Friendship and the Flâneur

by charlestonattic

With Charleston once again open and welcoming the curious and the charmed to the home of Bloomsbury, the investigation in the attic into the lives and works of its artists and residents continues. All members of the Bloomsbury group placed a high value upon friendship and we see this mutual trust and respect represented in their work as they continued throughout their careers to create records of each other almost obsessively in written word and image.

We can see this desire to capture what Virginia Woolf described as the familiar discourse between ‘congenial spirits’ in this intimate ink drawing presumed to be made by Duncan Grant. Multiple readings can, and have, been made of this work and this blog will be written under the assumption that the image depicts a group of mixed gender engaged in intimate discussion within a public space.

CHA-P-988-R_C CHA/P/988 Duncan Grant, Figure Study, ink on paper, date unknown 25.2cm x 20.2 cm. Photograph © The Charleston Trust

Having rejected the restraints of Victorian society and questioned boundaries set by the establishment, the group’s members refused to partake in conventional discourse and instead debated ideas of liberty, common enjoyment and the pursuit of art. This drawing, completed in a hasty and expressive nature, seems to focus more on ‘setting a scene’ than creating a likeness of individuals. Furthermore, the list of London pubs embedded in the image gives a sense of a group of friends meeting to drink and talk; banishing the ‘drawing room prattle’ in their consideration of modern life in an informal public space.

In addition, this image lends itself to a consideration Charles Baudelaire’s concept of the flâneur. In his book, ‘The Painter of Modern Life’ published in 1863, Baudelaire argued that an artist should at heart be a passionate spectator of modern life and that this spectacle was best observed in an urban crowd. The idea of the flâneur was of one gaining understanding and finding inspiration, of always being at the centre of the world whilst allowing oneself to remain hidden from it. The Bloomsbury group, with their radical political ideas of what it meant to be modern were themselves passionate spectators, yet they found relative sanctuary in their personal relationships and private country retreats such as Charleston. The flâneur became a recurrent theme in the paintings of many Impressionist artists, most notably Renoir, Degas and Manet. Their art showed men meandering down streets and observing infinite scenarios of life whilst sat in cafes.

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CHA-PH-300. Reproduction of ‘Au Cafe’ by Edouard Manet, 1878, date unknown, 20.5 cm x 22.5 cm. Photograph © The Charleston Trust

Grant’s ink drawing, recently uncovered in the Angelica Garnett Gift, is an example of how the idea of the flâneur also became part of life and an inspiration for the Bloomsbury artists, even if this was an unconscious decision. The above reproduction of Edouard Manet’s ‘Au Café’ was collected by Duncan Grant and Vanessa Bell for personal reference and is now part of Charleston’s collection. Bell and Grant regularly sketched from life on their various travels abroad, the idea of painting ‘en plein air’ (painting outdoors) having originating with the Impressionists. Their drive to record the world and people around them was not limited to the artistic materials at hand. Whilst there are numerous sketchbooks and loose works on paper depicting urban scenes and lives in the Gift, there are also hasty sketches made on the backs of menus, hotel letter paper, foreign receipts and maps. These examples show that to them, modern life and art were intrinsically linked and that observation of one lead to creativity in the other.

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CHA/P/1126, Duncan Grant, Figure Study, pastel on paper, date unknown 29.5 x 21.5 cm. Photograph  © The Charleston Trust

It is also interesting to note that Baudelaire’s flâneur, a product of modernity, is specifically male and that the female experience of viewing and being viewed was entirely different within society’s constricts of gender at that time. Bloomsbury women rejected the strict etiquette of previous generations such as Baudelaire’s and rejoiced in the idea of life without a chaperone. Feminist art historians have reconsidered the role of the female flâneur – or flâneuse – by looking at works by Mary Cassatt and Berthe Morisot. They argue that these artists did depict women observing the intricacies of modern life through a female gaze equal to that of their male counterparts. Bell’s painting ‘A Conversation’ shows three women in earnest conversation before a curtained window though which a garden is visible. Although these women are indoors, the image does show their ability to observe, without restraint, the outside world and it is a great example of how Bell explored feminine relationships, conversation and experience.

In her writing, Virginia Woolf also considered the intricacies of modern society. In her essay Street Haunting’ she describes a woman walking through London streets, taking the role of the flâneur, observing urban life and contemplating how objects and memory are intrinsically tied with experience. She describes the freedom that comes with leaving one’s home and stepping outside,

‘we shed the self our friends know us by and become part of that vast republican army of anonymous trampers, whose society is so agreeable after the solitude of ones own room.’

Similarly, in her novel Mrs Dalloway, Woolf casts her female lead as the flâneur. Through describing the routine and experiences of one day in the life of Clarissa Dalloway, she becomes the spectator of death, love, change, friendship and considers the role of society-women and the void that can exist between people. This blurring of boundaries between public, private and gender moves away from Baudelaire’s understanding of the flâneur and transforms it to something more liberated and in-keeping with the ideas and morals of Bloomsbury.

Grant’s inclusion of women in the ink drawing can be seen to reiterate and reflect upon the fight for liberty in all aspects of modern society; a quest with which all members of the Bloomsbury group were concerned.

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