Studies for Flowers of Evil and Good
Flowers of Evil and Good continues O’Grady’s attempt to engage and comprehend the self through the study of cultural history, and vice versa. Her historic approach to postmodernist concerns (O’Grady won the Sons of the American Revolution history prize for Massachusetts when she graduated from high school) was confirmed by an encounter with 1980-90s Black British cultural studies. Writings by Stuart Hall, Hazel Carby, Paul Gilroy, and Kobena Mercer helped crystallize ideas she’d had about cultural colonialism since beginning to teach European modernism from Baudelaire to Breton at SVA in the mid-70s.
O’Grady’s love of Baudelaire was inseparable from her fascination and identification with his black muse Jeanne Duval — the poet’s common-law wife of 20 years who had been the inspiration for his best and most complex work both in poetry and, O’Grady believed, in the art critical writings with which he had founded modernism. She began work on a project to examine their relationship while she was a Bunting Fellow at Harvard in 1995-96. At last there were time and resources to teach herself Photoshop, to research images of the couple and pay for high-quality scans of them, and to gather the extant information on their lives. . . she found a lot on Baudelaire, almost nothing on Duval. The project would require more invention than she’d anticipated.
O’Grady first showed two studies for the work in New Histories at the Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston, in Fall 1996. But these still felt unresolved. The breakthrough came in 1998 while preparing for her one-person show at Thomas Erben Gallery, NYC. O’Grady’s mother Lena, who died in 1991, was 80 years younger than Jeanne but the two had similar trajectories, having left their islands to live in the metropole as young adults. They’d had postmodern lives before the word was invented. When Haitian-born Jeanne began to speak in Lena’s Jamaican patois, the shape of Flowers of Evil and Good became more clear.
Four Diptychs (FEG), 2010
In Pétunia: magazine féministe d’art contemporain et de loisirs, issue 2, pp. 43-46, Summer 2010.
© Lorraine O’Grady, 2010
The French feminist magazine Petunia’s invitation to create a centerfold sparked O’Grady’s piece in the 2010 Whitney Biennial, The First and the Last of the Modernists. The text documents her decision to contrast images of Baudelaire and Michael Jackson. [Also posted as a related material under The First and The Last of the Modernists]
June 1, 2009
For months I’ve planned to resume work on Flowers of Evil and Good, the photo-installation on Baudelaire and his black common-law wife Jeanne Duval and ultimately my mother Lena, which I began in 1995. I adore Baudelaire and taught his poetry for years at the School of Visual Arts here in New York. But as much as I love his poetry, I love him as a man because of Jeanne. Two decades! Longer than most couples I know, and without benefit of either wedding or kids. As a black woman who’s had white partners, I don’t have to speculate to say Charles learned a few things about his own culture he wouldn’t otherwise have known. . . that kind of insider-outsider position makes a leap from romanticism to modernism look easy. Although Jeanne is present in every line of his poetry, even when he writes about Mme Sabatier, she is absent everywhere. Where is her own voice? It isn’t until I hear her in the voice of my mother Lena, born 80 years later into a world which has not yet changed, that I can begin to know who Jeanne is. It is summer now, and I am eager to get back to work. But my computer crashes, and those early files are now buried in half a terabyte of data I must transfer from DVDs to a new external drive.
June 25, 2009
Oh, it is boring! Transferring and organizing is taking weeks. To prevent my mind from numbing, I live on the internet simultaneously. When the news first comes through, for hours I don’t believe it. But it’s true, Michael is dead. And now I am bawling uncontrollably. How could that be? I have always been a Prince fan! Where do my tears come from? Soon I am plunged into Google, into fansites, into YouTube. I maniacally download videos while continuing my data transfer (because I suspect the videos will quickly disappear), pull thousands of images, and read seemingly every article written in the aftermath plus others going back dozens of years. I am dumbfounded. Those who thought he hadn’t produced anything since Thriller had simply stopped listening and looking. MJ and Prince were so unalike, why did we feel we had to choose?
August 11, 2009
Now the data transfer is finished, I’ve begun to put Flowers of Evil and Good in order. . . images of Mama, Aunt Gladys, Aunt Vy, and Jeanne on one side, images of Charles on the other. My friend Mary Beth has taken a place in Greenport, on the North Fork of Long Island, and invited me to stay. She rises early morning, I wake midday, we meet for walks along the harbor and dinner out. In between, there is time spent on organizing the old Flowers of Evil and Good files and on a new obsession I can only name “Michael.” But the more I learn, the more he becomes conflated with Charles, the more similar the two seem—the pivotal turn each gave to his art form, the perfectionism, the absurd need to be different, the ambiguous sexuality. No one will aspire to greatness that un-ironically again. And if Picasso and Mozart had fathers who surrendered, Charles and Michael seem to share a father (and step-father) who cannot be overcome. In Greenport, an invitation comes to contribute to the French feminist journal Petunia. I say yes and hint that the piece “will relate to French culture.” Michael has temporarily replaced Jeanne and my mother. There is a piece here. I don’t know what it is, but there is time for it to emerge. Two male lesbians. Brothers.
