Living Symbols of New Epochs
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.
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. Can you tell me about your fascination for Baudelaire?
LOG: I taught a course for nearly two decades here at SVA in which we read just two books, Baudelaire’s Flowers of Evil and Rimbaud’s Illuminations. It was crazy. Each year, I never knew which I would prefer, whose book I would teach better. It’s a generalization of course, but on balance Charles and Arthur seemed to divide two halves of the human mind, the impressionist and the expressionist, the dada and the surrealist if you will, and I never knew which half of my own mind would dominate when I encountered them.
In the end, while I remain more excited, or perhaps I should say intellectually titillated by Arthur’s poetry, Charles captured me on the human level. I couldn’t explain all the reasons why. He was a less gifted but more complex poet than Rimbaud, but that wasn’t it. When I tried to understand my love for him, the answers seemed pointed toward his bravery, the condition of mind needed to embrace the unprecedented cultural change in Europe, to leap from romanticism to modernism, to carry that flag. And also toward the figure of Jeanne.
CA: 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. ( … )