Art, Costume and Modernism

Socio-cultural criticism has been a crucial aspect of modernist movements in art and literature. From Romanticism onwards, the artist, like the rejected Rousseau, increasingly assumed an attitude of hostility towards the bourgeoisie (of which, of course, he himself was a son). The atmosphere of mutual mistrust deepened as the century progressed. The writer on the one hand depicted the bourgeois as a malicious fool or an idiot (le père Ubu is the ultimate caricature in a tradition going back as far as Balzac’s César Birotteau), the bourgeois on the other took revenge by calling the artist to court and make him pay for his ‘immoralities’. Reading through some of the proceedings of the cases against Baudelaire, Flaubert, Wilde, Kuprin, Lawrence and others, one notices, paradoxically, not so much a disinterest in literature on the side of the bourgeois, but rather an over-estimation of the might of words. Hence, the relentless crusades of moralist critics against – what they considered – the degeneracy and irresponsibility of the modernist mind. Objecting to much of contemporary art, they argued that vicious doctrines vitiate the mind of the young, ‘dirty’ pictures befoul their imagination, explicit books deprave their character. Goethe had no hesitation in stressing that the young can read without risk, but those moralists disagreed. They warned parents to be on their guard against the dangerous influence books and pictures exercise on their children.

A critical attitude towards contemporary society can be distinguished ever since modernism became a battle-cry in art and literature. However, with one notable exception (as we shall see), the identification or at least: the association of contemporaneity in art with political commitment belongs to the later stages of the Age of Modernism. In fact, nineteenth century artists – and painters in particular – had to deal first and foremost with the practical problems of creating a truly contemporary art, one that confronted the concrete experiences and appearances of their own times with an appropriate imagery. The issue of portraying modern man gave rise to an intriguing literary and artistic discussion during the 1860s which preceded the idea of modernism.

In his essay Le peintre de la vie moderne (1863), Baudelaire made a conscious effort to define the notion of modernity in art. His interpretation was a polemical one as he opposed the academic theory of an absolute ideal of beauty. Baudelaire describes beauty as consisting of two indispensable elements: there is the eternal, invariable element whose quality is difficult to determine; and there is a circumstantial element which is, whether severally or all at once, the age, its fashions, its morals, its emotions. Baudelaire points to the work of Constantin Guys as an example. The distinctive feature of the latter’s work should be qualified as modern. The artist seeks to extract the eternal from the transitory by distilling the element of beauty which contemporary life contains. By modernity Baudelaire meant the ephemeral, the fugitive, the contingent, the half of art whose other half is the eternal and the immutable. This fugitive element may be hard to grasp, but without it art would inevitably fumble into the abyss of an abstract beauty. One cannot substitute the costume of one’s own age for another.

It is worthwhile to follow Baudelaire’s line of reasoning (ideas, incidently, that were earlier developed in his descriptions of the Salons of 1846 and 1859). The general tendency among contemporary artists – he argues – is to portray their subjects in the dress of the past. They use costumes of the Renaissance, just as David employed those of Rome. The latter, however, by choosing subjects which were specifically Greek or Roman, had no alternative but to dress them in antique garb, whereas the painters of the second half of the nineteenth century, though selecting subjects of a more general nature, persisted in depicting them in the costume of the Middle Ages, the Renaissance or the Orient. The underlying principle of Baudelaire’s interpretation is that every age has own glance and gesture. In other words, every epoch has its own distinguishable physiognomy. It is the duty of every artist to translate that particular physiognomy in his own terms. By the time Baudelaire published his essay on Constantin Guys, the topics of modernity and contemporaneity in art were widely discussed. This discussion took place after the so-called bataille réaliste had lost its original impact. The catchword realism was replaced by modernism. Baudelaire’s essay Le peintre de la vie moderne dealt with a topical issue. It was the most explicit statement on modernism up to that moment. Central to Baudelaire’s argument is the perceived inabiblity of artists to portray contemporary people in the costume of the day. This criticism is more fundamental than it may appear at first glance. The historic resonance of the word costume holds the key to a deeper understanding.