September 28, 2009
Working on the mountain of files for Flowers of Evil and Good, I try not to think about the unnamed piece. But today, with only 10 hours notice, I am visited by the curators of the Whitney Biennial. “What will you do for the exhibit?” they ask. I answer spontaneously, as if I already knew: “Four diptychs on Charles Baudelaire and Michael.” Later, the piece has to be named. I will call it The First and the Last of the Modernists. The name is a risk, of course. But peeling back the cultural assumptions of Europe will always be like scraping off a tattoo.
Interview by Cecilia Alemani (FEG), 2010
“Living Symbols of New Epochs.” Interview by Cecilia Alemani. Discussion of development and meaning of The First and the Last of the Modernists. Text in English and Italian. Images of FLM, Miscegenated Family Album, Mlle Bourgeoise Noire, and Cutting Out the New York Times. In Mousse Magazine, issue 24, pp. 100-108, Summer 2010.
Mousse Magazine, Milan, 2010
The Mousse interview, done after the Whitney Biennial opening, elaborated on O’Grady’s piece for that exhibit, The First and the Last of the Modernists, and its relation to her decades of teaching Baudelaire and to her work-in-progress Flowers of Evil and Good. [Also posted as a related material under The First and The Last of the Modernists]
CA: I would like to speak in this interview about your contribution to the 2010 Whitney Biennial, the work The First and the Last of the Modernists (2010). The piece is composed by four photographic diptychs depicting a seemingly unusual couple: Charles Baudelaire and Michael Jackson. The French poet has previously appeared in your work, in particular in Flowers of Evil and Good, a photo installation portraying Baudelaire and his black muse, common-law wife Jeanne Duval ( . . . ) What does Jeanne and her relationship with Baudelaire represent for you?
LOG: At first I was fixated on their having stayed together for 20 years without either wedding or children, on the diminution of self in maintaining even a dysfunctional relationship so long after sexual obsession has disappeared. But soon I began to see these two aspects of Charles, the relationship with Jeanne and the meeting of modernism’s challenges, as somehow connected.
So many forces were colliding in Europe when Jeanne and Charles came of age — the chaos of industrialization, sudden shifts of rural populations to the cities, colonies established to shove raw materials into the always open maw of factories, Europe’s first real encounter with the “other.” Modernism was the aesthetic attempt to understand and control and reflect all of this. In the period of romanticism, it had been so easy to see God in the daffodils, in babbling brooks that ran through the trees. It was still easy even for the artist in cities to view himself as a servant, making art in God’s image. But now the city had changed. One had to see God and beauty in homelessness, in the oil slick on a mud puddle, in the noise and greed. And Charles was one of the first who could do this. I suppose you might say that the modernist moment was the first time art had to be made without God, without guideposts. We’d soon see even the alternative to God, rationalist intellect, being discarded as an incomplete tool ( . . . )
CA: Going back to The First and the Last of the Modernists, here Baudelaire appears paired with another icon, Michael Jackson, who died in June 2009. According to the title, the work seems to depict the two fathers of our modern culture, the first one a key figure for western modernism and the latter the king of American pop culture. Are you a fan of Michael?
LOG: When Michael died, I couldn’t stop balling like a child, as if a member of my own family were gone. But where had those tears come from? I had been a Prince fan! The piece about Charles and Michael was the culmination of the effort to learn why I’d sobbed so uncontrollably that day.
CA: How did you get involved with his music and his myth?
LOG: Before making my first public art work in 1980 at the age of 45 with the performance Mlle Bourgeoise Noire, I’d had several careers. My undergraduate degree from Wellesley College was in economics and Spanish literature. I’d been among other things an intelligence analyst for the Department of State, a literary and commercial translator, a civil rights activist, a housewife. But nothing ever satisfied me. In the early 1970s, I left Chicago where I’d lived with my second husband and came to New York to be with a lover who’d managed rock bands and was now head of publicity for Columbia Records.
I didn’t want to be just a pretty rock chick, some guy’s “old lady” going to parties and concerts. So I began writing about rock and pop music — the first above-ground review of Bruce Springsteen for The Village Voice, the first article on reggae published in Rolling Stone, a cover story on the Allman Brothers, reviews of the New York Dolls and Sly and the Family Stone. Pretty eclectic. The Jackson 5, fronted by little Michael, had been huge and were beginning to decline. I didn’t write about them. They were simply part of the air we breathed.
By 1982 when Michael was dominating the world as a solo act with Off the Wall and Thriller and Prince had broken through with Controversy, I’d found a life and career as a visual artist that would never bore me and was just another pop culture consumer. What made us have to choose between them? Between the lineages of James Brown and Parliament Funkadelic? Perhaps it was like Baudelaire vs Rimbaud. Some spaces can only be occupied in alternation.
CA: What did Michael represent for you?
LOG: After he died, in an obsessive search for the source of my own tears, I plunged into the internet for months and emerged stunned. We’d all known that Michael was a talent like no other. But the demonization of his character (and the rock establishment’s need to keep the world safe for Bruce and Elvis?) had created a consensus that after Thriller he had lost his way. We’d stopped listening and looking. It was the self-consciousness of his achievements that most surprised me, the control he exercised over everyone and everything around him. Quincy Jones responsible for Thriller? Think again. No album was ever more deliberately crafted or had a more ambitious agenda. Masterpieces tailored for every demographic, with the outcome firmly in mind—to break the ghettoization of black talent in Billboard’s “r&b” chart forever. He’d been horrified by the treatment of Off the Wall, for which he’d won just one Grammy, as a “soul” singer.
