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[1].

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.”[2]

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[3]. 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.”[4] 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”.[5] 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”[6]

*****

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.

 

[1] Wikipedia Flâneur

[2] The Flâneur 

[3] PsychogeographicReview.com

[4] Wikipedia Walter Benjamin

[5] Wikipedia Baudelaire

[6] PsychogeographicalReview.com where the quote is given as by Anne Friedberg, “Les Flâneurs du Mal: Cinema and the Postmodern Condition”

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15 thoughts on “Project 1.6b: Leisure time and consumerism – flâneur

  1. Interesting: You touched an many themes why I don’t care for the concept of Flaneurism. It was, and perhaps still is, a bourgeois pursuit – who else had the time or capacity for ambling? Certainly not the great unwashed who were busy being busy earning a crust – see later ideas from Benjamin.. And echoed again when you talk about not having access to education AND not being male. Women simply didn’t idly amble in the 19th century, and today psychogeographers are, in the vast majority, loaded with testosterone – absenting oestrogen from the discourse… I could go on…

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    1. You do make me laugh so much, John! I had this book which explored in detail why women have been held back over the centuries and I wish to god I could find it. I can’t remember the title correctly because I’ve searched and not found it online. But basically, yes, our sex were too busy dying of childbirth or struggling with the after-affects. There was certainly never any time for striding about the place noticing stuff, because so many of them were too busy coping with their prolapsed wombs (as well as the child rearing and house keeping). I have a very clear image in my head of a person and his oldest friend doing just that for years and years, shovelling cocaine up their noses to boot. They didn’t even bother to make any decent photographs or art in relation to their wanderings… bastards! I was very amused by your take on psychogeographers – marvellous!

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      1. I shall be starting a new project tomorrow when I interview my mother who had eight children in eleven years. I can’t remember her picking up her parasol and wafting around contemplating the world around her. I was the eldest child and I do remember afterbirth been wrapped in newspaper and put on the living room fire – dark green smoke, my father going to work the next day after sister after sister were born. Flaneurism – give me a break.

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      2. In answer to John. I do understand where you’re coming from. My paternal grandmother gave birth to 13 children, seven surviving, and they moved to the countryside (Bradwell) in Derbyshire at some point for her health. this must have been just before World War II. From what I’ve gathered the whole family did spend time enjoying the countryside – hence the family hut erected there after they moved back to Sheffield. They used to go camping and my grandmother was also involved in setting up a bicycle group so obviously women did find ways to meet the outside world.
        It’s this forming of a specialised/special group of males that rests ill with me – like a private members club.

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  2. I keep forgetting that the flaneurs were seriously understanding ‘the rich variety of the City landscape’. I also imagine them as being wealthy and somewhat idle, strolling around importantly and feeling superior, then retiring to a quiet cafe or bistro for lunch. Because of that, in answer to John, I had been going on to mention Jane Austen and how her characters also did quite a lot of walking and observing. I know that it was mainly to go on ‘errands’ but I think that was just an excuse to get out and about and see what was going on – probably more about people they saw than landscape I guess.

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  3. On the landscape theme, and possibly connecting it all. I find this quotation from Feminism and the Sublime by Bonnie Mann very telling: “It is in the philosophical contemplation of beauty that women become most radically interchangeable with English gardens and landscape paintings.”
    Women and the feminine perspective is largely absent from so many of the conversations on what are the formal genre’s of Art – except as eye candy of course, because – to paraphrase Kant (as Mann does) “Beautiful appearance [that aspirant of the “male gaze”] is a casualty of deep thought.”
    It is clear that we, as students, need to comprehend the various art “historical’ perspectives in order to situate ourselves within it – but to allow the feminine voice to continue to be absent from virtually (pre) post-modern study seems to me to be too accepting of it.

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    1. I’ll have to look this up tomorrow for a reference, but I follow ‘the Walking Artists Network’ and a lot of women do contribute although a large proportion are artists as opposed to ‘photographers’. There was a message recently regarding a walk for women only and, in fact, one of the male contributors did hesitantly ask how he could be involved as he supported the idea. This is one of the problems I think. How can/do male artists support female artists without seeming to be ‘patronising’ or reinforcing stereotypical male/female relationships. A better question might be, “What do we women artists want in terms of support?” Also, “What would the modern version of the flaneur comprise?”

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  4. Enjoyed your write-up SJ and the subsequent debate. I certainly support the participation by women on equal grounds to men in all aspects of life but must say that sometimes I fear that the loss in the inherent feminine characteristics are also at risk and I think that this is a shame. (hope that comes across OK) We cannot change history but we can work towards a better future. In South Africa I suspect we could look at the suppression of those of colour in a similar way. Also, the big difference in traditional roles of men and women in Africa. Suppression of people creates all sorts of problems doesn’t it.

