Friday, 25 October 2013

The French Connection

By Rory A.A. Hinton

Cafe - Paris
James Wilson Morrice (1865 - 1924)

Canadian post-impressionist painting cannot be understood apart from its French progenitor. What is the essence of French Impressionism, therefore, and how did it evolve into the representative work of James Wilson Morrice (1865-1924)? This is a philosophical question, and its answer is the product of a Parisian provenance that leads back to the writings of Charles Baudelaire (1821-1867).
     Baudelaire broke aesthetic ground by reducing art criticism down to its modernist essentials. What makes the opening question to this essay philosophical is because Baudelaire's reduction, in turn, cannot be understood apart from his reading of Immanuel Kant (1724-1804). His use of a priori categories in his abstract prose indicates as much. Kant's philosophy made Baudelaire's criticism possible.  
     Kant is the first real modern because he is the first to analyse and critique the means of criticism (in his Kritik der reinen Vernunft - Critique Of Pure Reason). “Western civilization is not the first to turn around and question its own foundations,” Clement Greenberg writes, “but it is the civilization that has gone furthest in doing so. I identify Modernism with the intensification, almost the exacerbation, of this self-critical tendency that began with the philosopher Kant.”
     What makes Kant’s critique unique in the history of modernity is that it did not follow the standard rule of criticizing a subject from the outside, as was the de facto method during the Enlightenment. By “outside” I mean not adopting the premises of the subject of critique, but rather assuming other premises as a basis for critiquing it. The Enlightenment critique of religion was an outside job. Rather, Kant criticizes from the inside by using critical procedures upon the subject of criticism. In his case, Kant used logic in order to place limits upon logic (subjecting his subject), thereby reducing it down to its critical essence, and function. Kant’s logical “antinomies” within his Critique Of Pure Reason are an example of what you get when “logic goes subjective” (as it were). 
     One of Kant’s objectives was to put limits on Enlightenment reason, through his subjective critique of logic, in order to make room for religious faith. Kant’s modern critique of the Enlightenment critique was an inside job. This example raises an important point about internal criticism. The point is not to subvert the subject of concern, but to entrench it within its own methods and motives. This turn to the subject as the object of subjective concern is the essence of Kant's modernism. It is also the philosophical key to understanding Baudelaire’s brand of Impressionism, and its impact and influence on Canadian post-impressionist painting in the 20th century.
     This revolutionary brand of internal criticism began to influence fields outside of philosophy (painting included), especially within the 19th century. Because of this influence, we moderns now stand in the shadow of Kant in the same way that earlier generations once stood in the shadow of Aristotle. Kant is the Eiffel Tower within the Paris of the modern mind. 

Kant's Shadow


     What Kant did to critical philosophy, Baudelaire did to art criticism. However, what makes Baudelaire different, and thereby ground breaking, is that he applied Kant’s critical modus operandi more consistently than did his modern master. Standing with one foot within Kant’s shadow, Baudelaire made art criticism self-critical by turning it upon itself through brilliantly combining linguistic sense with lyrical scope. He showed what he said in the very act of saying what he sought to show. This forced his readers to turn their attention toward the immediacy of the present moment, just as Kant forced his readers to conclude that reason’s limits illuminates the immediacy of faith. Subjective immediacy within Baudelaire’s work is an example of what you get when “art criticism goes subjective” (as it were). 
     Kant placed logical limits on our understanding of the phenomenal world so as to make room for faith in the “noumenal” (what Kant called das Ding an sichThe Thing in itself, that upon which we place our analytic categories of space and time). By making the turn to the subject more subjective, Baudelaire, with his other foot outside of Kant’s shadow, made the phenomenal world, the world of immediate sensation, the only subject of critical concern. The result was revolutionary: a subject is as it is treated to be (but more on Flaubert’s Madame Bovary in a moment).

Charles Baudelaire (1821-1867)


