A new exhibition looks at the upheaval in the visual culture of Baudelaire’s Paris.
In puritanical America, the intellectual tradition is in exile from the luxury of the senses: Americans hold steadfast to the idea that the right kind of knowledge comes from the Word of books. Harold Bloom’s omnipresent theory of the anxiety of influence would have you think that writers did nothing else but read the work of their forefathers in Oedipal distress, ignoring the sensual theater which makes a part of any lived life. In post-revolutionary Paris, where the optic regime underwent a series of explosive changes as the Romantics and post-Romantics pressed against all limits of language, to ignore the visual influence on literature is to misread it. Images flooded homes in books, keepsake albums, lithographs, small paintings, and photographs; they plastered the streets with, as Baudelaire described it, a “monstrous nausea of posters,” and crowded shop-windows and studios. They covered museums like doilies covered the bourgeois interior; they were in the dark rooms of stereoscopes, erotic printers, and panoramic theaters. It comes as no surprise that the theories of literature of the era made metaphoric use of mirrors (Stendhal), decals (Sand), and screens (Zola).
At the Museum of Romantic Life, in Paris, curators have set about trying to capture this flurry of imagery. “The Eye of Baudelaire,” commemorating the 150th anniversary of his death, recreates the visual culture in which he was immersed with a collection of paintings, photographs, sketches, and frontispieces. The museum, a stone’s throw from Pigalle, occupies the house where George Sand lived, wrote, and wore her men’s clothes. The rooms, painted in rich, warm colors of burgundy and deep red, replicate the look of an old salon; the architecture, virtually untouched, requires that you cross the courtyard and climb several spiral staircases to enter. Read More