BODELAIRE ON SCULPTURE
Updated: Dec 26, 2022
As part of the research for the film Daniel Chester French: American Sculptor, I adapted concepts found in Baudelaire’s The Salon of 1869, more precisely, from the chapter he dedicated to sculpture. Most recently, working on the script proposal for The Italian Factor and the life of Attilio Piccirilli, I found myself returning to the same again. French versions of the chapter can easily be downloaded from the internet. However, the same could not be said for English translations. I know I will return to this chapter, and I honestly don’t feel like spending hours trying to find it. Hence, for my own good and the benefit of many, here’s the complete text and a few images to illustrate. Without further due:
At the heart of an ancient library, in the propitious gloom which fosters and inspires lengthy thoughts, Hippocrates, standing upright and solemn, a finger placed upon his hips, commands silence and, like a Pythagorean pedagogue, bids you 'Hush!' with an authoritative gesture. Apollo and the Muses, those imperious phantoms whose divine forms shine forth in the half-light, watch over your thoughts, assist at your labors, and urge you to the sublime.
In the fold of a wood, sheltered beneath heavy shades, eternal Melancholy gazes at her noble face in the waters of a pool as motionless as she is. And the passing dreamer, both saddened and charmed as he contemplates this great figure whose limbs, though robust, are languid from secret grief, cries out, 'Behold, my sister!'
As you hurry towards the confessional, during that little chapel shaken by the clatter of the omnibus, you are halted by a gaunt and magnificent phantom cautiously raising the cover of his enormous tomb to implore you, a creature of passage, to think of eternity! And at the corner of that flowery pathway which leads to the burial place of those who are still dear to you, the prodigious figure of Mourning, prostrate, drowned in the flood of her tears and crushing the powdered remains of some famous man beneath her heavy desolation, teaches you that riches, glory, your country even, are pure frivolities compared to that great Unknown which no one has named nor defined; which man can only represent by mysterious adverbs such as 'Perhaps', 'Never,' 'Always!'; —and which contains, as some hope, the infinite beatitude which they so much desire, or else anguish without respite, whose image is rejected by modern reason with the convulsive gesture of a death-agony.
Your spirit charmed by the music of gushing waters, sweeter still than the tongues of nurses, you tumble into a boudoir of greenery, where Venus and Hebe, those playful goddesses who sometimes presided over your life, are displaying beneath alcoves of leafage the charms of their well-rounded limbs, upon which the furnace has bestowed the rosy sheen of life.
But you are hardly likely to find these delightful surprises elsewhere but in the gardens of the past; for of the three excellent substances—bronze, terracotta, and marble—which are available to the imagination for the fulfillment of its sculptural dream, the last alone enjoys almost exclusive popularity in our age—and very unjustly so, in our opinion.
You are passing through a great city that has grown old in civilization—one of those cities which harbor the most important archives of the universal life—and your eyes are drawn upwards, sursum, ad sidera; for in the public squares, at the corners of the crossways, stand motionless figures, larger than those who pass at their feet, repeating to you the solemn legends of glory, war, science, and martyrdom, in a dumb language. Some point to the sky, whither they ceaselessly aspired; others indicate the earth from which they sprang. They brandish, or contemplate, what was the passion of their life and what has become its emblem; a tool, a sword, a book, a torch passed on!
Be you the most heedless of men, the most unhappy or the vilest, a beggar or a banker, the stone phantom takes possession of you for a few minutes and commands you, in the name of the past, to think of things that are not of the earth. Such is the divine role of sculpture.
Who doubts that a powerful imagination is needed to fulfill such a magnificent program? It is indeed a strange art whose roots disappear into the darkness of time and which already, in primitive ages, was producing works that cause the civilized mind to marvel! It is an art in which the very thing which would rightly be counted as quality in painting can turn into a defect or a vice, an art in which true perfection is by so much the more necessary as the means at its disposal—which are apparently more complete but are also more barbarous and childish —will always give a semblance of finish and perfection, even to the most mediocre works. Faced with an object taken from nature and represented by sculpture—that is to say, a round, three-dimensional object about which one can move freely, and, like the natural object itself, enveloped in the atmosphere —the peasant, the savage or the primitive man feels no indecision; whereas a painting, because of its immense pretensions and its paradoxical and abstractive nature, will disquiet and upset him. We may observe at this point that the bas-relief is already a lie, a step taken in the direction of a more civilized art, departing by that much from the pure idea of sculpture. You will remember that because he did not understand this, the painter Catlin was all but embroiled in a very dangerous quarrel between two of his native chiefs; after he had painted a profile portrait of one of them, some of the others started to tease and reprove the sitter for allowing himself to be robbed of half his face!