Italian poet Giambattista Marino is above all remembered for his long mythological poem Adone (20 cantos, 45,000 words). The time and setting of this work are purely classical. Allusions to the Classics are to be found on almost every page. And yet, Marino took delight in describing the splendours of court life in his own time. This gives Adone its remarkable character as a poem. It reflects a combination of the grace of the ‘golden’ world of Greece and the magnificance of the contemporary Baroque ambience. How did the poet solve the problem of representation? In 1624 Marino addressed a letter to Girolamo Petri in which – discussing his poem – he described the solution he had found for that problem: ‘Io pretendo di saper le regole piú che non sanno tutti i pedanti insieme, ma la vera regola … è saper rompere le regole a tempo e luogo, accomodandosi al costume corrente ed al gusto del secolo’. It is important, in other words, to know when and how to break the rules of time and place and adjust them to suit the costume and taste of the age. A similar use of the word ‘costume’ can be traced in French writing. Fénelon, in 1714, argued that the painter who would ignore ‘ce qu’on nomme il costume ne peint rien avec vérité’. And Abbé Du Bos, in 1719, paid tribute to Poussin for applying the rules of what the Italians called costume. What exactly does the term connote? The word costume in Italian stands for custom and usage, as well as for garment and dress. It implies custom and costume, coûtume and costume. The costume of time, in other words, refers to habits, thought and garment. It encompasses local colour and physiognomy of the time. The word in its full richness of meaning can still be found in Carlyle’s Past and Present (1843), when the author refers to costume as ‘not of garments alone, but of thought, word, action, outlook and position’. Nietzsche in Menschliches, Allzumenschliches (1878) used the word Zeitkostüm very much in the same manner.

In the discussion on modernism and the modernity of art during the 1860s this notion of costume re-appeared, but the meaning of the concept was seemingly narrowed down to the issue of contemporary garment. The matter was discussed (1862/3) in Alexander Herzen’s correspondence with Turgenev. Contemporary art – according to the former – had won the freedom to depict anything, setting upon even the most ordinary subjects the imprint of beauty. The stumbling-block to the artist, however, was the petit bourgeois mentality of the times. Or, as Herzen puts it, the artist who brilliantly portrays a man naked or covered in rags, is driven to despair when facing the bourgeois in his swallow-tail coat. Hence, the extravagance of casting a Roman toga upon Robert Peel (in 1852, neo-classicist Welsh sculptor John Gibson had represented the politician in that manner). During the second half of the century the argument about costume raged throughout Europe amongst observers of contemporary society. The age, more than ever before, had become time-conscious. The never-ending controversy on progress or decadence, the complaints about the increased pace of life and change, the demand for the contemporaneity of art – they are all aspects of this acute awareness of time and place in history. The socio-cultural criticism that accompanied the discussion on dress, form and colour, indicates that the notion of costume had retained much of the meaning given by Marino to the term. In France, this discussion would take an intriguing, black twist.

In 1863 Manet exhibited his painting Le bain – now famously known as Le déjeuner sur l’herbe – in the Salon des Réfusés. The work created a storm of critical abuse. The picture of two fully dressed men appearing in the company of the naked female bather was considered indecent and in bad taste (although the lady in question was Manet’s favourite model Victorine Meurend, the men were his younger brother and brother-in-law). Public hostility not only helped to make Manet a hero in the eyes of younger painters, it also brought together in his support the group from which the Impressionists would emerge. According to his friend Antonin Proust, Manet conceived the idea of the painting whilst observing two women bathing at Argenteuil. His ambition was to re-do Giorgione’s Fête champêtre (Louvre) with contemporary figures. In order to merge the Classical inspiration with a modern setting, Manet was confronted with a very similar problem of representation as Marino had faced some centuries earlier. It is not so much the ‘classical’ nude that would have caught (and often: insensed) the eyes of Manet’s contemporaries, but the men dressed in their dark costumes.

