The Flowers of Evil
Born in Paris in 1821, Charles Baudelaire has long been recognized as not only one of the greatest poets of the nineteenth century but also a forefather of modern art. Baudelaire lived during a tumultuous time in French history and his work was impacted by a number of political events. However, his personal life was also turbulent: One of the most scarring episodes of his life was the death of his father in 1827 and his mother's hasty remarriage to a general in the French army. Baudelaire detested his stepfather both personally and as a symbol of the corrupt July monarchy established following the 1830 Revolution. He went to great lengths to upset his stepfather, squandering his inheritance and living a bohemian lifestyle. Worried about his behavior, his family sent him on a trip across the Mediterranean, whose exotic beauty left a lasting impression on the young poet.
Shortly after Baudelaire's return to Paris, the 1848 Revolution overthrew the July monarch and established a republic in France for the first time in more than fifty years. Baudelaire greeted the revolution with enthusiasm, fighting among the barricades and openly defying his stepfather in public. However, his joy soon turned to disenchantment when Louis Napoleon, the original Napoleon's nephew, overthrew the Second Republic in 1851. Louis Napoleon's coup d'état instituted the Second Empire, ending the hopes for a republican form of government that men like Baudelaire favored. His disenchantment then turned to despair when Louis Napoleon began an intense rebuilding and public works project aimed at modernizing Paris. Baudelaire was horrified with the destruction of the ancient and medieval sections of Paris that he had called his home. His longing for the "old" Paris would play a major role in his poetry.
Baudelaire's disgust with politics led to a rejection of reality in favor of an obsessive fantasy world inspired by drugs, the exotic beauty of the Mediterranean, and the search for love. He was strongly influenced in this regard not only by his experiences along the Mediterranean but also by Edgar Allen Poe, whose writings he translated into French. Baudelaire was fascinated by Poe's evocation of the dark side of the imagination, and he found a comparably sinister seductiveness in the paintings of Eugene Delacroix and Edouard Manet, as well as the music of Wagner. These themes and influences play a predominant role in Baudelaire's 1857 collection of poetry, The Flowers of Evil, which juxtaposed the negative themes of exile, decay, and death with an ideal universe of happiness.
Baudelaire's exotic themes quickly caught the attention of the government, which condemned The Flowers of Evil for immorality. Unlike his friend, Gustave Flaubert, whose Madame Bovary was also put on trial, Baudelaire lost his case, had to pay a fine, and was forced to remove some poems from the collection. Baudelaire was devastated by this rejection of his work, which he attributed to the hypocrisy of a bourgeoisie incapable of understanding artistic innovation. Yet at the same time, he saw the condemnation of his work as the culmination of the different themes and events that had shaped his artistic talent since his youth: no achievement of beauty could be unaccompanied by bitterness and disappointments. Indeed, with this philosophy, Baudelaire shifted the attention of the art world to the darker side of life, inspiring contemporary and future artists to new levels of perception and provocation.
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