I am teaching Commercial Modernism in America 1865-1965, a class I last offered in 2011. It’s great course content–as I frame it, illustration, comics and animation, now with some history of photography and industrial design worked in. But my strongest affinities are with the visual journalism of that 100 years (and since). Since 2011 my own creative and pedagogical investments in illustrated reportage have sharpened and deepened.
Last week you were assigned Baudelaire's The Painter of Modern Life as a reading. The essay, written in 1860 and published in 1863, pairs nicely with Manet's Olympia (1863), as the painting captures the frank engagement with the present for which the poet called (and was experienced as such an affront to the civilizing pretensions of art).
But Baudelaire's putative subject was the unnamed illustrator Constantin Guys, who did significant work for the London Illustrated News, particularly in Crimea. The essayist is less concerned with military reportage than with the immediacy and the evanescence of a cultural moment. Of Guys he writes:
The crowd is his element, as the air is that of birds and water of fishes. His passion and his profession are to become one flesh with the crowd: For the perfect flaneur, for the passionate spectator, it is an immense joy to set up house in the heart of the multitude, amid the ebb and flow of movement, in the midst of the fugitive and the infinite. To be away from home and yet to feel oneself everywhere at home; to see the world, to be at the centre of the world, and yet to remain hidden from the world–such are a few of the slightest pleasures of those independent, passionate, impartial natures which the tongue can but clumsily define. The spectator is a prince who everywhere rejoices in his incognito...
"Any man," he said one day, in the course of one of those conversations which he illumines with burning glance and evocative gesture, "any man who is not crushed by one of those griefs whose nature is too real not to monopolize all his capacities, and who can yet be bored in the heart of the multitude, is a blockhead! a blockhead! and I despise him!"
This imperative–to engage what is, who is, how things look–suggests journalistic output. But other modes emerged, too. In the United States, the Ashcan School promoted frank reportorial realism in painting. Last year’s George Bellows exhibition at the Metropolitan revealed a social landscapist of keen insight and sometimes operatic reach.
Baudelaire credits his painter-illustrator-visual reporter with prodigious powers of observation, thoroughly attuned to his modern moment.
By 'modernity' I mean the ephemeral, the fugitive, the contingent, the half of art whose other half is the eternal and the immutable. Every old master has had his own modernity; the great majority of fine portraits that have come down to us from former generations are clothed in the costume of their own period...This transitory, fugitive element, whose metamorphoses are so rapid, must on no account be despised or dispensed with.
What would the Constantin Guys of our time notice? Which customs and costumes, which artifacts, what speech, what ways of holding oneself, which contemporary textures, would our illustrator note and record? The beginning of that discussion focused particularly on technology: its manifestations and uses. Such an observation might have credibly been offered in any of the last 100 years. Which technology, what manifestations, and which influences upon contemporary life?
Secondly: what's behind the half-and-half formulation of the now and the ancient, the "contingent" versus the "immutable"? How shall we parse that equation in today's terms?
Our abortive discussion in class a week ago begs your response to these questions. With more time to reflect, what do you really think about this? What might be the difference between a superficial answer–smart phones!–versus a more searching one? Discuss.
Images: George Bellows, Men of the Docks, 1912 (recently confirmed as having been purchased by National Gallery in London, the first major American painting to have been acquired for that collection); D.B. Dowd, San Rafael, California, brush drawing with digital color (composed on the morning of Mike Hirshon's wedding; my warmup that day), 2012; Edouard Manet, Olympia, oil on canvas,1863; Constantin Guys, Dandies in the Park, ink wash, n.d., Bellows, The Cliff Dwellers, 1912; Bellows, Splinter Beach, drawing on paper in ink, crayon and graphite, 1912; William Eggleston, Parking, color photograph, n.d., Eggleston, Untitled, color photograph, n.d., Bellows, 42 Kids, oil on canvas, 1907; Eggleston, Untitled Portrait, color photograph, n.d. (All the Eggleston stuff is from the late 1960s and early 1970s.)