It’s hard not to lapse into hyperbole when thinking about Michael. Don Cornelius, the creator of Soul Train, said that when he first saw Michael in a variety show two years before the family signed with Motown, he felt like he was in one of those cartoons where the two-ton safe falls out of the sky and lands on your head. An 8-year-old who could already sing as well as Aretha, dance as well as James Brown, and control an audience with Jackie Wilson’s aplomb! And all the evidence on YouTube showed that, in the annals of child prodigies, he was one of the rare ones who could keep developing until the end. I found myself returning to Baudelaire to make sense of him.
CA: What do they have in common, Charles and Michael, in spite of their very different origin? What happens when two different worlds and times clash?
LOG: They were so much alike, Charles and Michael. The similarities I felt in their lives—their indeterminate sexuality, their urgent need to be different from the norm, the drugs, the flamboyant clothes, the makeup, and the father and step-father too young and sexually vital ever to be overcome. Somewhere beyond that lay their similarity as intellectual symbols.
I really saw them not as figures of two different modernisms but rather as two ends of a continuum. If modernism was the aesthetic attempt to deal with industrialism, urbanization, the de-naturalization of culture, and the shock of difference, then it was an effort in which all sides shared and were equally affected—from Charles trying to find his way in the stench of the torn-up streets of Baron Haussman’s Paris, to Michael with lungs permanently impaired from a childhood in Gary when the steel mills still belched fire.
While the old dichotomies between white and black cultures, and between entertainment and fine art, are understandable—it’s hard to live on both sides simultaneously—the hierarchies between these imagined oppositions seem not just passé but fundamentally untrue. When I drew a line from Charles’s Les Fleurs du Mal, written out of Jeanne’s living body, to Picasso’s Les Demoiselles, made with abstract African sculptures, and on to Michael’s insertion of his own body into black-and-white film clips through the miracles of cgi in This Is It, it seemed the triangulation of a circle in which all sides were contained.
What’s most striking about Charles and Michael as artists is the similarity of their attitudes. The modernist artist who could no longer be the servant of God would always be tempted by a perceived obligation to become God. And no one succumbed to the temptation more than these two. It was there in the relentless perfectionism that limited their output, in the fanatical domination of their craft and its history, in the worship of their instrument. I find it so touching to think of Michael warming up for one to two hours with his vocal coach before going on stage or into the studio. And what could be more quixotic, imitate God more than the desire to unify the whole world through music? The amazing thing is how close he came—the most famous person on the planet, a billion mourners crying at his eulogies. I never found the source of my own tears. The search had exhausted me. I’d kept ricocheting between loving him unreasonably and thinking about him analytically. In the end, King of Pop seems such an inadequate term for him. I couldn’t have done The First and the Last if that’s all he was. He and Charles had lived out the modernist myth of the suffering artist to the point of cliché, but there was more to both of them than that.
The first of the new is always the last of something else. Charles was both the first of the modernists and the last of the romantics. He was bound to forever live in the forest of symbols. And Michael may have been the last of the modernists (no one can ever aspire to greatness that unironically again), but he was also the first of the postmodernists. Will anyone ever be as ideal a symbol of globalization, or so completely the product of commercial forces? In the end, the two, together and in themselves, were perfect conundra of difference and similarity. When I replaced Jeanne and Lena with Michael and put them on the wall, I couldn’t decide whether they would be seen more as lovers or as brothers.
Studies for Flowers of Evil and Good, 1998
“Studies for a 16-diptych installation to be called Flowers Of Evil And Good”, Unpublished artist statement.
© Lorraine O’Grady, 1998
Written for the first exhibit of “Studies #3 and 4 for Flowers of Evil and Good” at Thomas Erben Gallery, NYC, this discussion of the father of modernism Charles Baudelaire and his Haitian common-law wife Jeanne Duval, as well as Picasso and O’Grady’s mother Lena, places their relationships in the postmodernist moment.
Charles Baudelaire is often referred to as both the West’s first modern poet and its first modern art critic. It would be no exaggeration to say that Baudelaire created his most important poetry out of his responses to an allegedly destructive relationship with Jeanne Duval, his black common-law wife of 20 years. A close reading of his poetry would indicate that he may also have developed his aesthetic theory, that of a beauty which is contradictory and ambiguous and of its time, based on the example she provided as well.
Les Fleurs du mal (Flowers of Evil), published in 1857, was a turning-point for European poetry, like that given painting 50 years later in Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon. Each work embodies the psychologically complex ways modernism constructed itself out of Europe’s encounter with the worlds it colonized. Seen in this way, Les Fleurs du mal is the more interesting: whereas the Demoiselles struggled to contain already mediated forms of art, Flowers was dealing with the body and psyche of a live and messy human being.
None of Duval’s own words remain: she does not speak for herself either in Baudelaire’s poetry or prose, and there is an indication that Charles’ mother may have destroyed her letters to him. In addition, there are no civil documents permitting a reconstruction of her life, though most evidence points to her having emigrated to Paris from Haiti in the 1830s. They met in 1842, when Baudelaire was 21 and she was possibly the same age.