In the same way, monkeys have been known to be deceived by some magical painting of nature and to go around behind the picture to find the other side. It is a result of the inhumane conditions which restrict sculpture, as well as a perfect execution; it demands a very elevated spirituality. Otherwise, it will only produce the kind of marvelous object which dumbfounds the ape and the savage. Another result is that even the eye of the true amateur is sometimes so wearied by the monotonous whiteness of all these great dolls, exact in all their proportions of height and thickness, that it abdicates its authority. The mediocre does not always appear contemptible to it, and short of a statue's being aggressively wretched, it can take it for a good but sublime for a bad one, never! In sculpture, more than in any other medium, beauty imprints itself indelibly on the memory. With what a prodigious power Egypt, Greece, Michelangelo, Coustou, and a few others invested in these motionless phantoms! with what a glance these pupil-less eyes! Just as lyric poetry makes everything noble—even passion; sculpture, actual sculpture, makes everything solemn—even movement. Upon everything human, it bestows something of eternity, which partakes of the hardness of the substance used. Anger becomes calm, tenderness severe, and the flickering and faceted dream of painting is transformed into a solid and stubborn meditation. But suppose you will stop to think how many different types of perfection must be brought together to achieve this austere magic. In that case, you will not be surprised at the exhaustion and discouragement which often take possession of our minds as we hasten through these galleries of modern sculpture, where the divine aim is nearly always misunderstood. A little prettiness is indulgently substituted for grandeur.
But our taste is tolerant, and our dilettantism can accommodate itself to every sort of grandeur or frivolity. We are capable of loving the mysterious and sacerdotal art of Egypt and Nineveh, the art of Greece—at once so charming and so rational; the art of Michelangelo —as precise as a science, as prodigious as a dream; and the cleverness of the eighteenth century, which is bravura within Truth: but in all these different manifestations of the sculpture we find a power of expression and richness of feeling which are the inevitable results of a deep imagination only too often lacking amongst us today. And so, you will not be surprised to find my brief in my examination of this year's works. Nothing is sweeter than to admire, and nothing more disagreeable than to criticize. But the great and cardinal faculty, like the pictures of the Roman patriots, is only conspicuous by its absence. Now, then, is the moment to thank Franceschi for his Andromeda. While exciting general attention, this figure has given rise to several criticisms which, in our opinion, were too facile. It has the immense merit of being poetic, exciting, and noble. It has been called plagiarism, and Franceschi has been accused of simply taking a recumbent figure by Michelangelo and standing it upright. This is not true. The languor of these forms, which are small though great in feeling, and the paradoxical elegance of these limbs are clearly the doing of a modern artist. But even if he should have borrowed his inspiration from the past, I would see in this a ground for praise rather than for criticism; it is not given to everyone to imitate what is great, and when such imitation is the doing of a young man, who has naturally a great span of life open before him, it gives the critic far more reason for hope than for suspicion.
What an extraordinary man Clésinger! Perhaps the finest thing you can say of him is that, to see such a straightforward production of works so varied, you imagine an intelligence that is always on the alert. This man has a love of sculpture in his very bowels. You admire a marvelously well-executed fragment, but another fragment completely spoils the statue. How thrilling is the slender thrust of this figure! but look at those draperies, which, with the intention of seeming light, are nevertheless tubular and twisted like macaroni! If Clésinger sometimes catches movement, he never achieves complete elegance. The beauty of style and character, which has been so much praised in his busts of Roman ladies, is neither assured nor perfect. In his impetuous passion for his work, it seems that he often forgets muscles and neglects a thing so precious and essential as the shifting planes of modeling. I would rather not speak of his unhappy Sapphos, for I know he has frequently done much better. Still, even in his best-executed statues, the practiced eye is distressed by his abbreviation method, whereby the human face and limbs all have the dull finish and polish of wax cast in a mould. If Canova was sometimes charming, it was certainly not thanks to this defect. His Taureau Romain has received well-deserved praise from everybody; it is an excellent work: but if I were Clésinger, I should not like to be praised so magnificently for having created the image of an animal, however noble and superb that animal may have been. A sculptor of his caliber ought to have other ambitions and to set his hand on creating images other than those of bulls.
