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“Studies for a 16-diptych installation to be called Flowers Of Evil And Good”, Unpublished artist statement.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 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. ( … )

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