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Few books have had more impact on modern literature than Charles Baudelaire’s compendium of poems, Les Fleurs du Mal. Exploring humanity’s many contradictions, Les Fleurs du Mal’s melancholic and erotic verse ensconce the good and the bad, the beautiful and the ugly, the spleen and the ideal. With the poems’ rich symbolism and lexicon, it is not surprising that the poet’s masterpiece has inspired generations of artists to interpret his work through illustration. This online exhibition traces the evolution of the art of the book, or book arts, over the past two centuries through the common factor of Baudelaire and his poems. Although scholars debate the taxonomy of “artist’s books,” livres d’artistes, deluxe editions, and book illustration, there is no doubt that the various editions of Les Fleurs du Mal featured here are works of art. Experience this “illustrated history” through thirty-three unique editions, all of which reside in the W.T. Bandy Center for Baudelaire and Modern French Studies. They are organized in chronological order from the prized first edition of 1857 to one of the latest artistic interpretations, Alain Bonnefoit’s stunning 2011 masterpiece. Click any one of the title pages below to immerse yourself into the world of that edition, its artist, Baudelaire, and Les Fleurs du Malmore

Scope of Les Fleurs du Mal: An Illustrated History

The thirty-three sublime, yet haunting editions featured below merely touch the surface of Les Fleurs du Mal’s illustrated history, as the poems continue to take on new life with each generation and each new artist. This exhibition presents the illustrated history through a selection of the works held at the W.T. Bandy Center for Baudelaire and Modern French Studies housed at Vanderbilt University. The Bandy Center boasts literally hundreds of editions of Les Fleurs du Mal. Among the many editions, several feature frontispiece engravings, photographs of Baudelaire, and floral decorations inspired by the often dark and sometimes sexually themed poetry. With such an expansive collection, this online exhibition chooses to focus on original illustrations or artistic interpretations of Les Fleurs du Mal.

Charles Baudelaire, 1821-1867

In order to understand Les Fleurs du Mal and the artful editions featured below, it is critical to understand Charles Baudelaire. Art critic, translator, and poet, Baudelaire intimately engaged with the radical artistic, social, and political developments of mid-nineteenth century France and Paris. Baudelaire adored and critiqued the works of Delacroix, parleyed with Manet, Balzac and Flaubert, and inspired later poets like Rimbaud and Verlaine. Beneath his sharp pen, stern gaze, and characteristically reticent persona, however, Baudelaire lived a troubled life as family relations and rocky love affairs defined a tortured existence. As a young man in the early 1840s, Baudelaire squandered his inheritance, and idled in academics until his stepfather sent him on a long sea voyage around the southern tip of Africa toward India in hopes of correcting his maligned ways; however, Baudelaire ended the voyage near Madagascar, and returned to Paris. Once in the capital, he succumbed to the temptations of absinthe, hashish and laudanum. His alcoholism, along with syphilis, plagued his body and mind, and eventually brought his premature death at age forty-six in 1867. Although his poetic output was relatively small compared to other major poets, his inner demons vividly poured onto the page, culminating in his 1857 masterpiece, Les Fleurs du Mal.

The Publication of Les Fleurs du Mal

Baudelaire published art critiques as early as 1845 and translations of Edgar Allen Poe soon after, but his poetic talent was not fully revealed until several years later, in 1857, with Les Fleurs du Mal. Although Baudelaire wrote poetry throughout the 1840s and 1850s, he published very few poems at that time. When Baudelaire finally decided to publish his poems, his friends Hippolyte Babou suggested the title and Auguste Poulet-Malassis agreed to publish it. The first edition featured one hundred poems divided into five sections. On June 25, 1857, the first 1100 editions of Les Fleurs du Mal were released to the bookshops and bookstalls of Paris. With Baudelaire’s notoriety and the poems’ contentious subjects and themes, they flew off the shelves; however, by August of that year, lawyer Ernest Pinard, under the auspices of Napoleon III’s Second Empire, declared Baudelaire’s poems an outrage aux bonnes mœur, or an insult to public decency, citing six poems for their lesbian, erotic, and graphic nature. Baudelaire and Poulet-Malassis were fined 300 francs and forced to remove the poems. Baudelaire republished the collection in 1861 without theses censored pieces, while adding a new selection of thirty-five poems in a sixth section, “Tableaux parisiens.” He published one more edition, entitled Les Épaves, or The Scraps, in 1866. The poems remained officially censured by the French state until 1949, but in that time, Les Fleurs du Mal and Charles Baudelaire had become infamous.