The language component of the final installation, Flowers of Evil and Good, each of whose 16 diptychs contains one panel representing Baudelaire and one Duval, will be in sustained disequilibrium: Charles speaks in poetry, Jeanne “speaks” in prose.
On Baudelaire’s side of the diptychs, the language is taken from my own translations of Les Fleurs du mal—I found it necessary to do my own because later translators, like the critics, erased and demonized Jeanne in a way that Charles had not. On the Duval side, her words are a fiction, written by me, to fill the silence of this woman-without-speech, and I know that I am as guilty as Charles. I too am using Jeanne. Perhaps to understand my mother, Lena–who emigrated from Jamaica to Boston in the 1920s, when little had changed for the metropolitan woman of color–and, in turn, to understand myself.
Jeanne’s demonization began almost immediately in the memoires of Baudelaire’s friends and has continued for 150 years to a greater extent in the writings of his critics. John D. Bennett, in a book published by Princeton University Press in 1944 and frequently reprinted, in describing Baudelaire as a Louis XV out of time made the following extreme but symptomatic statement: “This Bourbon Louis took his pleasures not in the Parc au Cerfs but in a cheap furnished room with a mulattress. His lever was elaborate; he took two hours to perform his immaculate toilette every morning. But the only courtier was the maniac on the bed, the raucous gesticulating Jeanne, rolling her white nigger eyeballs, chattering incoherently like a monkey.”
Charles often admitted his need for her—and his debt to her—speaking in one prose poem of “his beloved, delicious and execrable wife, that mysterious wife to whom he owed so many pleasures, so many sorrows, and perhaps too a large part of his genius.”
Because Baudelaire was a great poet, even at his angriest and most petty, although Jeanne is presented externally it is surprising how well she may be discerned by the sympathetic reader, not just in the “Black Venus” cycle but throughout Les Fleurs du mal. I am not so much interested in the literal Jeanne as in the figurative one—the hybrid woman caught up in the dilemmas of diaspora. We all are now from some other place, trying to orient ourselves, using and being used, struggling to gain a foothold.
One frustration in trying to present Jeanne and Charles’s relationship as that of a complex couple at a particular historical moment, i.e. the apex of Europe’s political and cultural empire, is that the attempt to show them as pictorial equals is constantly subverted. Baudelaire was photographed by some of the greatest photographers of the day, Neys, Carjat, and Nadar, but all we have of Duval is a few casual pen-and-ink drawings by Baudelaire himself and an indifferent painting by Manet from the end of her life. For me, layering images of Charles and Jeanne with that of Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, while hardly eliminating the obvious differentials in power, is a way to show that they were both subject to forces outside their control. Another device for equalizing Jeanne and Charles’s humanity is the use of color: a single hue across each of two panels, changing from diptych to diptych throughout the installation, with the colors also taken from Les Demoiselles.
It’s not a fair match. Charles is the master of a tongue charged with the power of its historical moment; he can afford the luxury of exploring his language’s vulnerabilities. Jeanne’s struggle is for a language to comprehend a situation which has, for all purposes, never before existed: a post-modernist condition in a modernist time. As a chart of her struggle, her side of the diptychs may often be difficult to read, wavering between obscurity and clarity. For the viewer, this is a project in which she may or may not succeed ( … )
The Diptych vs the Triptych, 1998
“The Diptych vs. the Triptych.” Excerpt from a conversation between Lorraine O’Grady and a studio visitor, 9.12.1998. Unpublished artist statement.
© Lorraine O’Grady 1998
excerpt from a conversation between Lorraine O’Grady and a studio visitor, 9.12.98.
Visitor: You’ve said your work is an argument against Western dualism. But if that’s the case, why do you use two panels? Doesn’t that just reinforce the basic idea? Why not the triptych instead?
Lorraine: You mean like the three-panel altarpiece? The old beginning, middle, and end?
L: Well I know it seems funny, but this is one case where reality doesn’t support common sense. You’d think that dualism would be reproduced in two panels, but it’s not. No matter how it might appear at first, two does not equal two here. It took me a while to figure this out, but in Western dualism, there’s a kicker and it’s hierarchy.
V: Which means?
L: There’s no equation: good doesn’t equal evil, black doesn’t equal white, male doesn’t equal female, culture doesn’t equal nature…. Something is always better than. In spite of its name, the binary always contains a hidden third term. It’s the thing that has been passed through, the thing that has been experienced or received, that makes it superior, like the blessing of Abel over Cain, or of Jacob over Esau. The Western binary isn’t really a two, it’s a three; it’s a narrative that goes from fallen to saved.
V: It’s not a diptych, it’s a triptych….
L: Right…. With the diptych, there’s no being saved, no before and after, no either/or; it’s both/and, at the same time. With no resolution, you just have to stand there and deal.
Franklin Sirmans, 1998
Franklin Sirmans, “Les Fleurs Duval,” ArtNet Magazine, Nov 17, 1998.
Lorraine O’Grady, “Studies: For a Work-in-Progress on Charles Baudelaire, the first Modernist Poet, and his Haitian-born wife Jeanne Duval,” Sep 12 – Oct 31, 1998, at Thomas Erben Gallery, NYC. Review published on the internet.
