Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Flowers of evil

Alméry Lobel-Riche, Charles Baudelaire, 1921

It would be possible to argue that France’s two greatest poets – Charles Baudelaire and Guillaume Apollinaire – were also her two greatest art critics. Whereas in England the visual and literary worlds are quite separate, French writers and artists have been engaged in an intimate dialogue since at least the time of Victor Hugo.

The work of Baudelaire has continued to cast an hypnotic glamour over French artists. Baudelaire has inspired many great artists – Henri Matisse, Georges Rouault, Kees van Dongen, Henri Héran, Armand Rassenfosse, Charles Despiau - and some of the epic journeys of 20th-century bookmaking, such as Édouard Goerg’s massive 2-volume edition of Les Fleurs du Mal, illustrated with 269 original lithographs.

I can’t count the number of prints I have that are inspired by Baudelaire – mostly by Les Fleurs du Mal, but also by Le Spleen de Paris, Les Paradis Artificiels and the Journaux Intimes.

Arnaud d'Hauterives, Qu'est-ce qu l'amour?, 1991

Most of these prints can be classed as Symbolist, with elements of Surrealism and Hyper-realism creeping in over the course of time. But even an artist such as Arnaud d’Hauterives, influenced by these later movements, is essentially extending the Symbolist aesthetic in his work. The influence of his teacher and friend Balthus is very evident in the art of Hauterives, but so too is that of earlier masters of shadow and light such as Odilon Redon and Georges Seurat. The concerns of the Symbolists, that complex interweaving of death, decadence, and desire, still speak powerfully to us even though Symbolism as a movement in art and literature is more than a century past its peak.

Arnaud d'Hauterives, Les Bijoux, 1985

Hauterives is not very well known outside France, though within it he is a venerable figure. He was born in Braine (Aisne) in 1933. He was taught printmaking by Édouard Goerg at the École des Beaux-Arts, Paris. Arnaud d’Hauterives was elected a member of the Académie des Beaux-Arts in 1984, serving as its President in 1987, 1991, and 1996, when he was also elected its Secrétaire Perpétuel. In 1986 Hauterives became curator of Monet’s collection at the Musée Marmottan.

Hauterives’ own artistic direction was powerfully shaped by Balthus, with whom he first came into contact after winning the Premier Grand Prix de Rome in 1957. The two artists share an ability to imbue a scene with a disquieting sense of dislocation and suppressed sexuality. They are both painters of atmosphere rather than appearance.

Arnaud d'Hauterives, Le plus beau des amants, 1991

I have been able to acquire suites of signed lithographs by Arnaud d’Hauterives inspired by Les Paradis Artificiels (1974; one of 72 copies), Les Fleurs du Mal (1985; one of 155 copies), and Les Journaux Intimes (1991; one of 68 copies) and count them among the jewels of the collection – erotic, ambiguous, unsettling. They are technically complex, too. I have a set of progressive proofs of one lithograph, Madrigal triste, showing that it required no fewer than 14 colour passes, in various shades shades of pink, magenta, and purple. The result is incredibly rich, with endless undertones and overtones of colour.

Arnaud d'Hauterives, Two doves, 1974

I suppose as I’ve started with Hauterives I should go on to discuss other recent artistic interpreters of Baudelaire, before I dive back in time. I have suites of lithographs by three comparable modern artists – Bernadette Kelly, Michèle Battut, and Claude Serre. All four of these artists, in fact, were commissioned by the same publisher, Philippe Lebaud.

Bernadette Kelly, Les bienfaits de la lune, 1979

Bernadette Kelly is the most warm and intimate, bathing her interiors in candlelight and wreathing her exteriors in mist. I admire her work very much, and am surprised her talent isn’t more widely recognized. I have a catalogue for her 1973 show at the Bateau Lavoir (the show that brought her to the attention of Lebaud), at which she showed intimiste paintings and prints of nudes and interiors. Her Baudelaire lithographs, inspired by Le Spleen de Paris, were published in 1979; I have one of 25 signed suites on Auvergne paper. Work by Bernadette Kelly comes up at auction every now and then, and is evidently sought after when it does, but there haven’t been the books and retrospectives you might expect for a male artist of comparable achievement. Her name sounds Irish, but Kelly is a French artist, born in Bousquet d’Orb in the Hérault.

Bernadette Kelly, Laquelle est la vrai?, 1979

Michèle Battut, a female artist contemporary with Bernadette Kelly (Battut was born in 1946, Kelly in 1933) provides a much cooler and more distanced account of Baudelaire. There’s a sense of Magritte in her highly-finished surreal/hyper-real lithographs for Les Fleurs du Mal, of which I have one of 155 suites, dating from 1988.