Some critics have interpreted the painting as a practical joke, a young man’s attempt to shock the public and reap the benefits from a ‘succès à scandale’. That is incorrect. The date 1863 is significant: the painting was created at a moment in which the discussion on modernity and costume in artistic circles was the issue of the day. Manet put in paint what many predecessors had phrased in words: his work reflects the recurrent criticism on l’habit noir, the funereal costume, so typical of male garment of that period. The argument itself dates back to the 1830s and may well have been introduced into French thinking by that keen observer of his time, Honoré de Balzac, who in his Complaintes satiriques sur les moeurs du temps présent (a series of newspaper articles that appeared between February and April 1830) wrote that ‘we are all dressed in black like so many people in mourning’. Our time, Gérard de Nerval wrote in 1836, is a serious one, an age dressed in black, as if it mourns the preceding century. Black dress, according to Alfred de Musset (1836), was a sombre indication of the loss of all ilusions in society and De Goncourt in his diary (22 April 1857) suggested that in the history of the world only the nineteenth century had reason to dress in black, ‘à vivre en deuil’. Chesneau (1862) thought the blackness of garments suitable to an age which was both hyper-active and solemn. Taine (1866) hated the blackness of costume in his age and regretted the loss of lively colours, so full of symbolic meaning, which characterized his beloved Renaissance. Society, those critics agreed, had lost its capacity for light-heartedness and play. Civilization, in becoming more complex and abstract, had grown morbid. It dressed in black.*

In this context, Baudelaire’s contribution is the most relevant (and best-known). To his description of the Salon of 1846, the poet added a final section on the ‘heroism of modern life’, a plea, in other words, for the modernism of art. He ridiculed those artists who tried to poeticize contemporary subjects with a Greek cloak and posed a number of questions. Has not the contemporary black outfit its own beauty? Is not black the appropriate colour for a time of general suffering and mourning? The dress-coat and the frock-coat possess their political beauty, which is the expression of universal equality; and their poetic beauty, which is the expression of the public soul. We are each of us – he concludes – celebrating some funeral. Baudelaire not just set a poetic, but also a physical example to his contemporaries. He dressed in black from head to toe, from his silk hat, to his long, straight coat, to his stiff cravats, all the way down to his polished shoes. Even his linen was black.

Baudelaire seems to have taken delight in turning the argument about l’habit noir on its head. Instead of rejecting the garment of the age, he insisted that it was the duty of the painter to distil from it the element of beauty it contains. In spite of the ironic undertone of the essay, Baudelaire challenged the painter to keep his eyes vexed on the present. He emphasized that the true artist would be able to create colour in spite of the black coat and grey background – in doing so, he challenged painters of his generation to prove that very point. Moreover, Baudelaire argued, the themes of painting were as abundant as they had ever been. Depicting the nude, in her bed, in the bath, or in an anatomy theatre, had lost nothing of its impact in spite of a rich tradition. The section on modernity in Le peintre de la vie moderne is largely a re-statement of the Salon-piece of 1846. The dual element in Manet’s Le déjeuner sur l’herbe, that is to say: contemporary male costume end the nude in classical pose, is a reference to Baudelaire’s interpretation of contemporaneity in art. Manet’s picture is a statement on modernity, a manifesto in paint.

Baudelaire’s attempts (1846, 1859, 1862) to define the idea of modernism in concrete terms, have been influential on later developments in literature and art. The debate about the costume of the age was an issue that concerned painters primarily. It was above all a practical problem they had to solve. This explains that most explicit statements on the modernity of art in those years are related to painting. Baudelaire, however, was not the first writer to link the notion of ‘costume of the age’ to the ideal of contemporaneity in art. He was preceded by a German poet and critic who, in 1831, had settled in Paris, with the ambition of interpreting the French to the Germans and the Germans to the French. Heinrich Heine made a remarkable impact on French literary and artistic circles. He found admirers in younger contemporaries as Baudelaire and Banville who, drawing on his thought and art, helped to direct and sustain an interest in Heine on the part of their symbolist followers (Mallarmé, Verlaine, Laforgue and others).

