“In recent years we have heard it said in a thousand different ways, ‘Copy nature; just copy nature. There is no greater delight, no finer triumph than an excellent copy of nature.’”1
And yet…Baudelaire was not a fan. In fact, this whole “copy Nature” concept was declared to be “the enemy of art.” How can someone be so bold as to attempt to know and represent all of nature? How can a man be certain that external nature exists? The artist is destined to fail when his sole purpose is copying Nature. Baudelaire points instead to imagination as the artist’s greatest asset.
After all, humans experience Nature as it is filtered through the mind and senses. Thus, Baudelaire was adamant that the true artist must paint what he sees and what he feels: “He must be really faithful to his own nature.”1 The artist should not approach Nature too objectively, nor borrow the eyes and feelings of other men, “for then his productions would be lies in relation to himself, and not realities.”1
Baudelaire even goes so far as to describe how this nature-imagination interaction works:
“The whole visual universe is but a storehouse of images and signs to which the imagination will give a relative place and value; it is a sort of pasture which the imagination must digest and transform. All the faculties of the human soul much be subordinate to the imagination, which puts them in requisition all at once.”1
The Imagination Is…
1. A chameleon: “How mysterious is Imagination, the Queen of the Faculties! It touches all the others; it rouses them and sends them into combat. At times it resembles them to the point of confusion, and yet it is always itself…”1
2. Truthful: “Imagination is the queen of truth, and the possible is one of the provinces of truth. It has a positive relationship with the infinite.”1
3. A magician: Without it, the senses would not exist, and yet with a vigorous imagination, some faculties can indeed exist.1
4. A judge: Imagination plays a role in ethical matters. “What is virtue without imagination? You might as well speak of virtue without pity, virtue without Heaven…”1
5. Sensitive: “The sensitivity of the heart is not absolutely favorable to the poetic process. . . .The sensitivity of the imagination is of another nature; it knows how to choose, judge, compare, avoid this, seek out that, rapidly, spontaneously. It is from this sensitivity, which one generally calls Taste, that we draw the power of avoiding the evil and looking for the good in poetic material.”2
6. A spiritual experience: Baudelaire attached religious weight to the idea of imagination. He saw Nature as a canvas for primal instinct, and he distrusted it. Indeed, the natural state of things “was dangerously reminiscent of the concept of original sin.”3 I won’t go too far into it, but this attitude towards Nature is founded in his childhood, and it definitely molds how he critiques Art. Imagination, on the other hand, he considered an antidote to the evils of Nature. “Imagination is the divine faculty which, more surely than any philosophy, recognizes the secret relationships between the phenomena of this world and the next.”3 Thus, Baudelaire believed that true Art, rich with the sensitivities of the imagination, inhabits a middle plane between the Earth and Heaven.3
Baudelaire wrote that that Nature is beautiful, “but it is not so of itself, but through me, through my own grace and favor, through the idea or the feeling which I attach to it.”1 A work of Art, therefore, that is devoid of the artist that made it loses its beauty. Baudelaire believed that execution of a painting should be to one end: to translate the language of the artist’s dream (dream meaning the personal experience that artist has with his subject).1 Every feature “must serve to illuminate the idea which gave them birth…Just as a dream inhabits its own proper atmosphere, so a conception which has become composition needs to move within a coloured setting which is peculiar to itself.”1 There are hundreds upon hundreds of different color hues, and they must be applied in relation to each other in the painting so as to achieve the overall harmony that sings the dream.
“A good picture, which is a faithful equivalent of the dream which has begotten it, should be brought into being like a world.”1 Baudelaire explains that a world is made up of many worlds, like a series of images that are superimposed on each other: “each new layer conferring greater reality upon the dream, and raising it by one degree towards perfection.”1 Each layer is a truthful reflection of the dream, and so those layers have a wholeness, a completeness about them.
But watch out! It is easy to stray from the overall “dream” when applying all those layers. Sometimes the “unfinished” sketch is a more honest reflection of the dream that the finished product. He muses that there is too often a “gulf which separates a study from a picture.”1
Nix the Landscapes and Realism
Baudelaire pretty much dismisses realism, claiming that such art screams, “We have no imagination, and we decree that no one else is to have any.”1
And no, Baudelaire did not like most landscape artists. He noted that landscape painters are proned to “take the dictionary of art for art itself; they copy a word from the dictionary, believing they are copying a poem. But a poem can never be copied; it has to be composed. Thus, they open a window, and the space contained in the rectangle of that window–trees, sky, and house– assumes for them the value of a ready-made poem.”1 To simply copy nature, indulging an idless of imagination, results in a boring reflection of what one already sees. Baudelaire prefers the landscapes of Catlin and Delacroix: they have a supernatural beauty and the “power to impose a genuine illusion” on the viewer.
“These things, because they are false, are infinitely closer to the truth; whereas the majority of our landscape-painters are liars, precisely because they have neglected to lie.”1
NOTE: Please excuse the great amount of quotes in this post. It’s difficult to chop up sentences and paraphrase when authors such as Baudelaire write so beautifully.
Here are a few works by artists Baudelaire really liked:
1. Baudelaire, Charles. Art in Paris 1845-1862: Salons and Other Exhibitions. Trans. Johnathan Mayne. Oxford: Phaidon, n.d. Print.
3. Baudelaire, Charles. “Théophile Gautier.” L’Art romantique. ed. Y.-G. Le Dantec (Paris: Gallimard, 1954), 1033.
4. Brookner, Anita. “Charles Baudelaire.” Art Historians and Art Critics. The Burlington Magazine, Vol. 106, No. 735, pp.269-278. <http://www.jstor.org/stable/87421f>.