Studies for Flowers of Evil and Good
Thomas Erben Gallery
by Dominique Nahas, 1998
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 ( … )