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In Praise of Cosmetics

August 9, 2011

Edouard Manet, Portrait d'Irma Brunner (1880)

It seems I’m not the only person who believes that nature, left to her own devices, is a pernicious evil.

In the Musée D’Orsay, Paris’ temple to Impressionism, a period in art history where colors were often delightfully blurry, there is a section of the museum set aside for pastels—a painting form, according to Charles Baudelaire, uniquely appropriate to showcase the charms of the aging woman.

See? This is why I love the French. Where else in the world can you imagine having the Hydra of aging and personal vanity conquered by art? Only the French accept aging with aplomb and approach it with artistic euphemisms. Only in France is the older woman a desirable commodity. Everywhere else, youth and its excesses reigns supreme.

In Paris, however, one is allowed to ‘paint,’ all the while looking for the best, pastel-washed light in which to stand so as to be seen to advantage. It’s not hard to find that perfect pastel palette in Paris since the natural light there minimizes all but the most stubborn wrinkles. In a country with a long history of cosmetics’ use, it’s considered courteous to others to present one’s best face. Of course, it would be ideal if that best face was the by-product of years of expert self-preservation, but this is not always possible.

Baudelaire was a bit too obsessed with women, primarily due to his rather warped relationship with his mother. This obsession lead him to notice women, perhaps a little too closely, especially their appearance, which he commented on frequently, through a thinly-veiled haze of resentment exacerbated by excessive laudanum use. Although concerned with aesthetics, his real interest lay in the ways in which the industrial era was changing conceptions of what should be considered natural and beautiful.

Baudelaire rejected romanticism and the idea of the ‘supremacy of nature’ espoused by the Romantics, placing himself, much like the Tour d’Eiffel, at the interstice between two worlds—the world of Belle Epoque Art Nouveau, arguably the last vestige of Romanticism, and the world of cold metal and steel which began to dominate, and define, cities. Baudelaire once wrote, “[e]verything beautiful and noble is the result of reason and calculation,” and he is credited with coining the term “modernity” (modernité) to designate the “fleeting, ephemeral experience of life in an urban metropolis, and the responsibility art has to capture that experience.”

His essay entitled “In Praise of Cosmetics” is a bit too tongue in cheek to be taken with great sincerity, since his attitude toward women was infused with occasional bitterness and ambivalence, as it will be when you’re obsessed with your mother, a woman you’re not really allowed to have, after all. His belief that ‘reason and calculation’ create what is beautiful is a backhanded compliment to women who are within our rights, indeed are “even accomplishing a kind of duty,” by devoting ourselves to appearing “magical and supernatural.” You just know there’s a bitter lacing of hatred underneath that statement, a longing for something he could not have, but it doesn’t change the fact that he was utterly entranced by women and wrote beautiful love poetry (in those moments when he wasn’t obsessed by his mother).

Aging in pastels, softened by their hues

In the following poem Beauty, he reveals this ambivalence through his unsentimental view of personal appearance. Beauty inspires pain and suffering, but never to itself, since beauty is immortal and untouchable, unchanging and immutable. The adored beautiful person sits above us all, an unknowable sphinx, disdaining to move her face for fear of causing wrinkles:

I am fair, O mortals! like a dream carved in stone,
And my breast where each one in turn has bruised himself
Is made to inspire in the poet a love
As eternal and silent as matter.
On a throne in the sky, a mysterious sphinx,
I join a heart of snow to the whiteness of swans;
I hate movement for it creates lines,
And never do I weep and never do I laugh.
Poets, before my grandiose poses,
Which I seem to assume from the proudest statues,
Will consume their lives in austere study;
For I have, to enchant those submissive lovers,
Pure mirrors that make all things more beautiful:
My eyes, my large, wide eyes of eternal brightness!
One Comment leave one →
  1. March 18, 2012 2:10 PM

    Reblogged this on The Collaborative Writer and commented:

    I visited one of my other blogs today, to bid it adieu, and remembered this post, which has references to writing in it.

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