An intellectually challenging and sometimes obscure assessment of the life and influence of French writer Charles Baudelaire (1821–1867), whose poetry and critical essays made him a founding father of modernism.
Italian novelist and critic Calasso (Tiepolo Pink, 2009, etc.) demands a lot of his readers, studding his prose with arcane references and using words like “hesychastic” and “scotoma.” If he lacks the lucidity of Robert Hughes or Jed Perl, however, it isn’t because he’s just being willfully obtuse. He’s an ambitious artist-critic, pushing the subject as far as he can, bent on penetrating the mind of both Baudelaire and his time. In the process, he delivers plenty of insight. He captures the impact of Baudelaire’s “supreme prose work,” The Painter of Modern Life, an act of “blatant provocation” that held up an unknown illustrator, Constantin Guys, as the artistic model of his day. For Baudelaire, the anonymous Guys could depict whatever he wanted without worrying about patrons or prestige, giving him a total freedom that Manet or Ingres would never have. “In perspective,” writes the author, “this meant ousting painting from its sovereign position and admitting that something no less indispensable...had come from disreputable illustration or—an even greater scandal, this—from photography.” In 18th-century France, the word folie referred to a garden pavilion, “a place of fancies and sensuality.” Baudelaire created a folie of his own, one that stood in opposition to a society on the decline. The word would be his legacy. “Modern—new—décadence: three words that radiate from Baudelaire’s every sentence, every breath,” writes Calasso. “To separate them would be to bleed them white.”
Tough but rewarding, written with bold intelligence and panache.