Rescuing and reconstructing lost histories are symptomatic of many artists’ projects today, a tendency that is due in part to larger curatorial currents of a more internationalist (or less essentialist) approach. Increasingly, curators are revealing a tendency heretofore minimized by the powers that be to look beyond the traditional centers of production. One recent example is the new book Cream, published by Phaidon Press in London. Another is a new interest in the work of Lorraine O’Grady, who has been working and producing art since the late 1970s, minus a five-year break.
O’Grady’s brand of Conceptualist art tackles big themes, namely the canon of Western art history. Her most recent project, a 16-part installation of digital cibachrome diptychs titled “Flowers of Evil and Good,” goes literally to the “heart of the matter.” The immediate subject is the work and love relationship between Charles Baudelaire (“the West’s first modern art critic”) and his black common-law wife of 20 years, Jeanne Duval.
Duval, like so many others, has been largely erased from history. O’Grady has retrieved her image by creating pictorial equals. Each diptych, three of which were presented at Thomas Erben, features one image of Duval and one of Baudelaire, each on separate panels, with details from Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon in the background and text imposed on the foreground. The images of Baudelaire are taken from photographs by Etienne Carjat and Nadar, and coupled with Baudelaire’s own words. The images of Duval are mostly drawings by Baudelaire and texts invented by O’Grady, in a fusion of research and novelistic license. Duval’s words also tell the story of O’Grady’s mother, Lena, who emigrated from Jamaica to Boston in the 1920s, almost 100 years after Duval emigrated from Haiti to Paris in the 1830s.
This juxtaposition fits squarely into O’Grady’s practice, which has often linked narratives taken from public accounts of history with those of a more personal and familial history. By splicing a modernist monument like Les Demoiselles with its African influences, and inserting Duval’s point of view, O’Grady constructs an interwoven pattern of narratives that unravels the canon of modernism.
While O’Grady’s project speaks volumes conceptually, it remains esthetically tight. Her use of the computer to construct images emphasizes the harmonious flow of technology into art production at the end of the millennium. At the same time, it demonstrates the way technological advances can construct, and reconstruct, accepted reality.
FRANKLIN SIRMANS is a freelance curator and writer.
Dominique Nahas, 1998
Dominique Nahas, “Lorraine O’Grady, Studies for ‘Flowers of Evil and Good,’” Review;, vol 4, no 3, pp 6-7, 1998.
Reviews O’Grady’s first NYC show of digital cibachrome studies for this work, in Review, vol 4, no 3, October 15, 1998, pp 6-7.
IN CHARLES BAUDELAIRE’S essays The Painter of Modern Life, the French nineteenth-century critic defines the principal qualities of “the modern” as contingent and transitory — an elemental aspect of atomized daily contemporary experience. Sociologist Kenneth Gergen refers to the condition of “multiphrenia” in his study The Saturated Self, when describing the different valences of relationships developed by the individual through the media. Symptomatic of this condition in everyday life, continues Gergen, is an aspect which mimics multiple personality disorder, that is, having layered selves within the self, each with its individual voice, a cast of personae deployed to meet the various demands of the outside world.
History is seen as a slivered self in Lorraine O’Grady’s moving exhibition of cibachromes using language and color. They are generated by computer, manipulated from historical texts and images. There are three digital cibachrome diptychs in the exhibition collectively entitled Studies for “Flowers of Evil and Good.”
In her recent work, O’Grady examines and intertwines various voices of history — those of the recognized and those who have been deliberately excised and sublated from the stream of legitimacy. The characters in Studies for “Flowers of Evil and Good” are Charles Baudelaire and his black common-law wife of twenty years Jeanne Duval, who emigrated to Paris from Haiti in the 1830s. This story intersects with that of Pablo Picasso’s meeting of the primitivistic in his painting, Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, 1907.
While no documents of Duval’s life (her letters to Charles may have been destroyed by his mother) are extant, it seems likely the two met in 1842 when they were both 21. O’Grady, the product herself of mixed ethnic heritage, is particularly sensitive to the interpretation of mainstream history and how it steamrolls through inconvenient and problematizing facts which tend to diminish the luster of historic and literary figures by introducing messy facts about their personal lives. Baudelaire is one such example of someone who, while described by some biographers to [be] a meticulous and courtly bourgeois flaneur in his personal habits and style, had another perhaps equally interesting, and obvious shadow side that added a vibrancy to his thinking about the contrariness of beauty.
Here is one of the great geniuses of the nineteenth century whose critical theories of beauty and culture, and whose poetry is marked in some way or is a response to his stormy relationship with a black woman he clearly was fascinated with and to whom he was devoted on many levels.
Just as Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon is historically important because it shows a visual genius using third world motifs in his work, that is appropriating elements of the “other” to rejuvenate exhausted European pictorial codes in the beginning of the twentieth century, Baudelaire’s own writings are in response to a meeting with what Lorraine O’Grady calls “the psychologically complex ways modernism constructed itself out of Europe’s encounter with the worlds it colonized.”
