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Magritte’s Literary Affinities: Baudelaire and Poe

From: Intertexts
Volume 16, Number 2, Fall 2012
pp. 29-53 | 10.1353/itx.2012.0014

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Historical Context

Edgar Allan Poe, Charles Baudelaire, and René Magritte, two writers and one painter connected by profound aesthetic affinities. What is it, in their artistic endeavors and productions, that brings these three geniuses together? Poe and Baudelaire, writing in the nineteenth century, and Magritte, painting in the twentieth, are linked in their search for innovative forms in art and in their resistance to established norms. Poe and Baudelaire came at the tail-end of Romanticism, whereas Magritte, as a Surrealist, belonged to a movement that has sometimes been referred to as the prehensile tail of Romanticism, a Romanticism marked early on my lyricism, exuberance, and exoticism. Romantic writers and artists favored raw nature, ruins, seas, rivers, forests, cataracts, and tempests. Melancholy and personal suffering were catalysts for their imagination.

In his Confessions (1789), Jean-Jacques Rousseau was saying that if he was not necessarily better than other people, he was at least different, a difference that, in effect, repudiated the Classical idea advocated by Nicolas Boileau in his Art poétique (1674) that people everywhere were always, essentially the same. Rousseau’s Reveries of a Solitary Walker [Les Rêveries du promeneur solitaire] (1782) also unleashed many artists’ pent-up individualism, so that in the first half of the nineteenth century, in the wake of the French Revolution (1789), Chateaubriand, Lamartine, and Musset felt free to reject the formal control of French Classicism based on reason in favor of pure emotion and the free unbridled expression of the self. 1830, and the famous “battle” that raged around Victor Hugo’s play, Hernani, marked the triumph of the “moderns” against the “ancients.”1 The Romantics discarded the yoke of imitation and Classical discipline in favor of original genius and self expression. Decorum and probability were also rejected in favor of the sentimental and the picturesque.

Poe’s and Baudelaire’s writings were more tempered, compared to those of the Romantics. Theirs was a reasoned mix of individualism and formal control focusing more on the exploration of new social venues. The exuberant lyricism of the early Romantics was gone. In this sense Baudelaire is arguably the first modern poet, modern in that he assimilated Romanticism and moved beyond it by cultivating a ruthless self-awareness and a feeling for sin and degradation. The very title of his book of poems, The Flowers of Evil [Les Fleurs du mal] (1857), introduced evil into the literary canon, demonstrating thereby that there could be beauty—poetic beauty—in decay, lesbianism, sadism, and the seamy side of life; Baudelaire was the first poet of the modern city. He was also a consummate art critic, and his admiration of Delacroix’s art was boundless. He was, in fact, a poet of the interarts, as was Magritte, who used the titles of literary works as the titles for his paintings: The Musings of a Solitary Walker [Les Rêveries du promeneur solitaire] (1926, based on Rousseau’s work), The Flowers of Evil, and The Domain of Arnheim (1962, based on Poe’s work) are three examples among many others.2

Delacroix’s paintings of battles and massacres, such as the Massacre at Chios (1824), or the Combat of the Giaour and the Pasha (1827), or the famous series of Lion Hunts (1855–1861) appealed to Baudelaire who admired Delacroix’s art of violence, dream, and the imagination. Poe’s Hans Pfaall, in his “Unparalleled Adventure,” says that “imagination, feeling herself for once unshackled, roamed at will among the ever-changing wonders of a shadowy and unstable land” (CSP, vol. 1, 21). Imagination was the touchstone, and the Surrealists, Magritte in particular, would tap into the original world of Poe and Baudelaire and find in it an ever-changing source of inspiration.

In the twentieth century, toward the end of World War I, André Breton discovered Freud, the unconscious, the dream world, and automatic writing. This is why the Surrealists’ spontaneity is frequently compared to that of the Romantics. Indeed, Rousseau’s Rêveries, lead directly into Magritte’s waking dreams—his paintings—in which the unusual juxtaposition of objects and the contradictory pairings of images in the title and the picture seemed like duplications of Freud’s...



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