The Flâneur and the Aesthetic Appropriation of Urban Culture in Mid-19th century

The Flâneur and the Aesthetic Appropriation of Urban Culture in Mid-19th century

...“Such an approach makes apparent the fact that there actually existed two separate, though interconnected, formulaic narratives about flânerie, which have rarely been distinguished from each other. The first is that of the popular flâneur, which emerged on the pages of the mass circulation newspapers and commercial press of the 1840s and came to embody the ideals of a dynamic urban culture and sensibility. The second is what I shall call the avant-garde flâneur, which found its most vivid embodiment in Baudelaire`s critical texts of the 1850s and 1860s.

From these accounts, it becomes clear that the flâneur of the 1840s was hardly an isolated and silent spectator of urban life.

In the flâneur`s  perceptive eyes, what appeared incoherent and meaningless gains focus and visability. The flâneur brings alive and invests with significance the fleeting, everyday occurrences of the city that ordinary people failed to notice.

The unique relationship between the flâneur and the urban environment was invariably characterized by the metaphor of the city as text and the flâneur as reader.

The figure of the urban  flâneur did not completely disappear from the cultural landscape of mid-19th-century Paris, however. By the late 1850s, a new version of the flâneur and a new definition of flânerie re-emerged in the guise of the avant-garde artist. The “painter of modern life”, as Baudelaire called this resurrected flâneur, reaffirmed the idea of modernity as epic experience anchored in a hidden unity at the core of a fragmented civilisation. This epic unity, however, was no longer sought in the social spaces of the empirical city but in the aesthetic spaces of the urban text, recreated by the imagination of the avant-garde poet.
The depiction of the avant-garde flâneur which was to emerge in Baudelaire`s essays of the 1850s was, in many respects, a diminished figure when compared to his popular predecessor of the 1840s. He could no longer claim to embody the totality of the social and cultural values of an emerging urban modernity. He stood in increasing opposition to the new city emerging out of Haussmann`s monumental urban renewal project, which was transforming Paris into a rational, predictable, vidually coherent, but emotionally alienating urban landscape (Clark, 1984). If the popular version of the flâneur had represented the possibility of a synthesis between science and imagination, his avant-garde incarnation was uniquely committed to the defence of imagination against a narrowly scientific conception of modernity.

If the problem in the 1840s had been how to distinguish the true flâneur from the mere idler, by the 1850s it had become how to differentiate the genuine painter of modernity from the mere photographer or the scientific realist.

The popular flâneur had still taken it as axiomatic that Paris, or at any rate Europe, was the center of modernity and that he could not exist anywhere else in the world. The avant-guarde flâneur, as personified by Constantin Guys, no longer did so. He was intentionally depicted as a man of the world and as a great traveller, who felt at home in all parts of the globe.”...
 (Mary Gluck, The Flâneur and the Aesthetic Appropriation of Urban Culture in Mid-19th century, Paris, Theory, Culture and Siciety, 2003 (SAGE, London, Thousand Oaks and New Delhi), Vol. 20