Duval is usually disregarded by mainstream historians as a nuisance, an uneducated alcoholic harpy upon whom Baudelaire inexplicably allowed himself to waste his valuable time as he struggled to define the modern age. Using the photographer Nadar’s photographic image of the eloquent poet an the pen sketch of his wife as the consistent starting-off point in each diptych Lorraine O’Grady, in her work at Erben weaves together a narrative of textural and visual difference in the same way that antiphonal voices play off one another in a moving way. The artist allows us to mentally reconfigure the workings of history, its influences, affinities, associations and unexplored and undelineated possibilities.
Each of the figures in each of the diptychs are given a voice and presented in dialogue between themselves and between competing visual and literary histories. Baudelaire of course has a public voice, those of Les Fleurs du Mal, used as the deep background behind his visual image. Floating also in the background, as spiritual heirs, are the Demoiselles.
In one of the diptychs, for example, O’Grady attempts to delineate a private Baudelaire communicating through a purported love letter or fictional conversation with Duval using a technique of outsized letters in the foreground (one set of words are “for me the door to an Infinite”) contrasted to the background text: “Come from heaven or hell, what does it matter, O Beauty. . . if your eye, your smile, your foot open for me the door to an infinite I love and have never known.” The primary image of Jeanne Duval, on the opposite panel, Is a portrait sketch in ink by Baudelaire. Compared to the visual weight of Nadar’s photograph of her lover, she seems transparent and vaporized, a hallucination set against a backdrop of the Demoiselles imagery (a Greek chorus of subjugated history?). Duval’s speech is made up by O’Grady (who is aware that her appropriation of Duval has echoes in Baudelaire’s using of Duval for his own ends) and her voice, though fragmented, halting and fictional, has purpose and dignity: “I am homesick what is home?” are the foregrounded words in one of the panels, the repeated backdrop words are the following: “Their sun is not my sun. Their heat is not my heat. Am I sad because I am homesick? What is home?”
The work at Erben is a preliminary one, which offers a taste (or rather an appetite) for the artists soon-to-be completed series. It is, however, extremely satisfying in its present form. Lorraine O’Grady’s conceptually complex study of personal, literary and visual codes intermixing through time is smartly succinct and touches on a number of troubling political and social issues stemming from displacement and dispersal of personal and social histories. The work is also a visually persuasive palimpsest. It offers an example of art as Benedetto Croce affirmed [as] “. . . a visible sign of indwelling state of grace and harmony, of exquisite perception and heightened feeling.” The artist’s intention is to present in the future an entire completed work of sixteen diptychs on this particular Duval/Baudelaire theme which seems so rich in its cross-cultural inferences. The full result of her efforts will be worth seeing and pondering.
Courtney Baker, 1996
Courtney Baker, “A Legacy of Silence,” unpublished museum handout accompanying “Studies for Flowers of Evil and Good,” in New Histories, Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston MA, 1996.
Handout on the historical and critical treatment of Jeanne Duval, accompanying “Studies for Flower of Evil and Good” in New Histories, Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston, MA. Oct 23, 1996–Jan 5, 1997. Curator: Milena Kalinovska.
“She was silent and submissive. This was very appropriate, after all, since she had no soul, and she was of a race of slaves. She was lazy and stupid.”
— Camille Mauclair, 1927
“… it is the penchant for misery that kept him near the emaciated body of Louchette, and his love for ‘the hideous Jewess’ that is like a prefiguration of what he would later bring to his relationship with Jeanne Duval….”
— Jean-Paul Sartre, Baudelaire, 1946
“Jeanne, the black witch, symbolized his damnation; Appollonie, the white angel, his salvation.”
— F.W.J. Hemmings, Baudelaire the Damned: A Biography, 1982
Jeanne Duval, Charles Baudelaire’s black mistress, has been an unavoidable subject in Baudelaire’s biographies. Yet despite her obvious importance in Baudelaire’s life and work (it was she who inspired the Black Venus cycle, arguably the most poetically significant poems of Les Fleurs du Mal), very little is actually known about her. Historians and philosophers such as Sartre and Jean Prevost have searched through letters and other writings by Baudelaire and his contemporaries in an attempt to reconstruct something of Duval’s identity and the quality of her nearly twenty-year relationship with the poet. What they have gleaned from these anecdotes is that the two endured an extremely tempestuous relationship, and that Duval was largely responsible for their domestic difficulties. The majority of musings on Duval during the one hundred and fifty years of Baudelairian criticism have portrayed her as ignorant, malicious and manipulative — figuring as little more than an obstacle to the artist’s genius. These pronouncements may be read as being shaped by the historical contexts of the Baudelaire’s critics, contexts which themselves are intertwined in the history of race.
In embarking upon a study of the critical reception of Duval, one might reasonably expect to encounter hideously racist statements like that of Mauclair, or of Dr. Arthur Kraetzner who described her, in 1950, with shocking confidence as a bad, inferior and annoying woman, citing only her race as the basis of her inferiority. But the frequency of such comments coupled with their intensely offensive nature soon become numbing, and Duval, the biographical figure, becomes alienated and more distant.
The actual Duval is hidden, silenced by critical projection. Duval appears as Baudelaire’s foil: she is the demon; Baudelaire is the saint. She is the greedy animal; he is the generous, yet tortured soul. However, it is not only the critics who silence her, but Baudelaire as well.