Saint Sebastian, by a pupil of Rude, Just Becquet, is a painstaking and vigorous sculpture. It makes one think at once of the painting of Ribera and the harsh statuary of Spain. Rude's teaching has significantly affected the school of our time. Still, if it has profited some—those, doubtless, who were able to edit that teaching with the aid of their natural intelligence—it has nevertheless plunged others, too docile, into the most amazing aberrations. Look at that Gaulish woman, for example! The first shape that a woman of Gaul assumes in your mind is that of a figure of noble bearing, free, powerful, robust, and supple of form, a strapping daughter of the forests, a wild and warlike woman whose voice was heard in the councils of the fatherland. But in the unfortunate object, I am speaking of, there is a complete absence of all that constitutes beauty and strength. The breast, hips, thighs, legs—everything, in fact, that ought to stand in relief is hollow. For forty years, I have seen corpses like this on dissection tables, ravaged by disease and persistent poverty. Can it be that the artist has sought to represent the decay and the exhaustion of a woman who has known no other nourishment but acorns? and has he confused his warrior-woman of ancient Gaul with a decrepit female Papuan? Let us look for a less ambitious explanation and assume that, having heard it frequently repeated that one must faithfully copy the model and not being endowed with the necessary perspicacity to choose a fine one, he has copied the ugliest that he could find, with perfect devotion. This statue has found praise, doubtless because of its far-darting eye, like a 'Keepsake' Velléda. I am not at all surprised.
If you want to study the opposite of sculpture once again, but this time in another form, look at those two little theatrical microcosms invented by Butté: they represent, I believe. The Tower of Babel and The Flood. But subject matter has little importance, anyway, when by its nature or by the way it is treated, the very essence of the art is found to have perished. This lilliputian world, these small processions, these little crowds which wind in and out among the rocky boulders, put one simultaneously in mind of the relief maps in the Marine Museum, of musical picture-clocks, and of those landscapes with fortress, drawbridge, and the changing of the guard which may be seen in pastry-cook's and toy- sellers' shops. I find it highly unpleasant to have to write such things, mainly when we are concerned with works in which both imagination and ingenuity are otherwise to be found, and if I speak of them, it is only because they are important in this one respect—that they serve to put on record one of the mind's greatest vices, which is a stubborn disobedience to the constituent rules of art. How could one conceive of qualities fine enough to counter-balance such an enormity of error? What healthy brain could imagine without horror, a painting in relief, a piece of sculpture mechanically activated, a rhymeless ode, a novel in verse, and so on? When the natural aim of art is misunderstood, it is natural to call to its aid all the devices alien to that art. And in the case of Butté, who has wanted to represent, on a small scale, vast scenes demanding an innumerable quantity of figures, we may observe that the ancients always confined such ventures to the bas-relief, and that among the modems, even very great and clever sculptors have never attempted them without damage and danger to their art. The two essential conditions—unity of impression and totality of effect—are grievously violated thereby, and no matter how great the 'stage director's talent, the spectator's mind will be troubled and will start wondering if it has not had a somewhat similar impression from Curtius's waxworks. The vast and magnificent groups which adorn the gardens of Versailles are not a complete refutation of my opinion; for, apart from the fact that they are not all equally successful and that some of them, by their chaotic structure, would only serve, on the contrary, to confirm the said opinion (I refer particularly to those in which almost all the figures are vertical), I would like to point out that there you have an entirely special kind of sculpture, whose faults, which are sometimes quite deliberate, vanish altogether beneath a Hquid firework display, beneath a luminous rain; in a word, it is an art which is completed by hydraulics, an inferior art on the whole. Yet even the most perfect among these groups are only so because they approach the closer to true sculpture, and because, using their learning attitudes and their interlacings, the figures create that general com- positional arabesque which is motionless and fixed in painting, but as mobile and variable in sculpture, as it is in a mountainous landscape.
We have already spoken, my dear M—, about the school of the pointus, and we recognized that amongst these subtle spirits, who are all tainted with disobedience to the idea of pure art, there were nevertheless one or two of some interest. In sculpture, too, we find the same misfortunes. Undoubtedly, Fremiet is a sound sculptor; he is clever, daring, and subtle; he searches for the striking effect, and sometimes he finds it; but that is precisely where his misfortune lies, for he often searches for it some little way from the natural road. His Gorilla dragging a woman into a wood (a rejected work, which naturally I have not seen) is very much the idea of a pointu. Why not a crocodile, a tiger, or any animal capable of eating a woman? But that is not the point! Be assured that this is no question of eating but of rape! Now it is the ape alone, the gigantic ape, at once more and less than a man, that has been known to betray a human appetite for women. So there, he has found his means of astonishing us! He is carrying her off; will she be able to resist? Such is the question that will engage the entire female public. A strange and complex feeling, composed partly of terror and partly of priapic curiosity, will sweep it to success. Nevertheless, seeing that Fremiet is an excellent workman, the animal and the woman will be equally well imitated and modeled. But to tell the truth, such subjects are unworthy of so ripe a talent, and the jury has acted well in refusing this wretched melodrama.
If Fremiet tells me that I have no right to scrutinize the aims or even to speak of what I have not seen, I will humbly fall back upon his Cheval de saltimbanque. Taken in himself, the little horse is charming; his thick mane, square muzzle, intelligent ai