Twenty One artists, responded to the invitation issued by the art dealer extraordinaire Jamshid Mirfenderesky to submit work related to the title of the most famous collection of poems, written in the 19th C.
Charles Baudelaire published Les Fleur du Mal several times: in 1857 edition of 100 poems, seventeen removed by censors and later reinstated in 1861 edition, followed in 1866 by Les Epaves (Scraps). A definitive edition in 1868 came out after Baudelaire’s death. Quite a history in a little more the decade. The reception was not less complex. Baudelaire, his publisher and the printer were successfully prosecuted for creating an offense against public morals. They were fined but Baudelaire was not imprisoned.
In Le Figaro J Habas led the charge against Baudelaire, writing: “Everything in it which is not hideous is incomprehensible, everything one understands is putrid”.Then Baudelaire responded to the outcry, in a prophetic letter to his mother:
“You know that I have always considered that literature and the arts pursue an aim independent of morality. Beauty of conception and style is enough for me. But this book, whose title (Fleurs du mal) says everything, is clad, as you will see, in a cold and sinister beauty. It was created with rage and patience. Besides, the proof of its positive worth is in all the ill that they speak of it. The book enrages people. Moreover, since I was terrified myself of the horror that I should inspire, I cut out a third from the proofs. They deny me everything, the spirit of invention and even the knowledge of the French language. I don’t care a rap about all these imbeciles, and I know that this book, with its virtues and its faults, will make its way in the memory of the lettered public, beside the best poems of V. Hugo, Th. Gautier and even Byron.”
Many notables rallied behind Baudelaire and condemned the sentence.
Victor Hugo wrote to him: “Your fleurs du mal shine and dazzle like stars… I applaud your vigorous spirit with all my might”.
In the above letter Baudelaire defined his concept of art as “independent of morality” enveloped in a cold a sinister beauty that will make its way into memory. Thinking of his theoretical model of correspondences the following examines connections between that concept and the exhibition.
…a cold and sinister beauty...
A hybrid by John Brown – a sculpture, installation, assemblage, altarpiece, tomb …a Thonet stool, on it a right angled container, in it a bouquet of paper leaves and plastic red, white, pink and yellow flowers. Each white leaf is scribbled over with sums copied from different supermarket shopping receipt. On the wall a circle of a disk, of a target for darts, one dart/daffodil stuck in it. On concentric circles different colours and handwritten French words taken by chance from different poems. The words are aligned with a circle of large Arabic numerals corresponding to the number of each poem. Correspondences were central to Baudelaire’s aesthetics and theory of art, even in a more sophisticated mode than pairing a fragment with the whole. Its importance is embedded in the subject of chance, repeated with a touch of Lautreamont from the handwritten numerals, to a number of flowers, to the line from which a word has been taken. A discrepancy? Well, it is a utensil – chance aiming at a fixed target, something unknown aiming at something defined in shape and material. Details of cognitive fragments are excavated out of their original context. What it means is only true within this constructed object, and yet it claims universal value. It is not forced upon my attention until I interrupt its silent project by a question and a doubt. The question addresses the state of mind that evokes care, and care that discloses the character of the authentic possibility of being. Brown determines the subject to be powerless face to face the chance, yet intoxicated with the visual beauty of white on white. The doubt comes from encircling the object as a veiled destiny. There is much we cannot know and master. However, a cynical note resonates: contemplated as a whole For One Day and One Day only (2013, mixed media) emanates something real ( and not only through found objects, shopping and darts). Switching to details the work laughs at that crude apprehension. It is not the ideal beauty – it is the terrorising beauty capable of disclosing the vulnerability of being. It does not want to be liked.
…it will make its way in the memory….
Near Brown’s hybrid, in a bay of a window, a delicate, also white sculpture plays with the fashionable presence of skulls in contemporary art. Zoe Murdoch shares some utensils with Brown’s fondness for found objects and assemblage, and the monochrome tonality. The skull as death connects over a century to the 1866 edition with the illustration of the censored poems Les Epaves by Baudelaire’s friend Felicien Rops(1866).
It opens up the power of appropriateness in charting the connectivity between surfaces and depth. The metaphor of the gemstone – no cutter can ever bring out what is not already there- is particularly apt. Murdoch chose to work with one poem The Death of Lovers (2013, mixed media). La Mort des Amants …l’amour/la mort… veiled for me by association with a poem Le Vase Brise by the 1901 Nobel prize winner Sully Prudhomme , namely the line N’y touchez pas il est brise…
Murdoch emailed me: It is mixed media and found objects – I am not sure if you want these listed? There is not so much interesting info about the materials in terms of their history… probably just what you already know about the paper flowers, for me there were less materials incorporated than I usually use and the decoupaging of the skull with paper was where I spent the most time. It was created in 2013 specifically for that exhibition.I started by thinking of the theme Jamshid gave us of ‘Fleurs du Mal’ but in the end I based the work around just one poem from the book I also included the text from this within the piece itself – I have posted it below. As you can see this poem will hopefully explain my use of the skull, flowers, angel wings and the mirrors etc within the work.I used ‘Les Jeux Sont Faits’ by Sartre because it’s theme is about two characters that “are predestined to be soulmates, but this destiny is prevented by their premature violent deaths, and they do not meet until passing into the afterlife.” (Wikipedia quote) I thought it gave an extra dimension to the piece’s story and possibly an even more romantic ending ; ( my addition: Murdoch is referring above to the pages from Sartre’s book she folded into delicate flowers.)