Michèle Battut, Les bienfaits de la lune, 1988

Battut's lithographs for Baudelaire seem catalogues of absences rather than depictions of presences. There was a retrospective exhibition of Michèle Battut’s lithographs at the Musée de Bourbonne des Bains from May to September 2007 – another show I missed but would have loved to see.

Michèle Battut, Le crépuscule du soir, 1988

Claude Serre is the fourth of my artists commissioned by Philippe Lebaud. As an artist, Claude Serre is underrated because he was good at too many other things. He was a painter, an illustrator, a cartoonist, a craftsman in porcelain and glass. I have one of 65 signed suites of his 1982 lithographs for Les Fleurs du Mal, which reveal a strong sense of composition and a mastery of the sensuous and the macabre.

Claude Serre, The Albatross, 1982

With apologies for all this leaping about in time, I also have many prints nearer in date and aesthetic sensibility to Baudelaire himself. The most authentically Symbolist of these is probably a portfolio of etchings and wood engravings by Henry Chapront illustrating the poem Le Voyage. Chapront was born in 1876, and enrolled at the École des Arts Décoratifs in Paris at the age of just 16. He was welcomed into the decadent world of the Symbolists, becoming friends with Alfred Jarry and mixing with writers such as Verlaine, Huysmans, and Remy de Gourmont, and artists such as Félicien Rops, Modigliani, and Toulouse-Lautrec. Although Henry Chapront lived until 1965, his work as whole is completely imbued with the glamorous decadence of the fin-de-siècle.

Henry Chapront, Mermaids, 1922

Chapront’s edition of Le Voyage was published in 1922 in an edition of just 100 numbered copies and 5 artist’s copies lettered A-E. The total edition was 7 on Japan ancien à la forme, 16 on Japan imperial, and 72 on vergé d’Arches. All the etchings and wood engravings were hand-printed by Chapront, while the text was printed by Robert Coulouma. My copy is one of the 5 hors-commerce copies (copy B), one of the 7 on Japan ancien. It was the personal gift of Henry Chapront to Robert Coulouma, and is brimming with extra proofs of each print in 3, 4, or 5 states, all signed, with limitations from 12 to 100. The proof of the frontispiece etching (a portrait of Baudelaire) in its final state is charmingly inscribed, “à Monsieur Coulouma maître-imprimeur, cordiale & sympathique homage de l’imprimeur Henry Chapront”.

Henry Chapront, Charles Baudelaire, 1922

The notorious sequence of poems excluded from Les Fleurs du Mal on the grounds of obscenity have, of course, attracted artists. The first was Armand Rassenfosse in 1903. Les Pieces Condamnées was the first book of Jean-Gabriel Daragnès, published in 1917 I have one of 42 separate suites of these exquisite small wood engravings, printed in both black and brown, some signed, some not.

Jean-Gabriel Daragnès, Les Bijoux, 1917

Two other Symbolist artists who were fascinated by Baudelaire were Édouard Chimot and Alméry Lobel-Riche. Chimot’s etchings with aquatint for Le Spleen de Paris were issued in 1926, in an edition of 705 copies. As usual with Chimot, the etchings mostly depict sensuous nudes, in a style that verges on Art Deco – these are definitely 20s flappers rather than fin-de-siècle seductresses.

Édouard Chimot, L'horloge, 1926

My etchings by Lobel-Riche were issued in 1921 to illustrate Le Spleen de Paris; there were 352 copies. The art of Alméry Lobel-Riche (whose real name was Alméric Riche) is characterized by a troubled and troubling atmosphere of decadent sensuality, and is very much the artistic counterpart of the poetry of Baudelaire and de Musset.

Alméry Lobel-Riche, Le Spleen de Paris, 1921

In 1921, Lobel-Riche also issued 40 etchings in 4 or 5 states to illustrate Les Fleurs du Mal; there were only 24 copies, so I don’t expect to see one any time soon.

Alméry Lobel-Riche, La Belle Dorothée, 1921

Mariette Lydis and Léonor Fini are two of the most remarkable women artists of the twentieth century, both in their work and their lives. Both lived lives of extraordinary adventure and sexual intrigue. Mariette, Comtesse Govone, was born Marietta Ronsperger in Vienna in 1887 (or, depending on which source you believe, 1890, 1892, or 1894). She married Jean Lydis in 1922, but left him for the Italian writer Massimo Bontempelli, who took her to Paris. In 1928 Mariette Lydis married the art publisher Comte Giuseppi Govone. Lydis had a great artistic success in 30s Paris, starting with a solo show at the Galerie Bernheim Jeune, after which she became a member and a juror at the Salon d’Automne. Mariette Lydis fled the Nazi invasion of France with her lover Erica Marx, taking refuge in the sleepy Cotswold town of Winchcombe, before making a perilous voyage to Buenos Aires. Lydis lived in Argentina for the rest of her life.