     If Baudelaire made room for anything in his new brand of modernism, it was an abstract variant on Kant’s noumenal world. Following upon a pragmatic lead by Henry’s brother William James, Baudelaire could be said to embody the spirit of James’ pragmatic credo: there is no difference that does not make some difference (less is more, in life as it is in fashion). The noumenal world makes no difference to critical consciousness. Better to reduce it down to no more and no less than a product of the modern mind. 
     Commenting on the work of Constantin Guys, Baudelaire says that he “is looking for that quality which you must allow me to call ‘modernity;’ for I know of no better word to express the idea I have in mind. He makes it his business to extract from fashion whatever element it may contain of poetry within history, to distil the eternal from the transitory." In what does this “eternal” consist? Baudelaire is clear: “By ‘modernity’ I mean the ephemeral, the fugitive, the contingent, the half of art whose other half is the eternal and the immutable.”
     How does Baudelaire's "immutable" differ from Kant’s “noumenal”? The difference is entirely abstract: “Absolute and eternal beauty does not exist, or rather it is only an abstraction skimmed from the general surface of different beauties. The particular element in each manifestation comes from the emotions: and just as we have our own particular emotions, so we have our own beauty.” Human emotions understood as mutably immutable, the historically condemned constant in a poetically changing world, is Baudelaire’s aesthetic equivalent to Kant’s logical antinomies. 
     This abstract reduction on Baudelaire’s part made impressionistic painting possible. It focused artistic attention on lived-experience. Through the procedure of painting itself, Impressionism was critiquing painting from within, thereby manifesting the philosophy of modernism in general, and giving birth to modernist painting in particular. It consistently entrenched its subject of concern (life as it is experienced to be) within its own methods and motives. This turn to the subject harkens back to the ancient idea (first made possible by Heraclitus, and then made popular by Martin Heidegger’s Sein Und ZeitBeing And Time) that Being is becoming, that the Being of beings is essentially historic, temporary, contingent, and immediate. By focusing on the temporary moment, impressionistic painters were literally painting the Being of beings, the ground of being: reality itself. 
     For Baudelaire, impressionistic painting is not so much art for art’s sake, but art for artist’s sake. It was a modern realism with a magical difference. His was a self-conscious, indeed critical, subjectivity, the product of his answer to Kant’s famous question “What Is Enlightenment?” He answered it by asking a similar, if not more important, question: “What is pure art according to the modern idea?” Baudelaire’s answer is instructive, and sums up how best to think of his work: “It is to create a suggestive magic, containing at the same time the object and the subject, the world external to the artist and the artist himself.” That is impressionistic painting: as romantic as it is real, as objective as it is subjective, as external as it is expressive. 
     Baudelaire created his own shadow to cast, engulfing both literature and art. In the introduction to the 1861 edition of Les Fleurs du mal (stripped of the six “indecent” offences), Baudelaire described his “hypocritical reader” as his intimate brother: hypocrite lecteur – mon semblabel – mon frère! Peter Gay points out that while he had few brothers, he did have many illustrious sons. Influential among them was Gustave Flaubert, who praised Baudelaire for having “found the way of rejuvenating romanticism.” He returned the compliment by commending Flaubert’s Madame Bovary for showing that “all subjects are equally good or bad according to the manner in which they are treated.” No wonder Flaubert said of Baudelaire that he resembled no one (a very modern compliment). He used hyperbole to make a point, obviously, but the point leaves its impress, nonetheless, especially concerning Baudelaire’s unique place in the history of impressionistic painting. 
     Baudelaire’s friendship with Eugène Boudin made the transition from Realism (representation) to Impressionism (romance) in painting possible. Baudelaire’s influence on the product of that transition in the work of Edouard Manet was so acute that it’s only right to read Manet’s painting as Baudelaire’s Olympian program put to modern canvas. I side with the historians who think of Manet’s Olympia as the first modern painting.

Olympia - 1863
Edouard Manet



     In Baudelaire you go from Kant’s turn to the subject to a more consistent turn to subjectivism. What you get in the impressionistic wake of Baudelaire’s work is a final turn toward the substantive. What is Canadian post-Impressionism? Canadian post-impressionistic painting is the result of a critical focus placed upon phenomenal subjectivity, articulated and promoted within the work of Baudelaire, and manifested on canvas by painters like Morrice who felt and dealt his influence. That influence is grounded in Baudelaire's theory of representation in his 1857 poem "Correspondence." He writes that art expresses feelings and evokes ideas and emotions. In the process it rises to a level of artistic interrelatedness, where "sounds would suggest colors, colors sounds, and even ideas would be evoked by sounds and colors." Cafe - Paris is a visual example of Baudelaire's conviction that "the whole of the visible universe is only a storehouse of images and signs to which the imagination assigns a place and relative value; it is a kind of nourishment that the imagination must digest and transform." This is why Morrice should be numbered among Baudelaire's many illustrious sons.

A.K. Prakash. Canadian Art: Selected Masters From Private Collections. Vincent Fortier Publishing, 2003.
Charles C. Hill. Morrice - A Gift To The Nation: The G. Blair Laing Collection. National Gallery Of Canada, 1992.
Francis Frascina and Charles Harrison (eds). Modern Art And Modernism: A Critical Anthology. Harper & Row, 1987.
Gustave Flaubert. Madame Bovary. Penguin Classics, 2002.
Herschel B. Chipp (ed). Theories Of Modern Art: A Source Book By Artists And Critics. University Of California Press, 1996.
Immanuel Kant. Critique Of Pure Reason. Penguin Classics, 2008.
Martin Heidegger. Being And Time. Harper Perennial Modern Classics, 2008.
Peter Gay. Modernism - The Lure Of Heresy: From Baudelaire To Beckett And Beyond. Norton, 2008.