What effect do you think this phenomenon had on the world of the artist in western society from the latter part of the 19th century? Write two or three paragraphs on the subject.

The character of the Flâneur or affluent city stroller seems to represent a transition in society in the 19th century. Industrialisation, urban sprawl and consumerism came together to create a class of individuals who were wealthy, educated and idle. With time on their hands they would walk about the city at leisure and observe the quotidian scenes that they happened to pass by. The 19th century poet Charles Baudelaire describes with fondness the pursuits of the Flâneur as an artist and poet of the modern metropolis, it is from these accounts that Walter Benjamin analyses its social and political significance.  He sees this character as representing the “conspicuous leisure” of the bourgeoisie. They are physically active within the society that they observe but are intellectually on the outside, at a distance from those that they observe. They impose their own subjective ideas on the scenes they inspect and consequently feel empathy for them. This notion of inspecting from a distance but simultaneously being intimately connected to social scenes brought in the age of the modern, which is characterised by self-consciousness and alienation.

Édouard Manet’s paintings marked the genesis of modern art; Le déjeuner sur l’herb and Olympia use the characteristics of realism through their portrayal of contemporary people with a modernist twist, making the audience aware of itself and breaking the illusion of realism. Manet believed that artists should have the right to play and through play challenge the spectator.

Édouard Manet Le déjeuner sur l’herb

The artistic movement from the 19th century are marked by the enormous impact of industrialization, through escapism and fantasy as can be seen in Romanticism from the first half of the century or through a desire for truth and for laying bear the gritty realities of contemporary society as can be seem in Realism. The focus on the Flâneur at the end of this century marks a “world-weariness” that was characteristic of that time, a disillusionment with contemporary urban life. The Decadents art movement has been most closely associated with Baudelaire and the Flâneur. There style was based on fantasy, gothic romanticism but as with Manet they had a modern twist which included an element of self-awareness and alienation. They dealt with taboo issues of the day such as deviant sexuality, depression and death. They were opposed to everyday morality, they rejected its glorification preferring artifice, inner imaginative worlds. Most importantly they rejected nature, believing that everything that was beautiful, virtuous and true came from the spiritual world or from god so therefore nature was wicked. They used drugs and alcohol to explore these inner worlds.

For Walter Benjamin the interior-exterior nature of the Flâneur, its direct and indirect interaction with society, whilst being intimately linked with it represented social alienation. It is from this perspective that a lot of late 19th century art was created.


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