Charles Baudelaire's Concept of the Flaneur: An Urban Explorer in the Period of Modernity

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The 19th century experienced huge urban expansion. Cities like London and Paris grew to unprecedented scale and gave rise to new patterns of urban life and new modes of experience. The French poet Charles Baudelaire wrote that in the modern city we beco

The 19th century experienced huge urban expansion. Cities like London and Paris grew to unprecedented scale and gave rise to new patterns of urban life and new modes of experience. The French poet Charles Baudelaire wrote that in the modern city we become a flâneur or stroller. This was an entirely new urban figure, associated with the era of modernity. According to Baudelaire, the flâneur moves through the labyrinthine streets and hidden spaces of the city, partaking of its attractions and fearful pleasures, but remaining somehow detached and apart from it.

According to Greek Mythology, there was a gigantic labyrinth on the island of Crete, and inside the labyrinth was a Minotaur, a monstrous creature with the body of a man and the head of a bull.  The German writer Walter Benjamin used the metaphor of the labyrinth to describe his conception of the city. He argued that the streets, alleys and hidden spaces of the city were like an endless labyrinth. Benjamin also argued that the city was a site of fearful pleasure, represented by the Minotaur.

Benjamin’s Minotaur, his source of fearful pleasure, was the three prostitutes in a small Berlin brothel he used to frequent. It was a site that he was drawn to and which provoked simultaneous fear and desire. In Benjamin’s work, the city is presented as the playground of the male flâneur and women are present only as objects of the male gaze. He presents the prostitute as the archetypal female figure in the city.

Paris / Pixabay

Feminist writers have argued that only men had unrestricted access to urban space. For example, Griselda Pollock is a feminist art historian who has examined the experience of Impressionist artists in Paris. The Impressionists often painted the hidden spaces of the city: Degas, for example, painted the backstage areas of theatres and nightclubs. He painted the dancers in images charged with eroticism. Toulouse Lautrec was a painter who frequented the shady nightclubs of Paris. One of his paintings depicts the Moulin Rouge, the notorious nightclub were the Can-Can was invented. Much Impressionist painting focuses on these types of space.

These were spaces where respectable women could not go. Women artists could not gain access to these spaces and for that reason they were unable to participate in a critical area of Impressionist activity. Only male artists were able to access the bohemian and sexually-ambiguous spaces that formed the subject matter of their paintings. This partly accounts for the marginal status of women artists within the history of art.

For further discussion of the meanings of urban space, please see:

The City

The sphinx in the city

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