The Death of Lovers
We shall have beds full of subtle perfumes,
Divans as deep as graves, and on the shelves
Will be strange flowers that blossomed for us
Under more beautiful heavens.
Using their dying flames emulously,
Our two hearts will be two immense torches
Which will reflect their double light
In our two souls, those twin mirrors.
Some evening made of rose and of mystical blue
A single flash will pass between us
Like a long sob, charged with farewells;
And later an Angel, setting the doors ajar,
Faithful and joyous, will come to revive
The tarnished mirrors, the extinguished flames.
( my addition:transl. William Aggeler, The Fowers of Evil, Fresno, Ca: Academy Library Guild, 1954, accessible on fleursdumal.org/poem/197)
…beauty conception and style…
Baudelaire’s contemporaneous audience focused attention on the subject matter. The principle themes include sex, death, lesbianism, metamorphosis, melancholy, the corruption of the city, lost innocence, the oppressive modes of life, nostalgia, intimacy. Walking around the Fenderesky exhibition, I searched for visual equivalents to some of those and to the sensitive thoughtful statement by Theodore de Banville “”immense, prodigious, unexpected, mingled with admiration and with some indefinable anxious fear” or Gustave Flaubert “: “You have found a way to rejuvenate Romanticism… You are as unyielding as marble, and as penetrating as an English mist”.
Feeling invited to belong to a group around their generous host quite a few of the artists have selected generic work.
Baudelaire’s themes grown from rage at the ills of the society found recipient in this large painting.
In the eye level zone (above it as an abstract pink emptiness, and above it a fuselage of soemthing between the aircraft and a bomb) Paddy McCann suspended a red stiletto shoe(life size) precariously in front of a large dark gestural abstraction with some words disappearing into its depth, Dark Flowers, 2013, oil on linen). Baudelaire would very likely approve the critique of capitalism (thus a moral value!?)– including the dissolved accuracy and certainty of the letters.
The three partite composition (insinuating time and layers) appears also in an image of a personal world.
In a softened symbolism echoing Gauguin’s Pont Aven colours this work whispers not just a sweet nonsense. Jennifer Trouton focused on the cognitive function of cause and effect in genetics and morals, hiding exquisite skills behind wisdom of a well worn proverb. The date, 2011, gives away a curator’s strategy. When he did not have a fresh response to his invitation, he would search artist’s collection if there was a match with the simplest layer of the exhibition concept: The images of flowers are the main theme of this exhibition (quote from the invitation letter).
Indeed, majority of the exhibits dealt with flowers as a subject matter, as shapes, as inspiration to composition, scale and mood, and were made in 2013. The style did not differ from the artist’s established art practice, except, at least for me, the delightful departure of Graham Gingles from boxes to oil on canvas, embracing quotes from Velasquez Las Meninas as well as his palette, Fleurs du Mal, 2013).
The dryness paired with timelessness in still lives Tjibbe Hooghiemstra distilled from a narrow scale of pale hues on hard edged cut out shapes .His Flower I, 2013, mixed media, is saturated with melancholy and nostalgic sadness. The cerebral beauty and joy when things fall into an order that warrants finish appeared in several paintings, Claire Carpenter’s Les Roses Fanees, (2013,tempera on gesso board) and Patrick Michael Fitzgerald’s Untitled (2012, mixed media on linen) do it particularly well.
A group of the artists posited imagined over observed in an physical modelling of thick paint, Clement McAleer’s Blossom (2013, oil on canvas) surprised by its intimate scale reminiscent of a contemplative page of 15th C Book of Hours.
The Cartesian idea that design is a central fact of nature, that it is its abstract rational plan, joins the belief that individually perceived atomized phenomena still warrant in several paintings that have flower in their title, e.g. David Crone, Cathy Callan, Mary Noonan, Fionnula d’Arcy, Shiobhan McDonald and Sharon Kelly.
Her two almost monochrome images of rose stems enter a dialogue with illustration byBaudelaire’s friend Felicien Rops(1866) and with another for the 1983 edition of Les Fleurs du Mal by Michael Burton Mazur (1935-2009) as if mimicking the aesthetic force of rich tonality of black on a page.
Direct comparison does not diminish either Mazur or Kelly, nevertheless she inflames imagination to provoke extremely intense mystery – a lasting benefit which only poetry can bring about.
05/01/2014 Slavka Sverakova