Duval was a woman living in nineteenth century Western society — a fact which could culturally preclude her from maintaining an identity separate from her male companion and benefactor. Moreover, Duval was a black woman: an exotic foreigner by sight. She never managed to achieve the same fame or social renown as Madame Sabatier (Appollonie) another of Baudelaire’s muses, who maintained a popular literary salon Although Duval is frequently compared to Sabatier, the juxtaposition is framed so that it may reveal the contrast between the dark, earthy Duval and the light, spiritual Sabatier. If for the critics Madame Sabatier represented the ideal woman, then Duval represented a woman’s tragic fall from grace.
In response to the critical precedents, Lorraine O’Grady presents an alternate view of Duval and her involvement with Baudelaire. Asserting that their relationship was in fact complex and authentic. O’Grady has invented a language that situates Duval as a cultural hybrid living in colonial and sexual exile. In doing so, it acts to complicate the discussion of Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs du mal and the “histories” surrounding their relationship.
Radcliffe Research Program
Anne Higonnet, 1996
Anne Higonnet, “Hypocrite Lecteur, –Mon Semblable, –Mon Frere! –Hybrid Viewer, –My Difference, –Lorraine O’Grady!” in Lia Gangitano and Steven Nelson, eds., New Histories, Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston, 1996.
Catalogue essay, New Histories, Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston, MA. 1996. Lia Gangitano and Steven Nelson, eds. pp 154-160.
( . . . ) Then Lorraine O’Grady talked to me about writing this essay. I realized that I had heard the she and he of Baudelaire’s assumptions but had never fully listened to the black and white of them. Take for example these two sentences from a sort of Baudelaire-manual aimed at a general audience:
Jeanne Duval présentait tous les défauts que l’on dit être ceux des métisses. Sournoise, menteuse, débauchée, dépensière, alcoolique, et par surcroît ignorante et stupide, elle se fût peut-être trouvée mieux à sa place dans le monde de la prostitution que dans la compagnie des artistes.
[Jeanne Duval presented all the faults that are said to be of half-breeds. Surly, lying, debauched, spendthrift, alcoholic, and in addition ignorant and stupid, she would perhaps have been more in her place in the world of prostitution than in the company of artists.]
No adjective, no metaphor was neglected to deprive Duval of the most basic humanity. In Baudelaire’s poems she is an escape and the oblivion he longs for. In Baudelaire’s history she even ceases to be what he said he lacked, becoming instead the fodder for his work. Seeing O’Grady’s work on Baudelaire and Duval, I am faced with a Baudelaire from whom I recoil. Duval evokes the experience of a black woman whose suffering and degradation has obliterated identity, an experience incommensurable with anything I can say I know.
To go back again to Baudelaire on O’Grady’s terms requires by far the most difficult hybrid yet: not a grafting of the personal onto the professional, but of the unknown onto the known. It demands abandoning a model of inside and outside, fraught with fluctuations within space yet still one space which retains conceptual unity. To confront race demands a model in which hybridity is a perpetual mutation, in which identity never stabilizes or even oscillates, but repeatedly shears away, in which time forces change and forbids any return to origins. The more I think about O’Grady and Duval, the less sure I am about myself. Socially and historically, they are “black.” But the more I think about this essay the more complicated their being black becomes to me, the more hybrid, divided and grafted within, and the more my being “white” seems correspondingly fictitious, like being “French.” O’Grady often says: “Wherever I stand, I find I have to build a bridge to some other place.”
Like all of her previous work, O’Grady’s images of Baudelaire and Duval offer viewers only multiple vectors for identification, refusing either unity or opposition. The Fir-Palm (1991), for instance, grafts northern evergreen on southern trunk on human navel. The multiple pieces of her Miscegenated Family Album pair Egyptian sculpture with family photographs. Are the two types being compared, contrasted, likened or divided? Are these before or after, or what is and what should be? If so, which is which? In O’Grady’s latest work we again find histories old and new. Here Baudelaire is again, in the familiar guise of a canonical 1855 Nadar portrait photograph, a staple of mainstream photographic history and museum collections. And the image of Baudelaire is still endowed with his own words, writ large before him as well as small in his background. And now Duval too appears, next to Baudelaire, their images linked though not united by a double diptych format. She still does not represent herself, visually or textually; her image is a pen drawing he made, and the words that describe her are O’Grady’s. His image and his words are so reassuringly well-known; hers startle. Baudelaire already has a history; Duval does not. To go back to the same Baudelaire-manual: “La biographie de cette Jeanne Duval n’a jamais pu être écrite.” [The biography of this Jeanne Duval has never been able to be written.] Perhaps Duval’s biography couldn’t be written on Baudelaire’s terms. But O’Grady puts Duval back in the picture, another picture of history.
Duval’s and Baudelaire’s images are joined by Pablo Picasso’s Demoiselles d’Avignon the painting that gave its author the same kind of place in history that Les Fleurs du Mal gave Baudelaire. Casting their computer-generated shadows on each other, Baudelaire and the Demoiselles or Duval and the Demoiselles, become layers in the same image. Baudelaire’s representation of Duval and Picasso’s representation of African art echo each other. Moreover, the color of both Baudelaire’s and Duval’s image is literally taken [from] the palette of the Picasso canvas, reclaimed through a computer program. The masterpieces that were supposed to be so individual become just aspects of one history, the history of a canon constituting its oneness through exclusion and appropriation.