Heine’s first commission in Paris was to write an account of the Salon of 1831 for Cotta’s Morgenblatt. Having selected a number of paintings from the approximately 3,000 contributions to the Salon (a staggering figure), Heine did not deal with technical details in his assessment of the paintings. Instead, he concentrated on their subject matter. From the very beginning, he added an element of political pamphleteering to his aesthetics. Heine, of Jewish background and himself a victim of oppression in the quest for political and religious freedom, was at that time impressed by the teachings of Saint-Simon whose social philosophy was becoming somewhat of a vogue during the early 1830s. Moreover, contemporary political events in France had urged a number of artists to depict topical themes. The Salon of 1831 not only displayed portraits of Talleyrand and of Camille Desmoulins, but also forty scenes from the July Revolution, including Delacroix’s imposing Liberté guidant le peuple. The exhibition itself offered a challenge to a writer as engagé as Heine was, to comment upon political events and situations. To him, the paintings of the Salon of 1831 reflected, much more so than those of previous epochs, the life and tendencies of the time. The dominant aspect of the spirit of the age according to Heine was the ever-increasing drive for individual freedom. He recognized that aspiration in a number of paintings. Contemporaneity in art, at least in Heine’s interpretation, implied a clear political stance.

In his commentary, Heine declared the death of Classicist ideals. Its principles – he argued – were rooted in an outworn ancient regime. Artists had to re-think those principles and direct their attention towards the present. The artist could no longer ignore the challenge of contemporaneity, even if there were many problems to overcome. The problem of costume was one of the issues singled out by the critic. How could an artist succeed in portraying modern man in his ugly dress? Why did so many artists persist in turning to the past for their subject-matter? This is Heine’s final analysis of the situation he observed: ‘When the arts, after a long slumber, woke up again in our age, painters were in some considerable trouble over subjects worthy of depicting. In most European countries, even in the Catholic ones, the preference for biblical or mythological themes had subsided. However, our contemporary costume is far too mundane to inspire paintings set in the present and depicting ordinary life. Our modern garment is so pathetic that the painter can only make use of it in the form of parody’. The lack of contemporary style in costume was the reason that so many painters escaped into the past searching for inspiration. He pointed the finger at a German school of painters who continuously depicted ‘die heutigsten Menschen mit dem heutigsten Gefühlen’ (present day people with present day emotions) in the costume of the Middle Ages. It was this very contradiction, according to Heine, which formed an obstacle to artistic progression. Art can be nothing but the visionary reflection of one’s own time. It was at the Salon of 1831 that he recognized a new tendency towards contemporaneity in painting, an art that would be a true reflection of the spirit of the time. To Heine, the struggle for the modern idea was fought by French artists in particular.

To the French themselves, however, the modern idea in the 1830s was purely a literary matter and intrinsically connected to the clash between Romanticism and Classicism. Heine’s approach was certainly unusual at the time. As we have seen, the issues of costume and garment were raised already in those years by, for example, Honoré de Balzac, but in relating costume to the task of the painter to grasp the spirit of the age, Heine emphasized an issue that would become a topic of debate some three decades later. When Baudelaire re-defined the concept of modernity in art, impressive as his exposition may be, the very core of his argument had already been formulated by Heinrich Heine in his description of the Salon of 1831. It further reinforces the assertion that Heine has been a major influence on the development of French poetics/aesthetics in the middle and later years of the nineteenth century.


*For these, and other citations on this subject, see: Jaap Harskamp, The Anatomy of Despondency: Socio-Cultural Criticism 1789-1939, (Leiden / Boston: Brill, 2011).