Monday, August 9, 2010

Charles Baudelaire

That Edvard Munch was commissioned to illustrate Baudelaire's Les Fleurs du Mal, whilst living in Paris, in 1896, is, I suspect, quite well known, even if, to me, this moment of Symbolist history is novel.


The events of the day are described superstitiously, pointedly and, at times, excitedly, by Sue Prideaux, in her biography, Behind the Scream [link], which can be browsed, in part, online [link].
[...] It was probably as a result of the contacts he met chez Mallarm√© that Munch received a commission to illustrate Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs du Mal, which, though first published forty years earlier, remained a seminal work for the Symbolists. Munch was approached with the commission by Monsieur Alfred Piat, the chairman of Les Cent Bibliophiles, an association of book lovers halfway between a publishing house and a private book club. These bibliophilic societies were a phenomenon of the time. They were devoted to the production of ‘the beautiful book’, which had become decidedly less beautiful as a result of the nefarious effects of mass-production since the 1870s, when the cheaper mechanical processes arrived using etched zinc plates. […] Les Cent Bibliophiles specialised in production of Symbolist texts illustrated by contemporary artists. Like Munch, they believed in the synthesis of the arts and they took great care in marrying the artist and the text, convinced that the sum of a text and its sympathetic illustrations could achieve far greater resonance than each taken separately. Very beautiful and very expensive limited editions were produced, after which the plates were broken, and this too was part of the Symbolist principal of the enclosed, inaccessible, hermetic text.

Monsieur Piat died quite soon after approaching Munch, and so the Fleurs du Mal commission was never completed. There remain a few of Munch’s sketches. They have been married up by later hands to the texts whose grave-reek spirit they catch admirably, but one cannot help but suspect that a higher agency had a hand in the timing of Monsieur Piat’s death. The commission was bringing out everything that was self-conscious and over-drawn in Munch, who did not respond well to the stinking-lily quality of decadent Symbolism with its edge of Satanism.

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