Themes of Les Fleurs du Mal

The themes of addiction, tempestuous love, and society’s tendencies for sin and hypocrisy bleed through the poems of Les Fleurs du Mal. Baudelaire famously declares in the first lines of “Death of the Poor”: “It’s Death that comforts us, alas! And makes us live; It is the goal of life; it is the only hope.” For Baudelaire, death is both the beginning and the end. These lines drip with the duality he finds behind all corners of existence. Even then, Baudelaire expresses contradictions through his verse. His poems are lyrical and highly stylized. Like the flowers of evil, they tempt, distract, and please the reader who accepts the sonorous tone laid forth on the surface; however, beneath the flowers lay the thorns: the harsh realities, the correspondences to an ideal world, all of which carefully weave together the irony of human existence and the contradictions of modern life.

Although Baudelaire received notoriety in his lifetime, he received most public acclaim for Les Fleurs du Mal posthumously. Nearly two centuries after the initial publication of the poems, his lyricism, wit, and fearlessness stand frozen in time, like a portrait of his revolutionary worldview. While his poems speak of mid-century France, the themes translate across generations. The artists that revive the poems through their illustrations relish the parallels between Baudelaire’s time and their own: la fin de siècle, les années folles of post-World War I, or l’après guerre of World War II, for example. Baudelaire’s despair, concern with mortality, obsession with love and lust, and his interpretation of the urban experience are timeless, locked within his verse, but revived through the eyes of new generations of artists who project their contemporary societal and individual concerns through their artful interpretations of his text.

Les Fleurs du Mal: An Illustrated History

Les Fleurs du Mal was not illustrated during Baudelaire’s lifetime. The closest Baudelaire came to seeing a visual interpretation of his poems was when he, for the 1866 republication, conferred with his friend and artist, Felicien Rops, who designed a frontispiece. After Baudelaire’s death in 1867, few artists directly engaged with his poetry, although several editions included portraits of Baudelaire or minor artistic detailing.

However, around the turn of the century, illustrators finally began to engage with Les Fleurs du Mal. In the 1890s, Baudelaire’s poems appeared en vogue during the fin de siècle where, as the historian Eric Haskell notes that editions de luxe, printed on fine paper and bound in unique boxes, were fashionable amongst bibliophiles. Well-known artists such as the sculptor Auguste Rodin and Symbolist painter Odilon Redon illustrated editions. In 1888, at the bequest of Paul Gallimard, Rodin inserted 27 drawings into Gallimard’s personal, 1857 edition. This copy resides at the Musée Rodin in Paris, but, in 1940, the Limited Editions Club published a facsimile of Les Fleurs du Mal with Auguste Rodin’s artwork, which is set within the text. Rodin demonstrates a particular concern for the body and physical emotion through movement. Allegedly, members of the Limited Editions Club did not receive their edition until 1947 due to the War.

Artists continued to illustrate Baudelaire’s poems through the turn of the century, but a large amount of editions emerged around the First World War. Epitomizing the period, Georges Rochegrosse’s somber etchings evoke the damning elements of Baudelaire’s poetics. Originally published in 1910, the Bandy Center holds the 1917 edition published by F. Ferroud, in which Rochegrosse’s illustrations include an ornate, colored, half-title page that coyly plays upon the dualism within Les Fleurs du Mal. The brightly colored flowers within the border tempt the viewer, but upon closer analysis, one sees that each flower is entrenched in a bed of thorns containing foreboding, red berries. These flowers reappear as tailpieces throughout the edition, suggesting a continuation of this temptation. These flowers also serve as support for the rest of the illustrations, in particular, for the frontispiece. Here, Rochegrosse represents Baudelaire in a tempestuous fog, swirling with abstract symbols of death, beauty, and horror. The dark, heavily contrasted etching epitomizes the style of illustration adapted for Les Fleurs du Mal during this time period. The writer Louis Aragon (1897-1982) also notes that the Fleurs du Mal from this period are characterized by motifs of “the grave of the poet tortured by a variety of femmes maudites.” In a similar manner, a second edition from 1917, a woodcut edition from 1920, a striking 1922 edition Les Épaves, and an edition from 1923 follow this pattern of dark, heavily contrasted illustration.