O’Grady’s work can look like a compensatory act of retribution. Baudelaire’s body and writing, once sedulously separated by the use of a device called Duval, are now reunited, while her body, once the discarded detritus of Baudelaire’s poems, becomes the subject of O’Grady’s inquiry. Duval not only appears, she appears on the same scale and with the same visual weight as does Baudelaire. The form itself of the diptych implies parity, reciprocity, exchange, a relationship between two separate yet linked entities.
O’Grady’s work can look redemptively healing as well. Going behind the back of literary criticism, O’Grady takes Baudelaire at his word. She retrieves the need for Duval Baudelaire expressed and the likeness between them he acknowledged. This is the passage from Baudelaire’s journals she shows me in her studio:
These two fallen creatures, who could still suffer, since a vestige of nobility remained with them, embraced impulsively, mingling, in the rain of their tears and kisses, regrets for the past with hopes, all too uncertain, for the future.
She lets Baudelaire speak for himself, lets us read his words ourselves, paying homage to the form of his language, and also confident that his language itself will betray him, cracking under the pressure of exclusion, speaking what it intends to silence. Baudelaire’s journal entry continues:
Through the night’s blackness, he had looked behind him into the depths of the years, then he had thrown himself into the arms of his guilty lover, to recover there the pardon he was granting her.
O’Grady’s work lets us draw our own conclusions. She marshals images and words, color and letter-type, seeking a formal integrity that will let meanings loose. The work these meanings will accomplish she leaves to us. O’Grady does not try to control uncontrollable meanings, to make sure we get a single point, to spell out a single intention. On the contrary, she joins many kinds of meanings together in a firmly constructed but open mesh, luring us into the unknown with what we thought we knew. The diptych form is not only doubled, but internally layered, the uncertainties lead in every direction. What is the surface and what is the substance? Where is the real thing? Whose side are we on? Whose word should we take? Has Duval been reinstated in history or is her erasure by Baudelaire only made more evident?
By the questions she poses and the answers she refuses to give, O’Grady confronts with the prisms of likeness and difference, with the identities we would like to claim whole but can only inherit in spliced shards. She posits no single entry into her work, and designates no single exit from it. Her work provides a place of multiple possibilities where you and I, from wherever we come, can alter our trajectories.
Irene Cheng, 1996
Irene Cheng, “‘White Skin, Black Masks’: Fetishism and Les Demoiselles d’Avignon,” unpublished museum handout accompanying “Studies for Flowers of Evil and Good,” in New Histories, Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston MA, 1996.
Handout on O’Grady’s “unmasking” as a response to the critical tradition of fetishizing the fetish. Written to accompany “Studies for Flower of Evil and Good” in New Histories, Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston, MA. Oct 23,1996–Jan 5, 1997.
The fetish of colonial discourse—what Fanon called the epidermal schema—is not, like the sexual fetish, a secret. Skin, as the key signifier of cultural and racial difference in the stereotype, is the most visible of fetishes, recognized as canon knowledge in a range of cultural, political, historical discourses, and plays a public part in the racial drama that is enacted every day in colonial societies.
“Negro art? Never heard of it!” Picasso is said to have responded when asked about the influence of African art on Les Demoiselles d’Avignon. Years later however, the artist confessed that his discovery of “tribal” sculpture at the Trocadero Museum in Paris produced in him a profoundly significant shock. It was then, he recounts, that “I understood why I was a painter. All alone in that awful museum, with masks, dolls made by the redskins, dusty mannequins. Les Demoiselles d’Avignon must have come to me that very day…”.
Picasso would later explain to André Malraux almost apologetically, “We all of us loved fetishes. Van Gogh once said, ‘Japanese art — we all had that in common.’ For us it’s the Negroes.” Picasso’s statement leaves us wondering whether he meant the tribal objects that were referred to by anthropologists as “fetishes,” the “Negroes” themselves, or his own affinity for African culture. Slippages such as these recur throughout Picasso’s statements on the role of the “primitive” in his work. The artist’s positions alternate between the poles of desire and disavowal.
As Anna Chave and others have observed, the critical response to Les Demoiselles has replicated Picasso’s fetishization of African culture by fixating on the most visible signs of difference in the painting — the African masks donned by the two right-hand demoiselles. Art historians range in their positions from denying any African influence whatsoever (as in Zervos’s statement, “The artist has categorically assured me that at the time when he painted the Demoiselles he did not know African art”) to centering on the “animalistic” sexuality expressed through Picasso’s use of “primitive” art. Scholars have written about the masks obsessively, electing to describe them as bestial and ugly. The critical fetishization of Picasso’s primitivism has fossilized into yet another sediment in the multiple layers of “masking” already inscribed within the painting.
Against this critical tradition of fetishizing the fetish, Lorraine O’Grady’s work begins the crucial task of “unmasking” through a re-framing and re-presentation of the “fetish” object. O’Grady employs a strategy of mimicry upon Les Demoiselles in order to expose the invisible and unconscious fears which motivate the artist’s and critic’s fixation upon the visible markers of difference. O’Grady’s work prompts us to look behind the masks, to examine the very processes of masking and to consider in another light the “Other” who continues to threaten the order and stability of the western male ego.
Radcliffe Research Program