Mnemonic Art

From The Painter of Modern Life, by Charles Baudelaire, 1863


The word ‘barbarousness', which may seem to have slipped rather too often from my pen, might perhaps lead some few people to suppose that we are here concerned with defective drawings, only to be transformed into perfect things with the aid of the spectator’s imagination. This would be to misunderstand me. ‘What I mean is an inevitable, synthetic, childlike barbarousness, which is often still to be discerned in a perfected art, such as that of Mexico, Egypt or Nineveh, and which comes from a need to set things broadly and to consider them above all in their total effect. It is by no means out of place here to remind my readers that all those painters whose vision is synthesizing and abbreviative have been awned of barbarousness—M. Corot, for example, whose initial concern is always to trace the principal lines of a landscape—its bony structure, its physiognomy, so to speak. Likewise Monsieur G brings an instinctive emphasis to his marking of the salient or luminous points of an object (which may be salient or luminous from the bandit point of view) or of its principal characteristics, sometimes even with a degree of exaggeration which aids the human memory; and thus, under the spur of so forceful a prompting, the spectator’s imagination receives a clear-cut image of the impression produced by the external world upon the mind of Monsieur G. The spectator becomes the translator, so to speak, of a translation which is always clear and thrilling.

There it one circumstance which adds much to the living force of this legendary translation of external life. I refer to Monsieur G’s method of draughtsmanship. He draws from memory and not from the model, except in those cases—the Crimean War is one of them—when it may be urgently, necessary to take immediate, hasty notes, and to fix the principal lines of a subject. As a matter of fact, all good and true draughtsmen draw from the image imprinted on their brains, and not from nature. To The objection that there are admirable sketches of of the latter type by Raphael, Watteau and many others, I would reply that these are notes—very scrupulous notes, to be sure, but mere notes, none the less. When a true artist has come to the point of the final execution of his work, the model would be more of an embarrassment than a help to him. It even happens that men such as Daumier and Monsieur G., for long accustomed to exercising their memory and storing it with images, find that the physical presence of the model and its multiplicity of details disconcerts and as it were paralyses their principal faculty.

In this way a struggle is launched between the will to see all and forget nothing and the faculty of memory, which has formed the habit of a lively absorption of general color and of silhouette, the arabesque of contour. An artist with a perfect sense of form but one accustomed to relying above all on his memory and his imagination will find himself at the mercy of a riot of details all clamoring for justice with the fury of a mob in love with absolute equality. All justice is trampled under foot; all harmony sacrificed and destroyed; many a trifle assumes vast proportions; many a triviality usurps the attention. The more our artist turns an impartial eye on detail, the greater is the state of anarchy. Whether he be long-sighted or short-sighted, all hierarchy and all subordination vanishes. This is an accident often conspicuous in the works of one of our most fashionable painters [Certainly Meissonier is intended]—a painter, by the way, whose faults are so well attuned to the faults of the masses that they have singularly assisted his popularity. The same analogy may be observed in the art of the actor, that art so mysterious and so profound, which today has fallen into such a slough of decadence. M. Frederick Lemaitre builds up a role with the breadth and fullness of genius. However studded with luminous details may be his playing of a part, it always remains synthetic and sculptural. M. Bouffe on the other hand creates his roles with the minute precision of a myopic and a bureaucrat. With him everything flashes forth. but nothing tells, nothing demands a lodging in the memory.

Thus two elements are to be discerned in Monsieur G.’s execution: the first, an intense effort of memory that evokes and calls back to life—a memory that—says to everything, ‘Arise, Lazarus'; the second, a fire, an intoxication of the pencil or the brush, amounting almost to a frenzy. It is the fear of not going fast enough, of letting the phantom escape before the synthesis has been extracted and pinned down, it is that terrible fear which takes possession of all great artists and gives them such a passionate desire to become masters of every means of expression so that the orders of the brain may never be perverted by the hesitations of the hand and that finally execution, ideal execution, may become as unconscious and spontaneous as is digestion for a healthy man after dinner. Monsieur G. starts with a few slight indications in pencil, which hardly do more than mark the position which objects are to occupy in space. The principal plans are then sketched in tinted wash, vaguely and lightly colored masses to start with, but taken up again later and successively charged with a greater intensity of color. At the last minute the contour of the objects is once and for all outlined in ink. Without having seen them, it would be impossible to imagine the astonishing effects he can obtain by this method which is so simple that it is almost elementary. It possesses one outstanding virtue, which is that, at no matter what stage in its execution, each drawing has a sufficiently ‘finished’ look; call it a ‘study’ if you will, but you will have to admit that it is a perfect study. The values are all entirely harmonious, and if the artist should decide to take them further, they will continue to march in step towards the desired degree of completion. He works in this way on twenty drawings at a time, with an impatience and a delight that are a joy to watch—and amusing even for him. The sketches pile up, one on top of the other—in their tens, hundreds, thousands. Every now and then he will run through them and examine them, and then select a few in order to carry them a stage further, to intensify the shadows and gradually to heighten the lights.

He attaches an enormous importance to his backgrounds, which, whether slight or vigorous, are always appropriate in nature and _quality to the figures. Tonal scale and general harmony are all strictly observed, with a genius which springs from instinct rather than from study. For Monsieur G. possesses by nature the colorist’s mysterious talent, a true gift that may be developed by study, but which study by itself is, I think, incapable of creating. To put the whole thing in a nutshell, this extraordinary artist is able to express at once the attitude and the gesture of living beings, whether solemn or grotesque, and their luminous explosion in space.

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Light and movement as the crux of human perception

1860 – 1900

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