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    1. Thanks, Doug. I’m just about to read through and reply to the points raised by Catherine and John. I think it’
      s complex as always! I have learned over the last few years to try and observe, notice and make connections but to avoid judging from a very particular western and un-processed position. But I also have strong views about patriarchy, wealth and class. Sometimes I feel my responses are more watered down than they might be because I’m trying hard to see a bigger picture. On the other hand I could allow myself to rant away but I’m not sure that would serve me well here!

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  5. Thank you, Doug, John and Catherine for your thoughtful comments. It pleases me immensely that my blog prompted a good conversation. I think your project looking at your mother’s role and her births will be extremely worthwhile and good for you to do, John. I have had three babies and I just can’t fathom how women coped with many more than that like your mother and Catherine’s grandmother did, as well as so many other women across the centuries – from the constant pregnancies and births to the child rearing. I am extremely interested in child rearing across cultures and have spent years reading about it since having my own. Slightly off the point….There is this somewhat romanticised school of thought that goes under the name of ‘attachment parenting’ which is a useful and valid reaction against many of the detached habits that grew out of Victorian values and have stuck with us; habits that people believe to be ‘normal’ or positively adaptive but that are arguably unhelpful at best and otherwise harmful to wellbeing. Although I followed some of the ideas that are thought of as ‘attachment-parenting’, I am always struck by the fact that reality simply does not allow for the degrees of patience and perhaps even subservience to one’s children that that particular methodology seems to induce in the minds of parents trying to follow it. Nor should it.
    And more importantly, historically many women have been so busy getting on with simply surviving and keeping their kids alive that much of the focus on children recommended in modern mainstream parenting and also off beaten track parenting, that it would be simply inconceivable to do any of the things we are made to feel so guilty about not doing nowadays.
    Regardless of all that, for any number of reasons, throughout our modern history women and children have been shoved aside from the main business of living, We are forced to live on the peripheries of the economy or else lately pretend we are men and reject the business of mothering pretty much altogether.
    In art, it seems that even when a strong woman voice does emerge it is often forgotten or silenced quickly. I came across an artist called Artemesia Gentileschi last night who worked in the 17th century. She was a successful, accomplished artist whose work hung in the Medici household yet it has taken until this century for her to be recognised again after she disappeared into obscurity. Her work is violent and difficult, expressing the rage she felt about being raped at 19 – society just seems to find a strong angry woman’s voice extremely difficult to accommodate. And yet, women have so much to be angry about.
    Frida Kahlo is a female voice that stands out but there I get the sense people are rather disturbed by it. Male voices are allowed to be big and strident and resonate long after they are dead. Society likes that. But not so for women, I think.
    I haven’t read Jane Austin in years and years so I can’t really see how she relates to those sauntering, French pavement meanderers. I will need to think more about how women are represented either as subjects or artists during that time.
    Anyway, as I said, I’d love to saunter round the place, noticing things and taking pictures all day long. How delightful! If my children were older, I were more financially secure, and had some form of solid support perhaps it would be possible. But I, like so many other women (and men, of course) do not have the time or financial resource – perhaps, nor should I. However, the abandonment of women with very young children by their husbands causes genuine barriers to all sorts of activities, and it is rife in our society – it even has a name! Male Post-partum Abandonment Syndrome. I mention this as it has huge, far reaching implications for women and society. Women are statistically far more likely to be poor, find it difficult to work, be unable to generate long term financial plans for old age, be promoted or even find work as single mothers – and for lots of complex structural reasons. Single mothers are routinely discriminated against. Their voices are not heard and the absence of fathers in the main simply perpetuates the issues within their children as they grow up making it more likely that they will repeat the patterns of the parents. (Although again, it’s complex, as sometimes it’s really better within a cost-benefit ratio calculation, despite all the aforementioned problems, that they are absent).
    I feel that even when a woman becomes conscious of how she is positioned by history, society, structures – it is still immensely difficult, if even possible at all, to break free from the tightly bound position she is in. I say she – I mean me! The pressure to exist within the roles and scenarios we’ve been assigned are dreadfully difficult to push aside or shake off.
    For now, reality beckons and I must get on with the business of taking care of my children, studying, trying to earn a crumb or two and fitting that noticing/photographing malarky in where and when I can!
    Thank you again for your comments. They makes me happy.

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  6. Held my first I view today, it wasn’t what I had expected. I will need to find somewhere to write about it. It was a reality check of my own that will take some digesting.

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