Mariette Lydis, Portraits de maîtresses, 1948

Often unashamedly erotic, Lydis is not afraid to be sentimental or grotesque when that is appropriate. There is always an edge of ambiguous sexuality and danger in the art of Mariette Lydis, well-represented in her sometimes alarming 1948 copper engravings for Baudelaire’s Petits Poèmes en Prose, of which I have one of 132 separate suites printed in red-brown on Lana paper.

Mariette Lydis, Un cheval de race, 1948

Lydis issued a portfolio of 10 etchings for Les Fleurs du Mal in 1928, in an edition of 125 copies, and an illustrated edition of the same text in the same year in an edition of 353 copies; in 1937 she issued 33 Dessins pour Les Fleurs du Mal, which are colour reproductions of her drawings rather than original prints. She also illustrated Les Paradis Artifiiciels with original lithographs in 1955.

Léonor Fini was born in Argentina to an Argentinan father and Italian mother, and raised in Trieste, Italy. Her mother dressed her as a boy, supposedly to thwart kidnap attempts by her father. This early gender-bending may have added one element to the alarming, predatory sexuality of Léonor Fini's work. Early allied to the surrealists through her friendship with figures such as Ernst, Dalí, and Bataille, Léonor Fini always shrugged off the label "Surrealist", writing simply that, "I paint pictures which do not exist and which I would like to see." She lived most of her life in France, surrounded by cats and lovers (the latter including the painter Stanislao Lepri).

Léonor Fini, Lesbos, 1964

My Baudelaire prints by Léonor Fini are one of 500 suites of colour lithographs for Les Fleurs du Mal, published in 1964. As well as Les Fleurs du Mal, Léonor Fini illustrated Baudelaire’s La Fanfarlo with original colour lithographs (1969)

Mario Avati, Edgar Allan Poe, 1950

I also have a set of aquatints by the Monaco-born artist Mario Avati that, like the works of Lydis, concentrate on the spooky and uncomfortable in Baudelaire – what one might call the incipient Surrealism. I believe these to be extremely rare. According to Luc Monod, although the publisher intended to print a much larger run, no more than 150 copies were actually printed, so that Avati’s Les Plus Belles Pages de Charles Baudelaire is “de la plus insigne rareté”.

Jacob Epstein, The Cat, 1940

Lastly, my lithographs by Jacob Epstein, printed by Fernand Mourlot from the stone in an edition of 1500 copies, must be the most visceral and ferocious illustrations ever inspired by the poetry of Baudelaire. They marry the sculptural and spiritual heft of William Blake with the transgressive distortions of the Symbolists.

Jacob Epstein, A Mournful Madrigal, 1940

Simply breathtaking.


spiltteeth said...

I;ve spent hours perusing the internet looking for illustrations to "Flowers of Evil" and have found precious little. I am astounded no one has collected these works into a book, or at least a website. If anyone knows where i can track these illustrations down, let me know. -Jonathan

Neil said...

Hi Jonathan - If you go to my website at you'll find many more Baudelaire-inspired prints by the artists in this blog entry. Just typing Baudelaire in the search box will bring quite a lot up, but by no means all, so it's probably best to search artist by artist. For a reasonably comprehensive list of fine French illustrated editions of Baudelaire, you should consult Luc Monod, Manuel de l'amateur de livres illustrés modernes 1875-1975. This is available and fully-searchable on the web, at
though it's one of those infuriating sites that's sometimes there and sometimes not.

The Drunk Mommy Diary said...

I can't tell you how deliciously provocative these all are, and my gratitude for you compiling and sharing them ... words fail. I'd live in a shack filled to the roof with these and find myself quite content.

Neil said...

Hi Drunk Mommy, I look forward to reading your diary - in the meantime, I'm very happy to have given you pleasure.

Anonymous said...

recently saw a Bernadette Kelly litho, published by Le Bateau Lavoir, Paris, and investigated the name, as I was unfamiliar.

very glad to have landed here. such knowledge is not to be ignored! thank you for your compilation. am intrigued by La Fleurs de Mal, now.


Neil said...

Welcome, flatsol - I hope you'll enjoy the blog. Bernadette Kelly is a wonderful artist, I think. I'm surprised she isn't better known.