about how much I loved art when I was a child and had art classes in SA until we left. It is an enormous shame (in both senses ) and source of frustration for me that when I came to England at 16 I couldn’t finish my schooling as it was prohibitively expensive and I wasn’t entitled to free education. I would certainly have continued to study art at that point but I had very limited choices since I could only attend college part time.)
The point is that for hundreds of years painting and art was the preserve of religion and aristocrats (as discussed by Berger in Ways of Seeing), and used to create works that encouraged the peasants to believe in the miracles of Jesus and his representatives. I know that this began to change before the 19th century slowly over time and there are examples of artists moving away from that, but suffice to say when I look at Rembrand’s beautiful portraits, some of them of people who don’t look rich or grand, the style and lighting is somehow still ‘heavenly’ and mystical in some way.
By the time we reach the second half of the 19th century the Industrial Revolution had changed urban living for good. And the artists of the time were documenting the changes. But as well as this, art had pretty much completed its trajectory towards more secular and immediate subjects. So, Degas famously painted people washing and drying themselves. The light was still beautiful but the scenes that were being painted were intimate and immediate – scenes from everyday life.
The other thing I see is that there was a big movement towards celebrating scenes that had previously been thought of as unseemly for art, such as prostitution and drunkenness – not from a censorious position but a very different place. These were the muses and friends of the painters such as Toulouse Lautrec, Van Gough and Gauguin for instance. Artists record the changing landscape as well as the activities that take place within it. It is less about heaven and hell than it ever was before and much more about all the things that go on in life. Art has begun to explore the quotidian.
Photography in particular came along and made it possible to record very intimate moments as well as seemingly unimportant scenes of people or simply of objects that reflected modern life. And that, as discussed in the previous project, influenced the way painters saw and painted, as well as what they chose to put on their canvasses and inside their frames.