Around the late 1920s and into the 1930s, artists began to splash color in their illustrations, with characteristic art-déco flair. In 1930, the Trianon Press, known for its William Blake facsimiles, published an edition of Les Fleurs du Mal featuring the vibrant illustrations of Édy Legrand. This edition characterizes the colorful nature of the poetry itself. The very first illustration of the book places the viewer behind Baudelaire’s writing table. Stacked books, a writing lamp, papers and a quill rest upon his desk. Behind the chair, a walking stick leans against a top-hat, as if Baudelaire had just taken a break from writing. Paris can be seen through the open window in front of the table, suggesting that Baudelaire gazes upon the Seine, the bridges, the buildings of Paris, metonymies for Parisian society, from his writing desk; through his writing, Baudelaire contemplates society, and Legrand prepares the reader for this experience from the beginning of this edition. In a similar fashion to this 1930 interpretation, the publisher Nilsson released an edition in 1926 illustrated by Monier and another in 1931 featuring the illustrations of Janserge, both of which evoke the colorful art-déco style popular during the 1920s and 1930s. A second 1931 edition features one of the few unique bindings presented in this exhibition. The soft pink cover is overlaid with streamlined silver decoration, which accentuates the geometric typeface.

In 1944, Les Fleurs du Mal was interpreted once again by the French artist Henri Matisse when he released 320-signed copies of his livre d’artiste of Les Fleurs du Mal. In this edition, Matisse asserts ownership over the text in unprecedented ways through the idiosyncratic style of his illustrations and his selection and reorganization of the poems themselves. For an analysis on this particular edition see Kathryn Brown’s essay “Enacting Beauty: Baudelaire, Matisse, and Les Fleurs du Mal”: in short, Matisse draws sparse, black-line portraits. These portraits and their style operate on many levels, including Matisse’s own interest in portraiture as well as his desire to enact “beauty” within the poems. In the context of the illustrated history of Les Fleurs du Mal, Matisse literally provides a “new face” for the poems. Following Matisse, several illustrators take stylistic liberties and focus more specifically on original and personal responses to the verse. For example, even before Matisse, George Rouault introduced an unseen religiosity to Baudelaire’s poems in his illustrations from 1927. It was not until after the Second World War and Matisse’s work, however, that artists began to experiment stylistically with artistic interpretations of Les Fleurs du Mal. Pierre-Yves Trémois’s 1971 edition features detailed geometric portraits and Paul Kallos’ 1978 illustrations amount to abstract watercolors.

While book illustration and book arts have evolved substantially over the second half of the twentieth century, the Bandy Center holds several, more recent editions of Les Fleurs du Mal worthy of note. In particular, Alain Bonnefoit’s deluxe 2011 edition demonstrates how artists of the past twenty years have engaged Baudelaire’s text through conceptual forms of art as well as through a manipulation of the form of the book itself as an artistic object. Bonnefoit’s folio-sized edition is housed in a large, red box, which includes a nude female form in outline stretching across the cover. Upon opening the box, a striking and vivid woman stares back from the cover of the folio, tempting the viewer to turn the page. Once within the text, Bonnefoit’s colorful illustrations reach across the entire page, set amongst the beautifully printed text. Each poem is treated with its own unique range of colors and style. Unlike previous editions, the experience of Bonnefoit’s edition is tactile, colorful, and grand, echoing early éditions de luxe. Similarly combining conceptual art while at the same time addressing form Alison Hildreth’s 1998 version of the single poem, “Le Voyage,” deliberately places holes throughout the pages while Eikoh Hosoe’s 2006 edition explores race and the human body through suggestive black and white photography.

While there are, of course, exceptions to the categorical time periods laid forth, this basic overview, at minimum, demonstrates an evolving appreciation, concern, and desire amongst artists to preserve and revive the essence of Les Fleurs du Mal. At a time when the concept and form of “the book” is on the verge of radical change through digitalization and new media, reflections on the history of the book as a material object and its artistic interpretations are all the more relevant.

Bon voyage. less

Works Consulted

Books published chronoligically