The definition of a “flaneur” loosely stated is “the art of strolling”. A flaneur is an “idler, a man or woman of leisure, a street connoisseur, an urban explorer”.
Isn’t that just an inflated way of describing a person who walks? Not really. If you are engaged in the act of walking, practically speaking, such as from train to office, from car to house, from desk to desk, from kitchen to bedroom, That is just transporting yourself from one place to another, usually with a necessary intent in mind. Flaneur, a term coined by philosopher Walter Benjamin in the mid 19th century, is far more involved. It’s a lifestyle, part of Parisian culture that Benjamin discovered, observing the poet Baudelaire, and other so called “dandies” of the time, whose flaneur instinct was an innate part of their personalities as artists in the society. Baudelaire was the first flaneur to appear in the literary world. Benjamin an intellectual observer of society’s nuances in his own right was influenced by Baudelaire’s flaneuristic tendencies. His famous series of poems” Les Fleurs du Mal”, describes Parisienne life in the famous arcades asseen thru the eyes of the flaneur.
From an Nyc painter perspective, flaneur or walker, is a necessary activity when on a hunt for ideas, inspiration, and insight to be utilized in the studio later. Because there is no bounty like the urban environment’s gifts naturally exposed to me on my artist walks, open eyes and open mind the necessary tools, while gathering new material for upcoming paintings!
The cities London, Paris, and New York are the flaneur’s heaven. Exploring by foot, at leisure, is not only enjoyable, accessible, and exciting, but is also a way to fill the creative well. One goes out with a blank mind and returns with an overflow of sensory information. The walk is not just a walk , simplistic in meaning , but a “gastronomy of the eye” as Balzac aptly called it! Getting out of the studio, the office, ditching the computer , is a welcome journey for the creative to go on, the simple stroll, becomes a hunt for jewels to fill the treasure chest of the mind !
Paris is the flaneur’s natural habitat. As Edmund White paraphrases in his book, “The Flaneur”, “looking at people go by has always been the Parisian’s favorite pastime; no wonder they’re called gawkers!” Baudelaire says of the flaneur,” the crowd is his domain, as the air is that of the bird, or the fish of the sea” The cafe life in Paris caters to the flaneur’s love of observation or as we call it today, “people watching.”
In the mid 19th century, when the flaneur became a “thing” in Paris, it was associated with the lifestyle of the “dandy”, the idle rich with excess time on their hands to stroll the city’s streets at their leisure. Oscar Wilde, Baudelaire, and Gerard de Nerval, the French Romantic poet, who actually walked his pet lobster around on a blue silk leash, were a few of these “dandys”. When questioned about his unusual lobster walking habit, Nerval retorted, “why should a lobster be any more ridiculous than a dog?” Of course, Nerval was utterly and completely Mad! But an original flaneur in every way!
“The crowd was the veil from behind which the familiar city as phantasmagoric beckoned to the flaneur”
Walter Benjamin, philosopher and essayist, was fascinated with this subject. He noted that there was no English equivalent. Being an observer, of human behavior, flaneur was prime material for his fertile mind.
But what about photographers famous or otherwise? Watching, looking, recording strangers, wars, society, celebrities, buildings, faces, light, scenes, landscapes, the exotic, the banal, the photographer’s work in progress is an on going documentary of life as seen through the cameras eye. Certain Nyc photographer – flaneur’s , like, Diane Arbus, Vivian Maier, Robert Frank, Edward Steichen, Cindy Sherman, were always on the GO, walking the streets , looking for new material, and thousands of photos later, we get to experience the city as they did . In the film “Finding Vivienne Maier”, we are taken on this illusive mystery woman’s city walks, her camera focused ,watching, walking, and waiting for the photo she wanted. Robert Franks, in his “The Americans”, the dynamic expose of our society in the 1950’s, Weegee’s crime scene photos from the underground Nyc life, also pre 1970, Ron Galella, celebrity photographer, stalking his obsession Jackie O, up and down the city streets, Doisneau’s, iconic black & white, photographs of Paris, are spectacular records of the street life, and give us a view of early 20th century life we can only experience through photos such as his. Amazing stuff, stepping into a time capsule, that only the flaneur, armed with camera, or sketch pad, or journal, can give us, from his street perspective, up close, we get to see what he sees and that is a special experience. Diane Arbus’s freaks, her attraction to the atypical as her subjects, the circus freaks, the retarded child, the vagrant, the downtrodden, city characters she came across during her flaneuring in NYC, sealing her place in history ! The writer, Edmund White, cites French photographer Eugene Atget, as a “scientific flaneur.” “An obsessed photographer, determined to document every street in Paris, before it disappeared forever in the new construction looming in the future.” These flaneur’s armed with cameras, have the ability to document the city scape as it changes, is torn down, rebuilt, transformed over time, with the photographs left to document what once was. In Vivienne Maier’s stunning collection of thousands of NYC photos, now available in a book, “Street Photographer” one is given a historical photographic journey of a city that no longer exists.
Henry Miller, the charismatic novelist, spent his early writing life on the streets of Paris, with his lover Anais Nin, usually looking for a meal, but also gathering material for his banned book “Tropic of Cancer”, and the future tropics to follow. Miller is always walking the streets of Paris, from Pigalle to the Bastille, to Montparnasse, the Right Bank, the Left Bank, he covers by foot, every avenue, every “rue” of old Paris. Miller, the Brooklyn boy, writer in training, expat, soaking up the sights, the people, the language, living as a true “starving artist”, pursuing his dream, his walks taking him into Zola’s “Belly of Paris”, and giving the world his gritty life view in the pages of his often controversial, raw, rough, provocative novels!
There was a recent study by the medical profession stating that “sitting is bad for you” physically. But I maintain that mentally, it’s not great either. Walking is physically AND mentally invigorating! It’s healthy mobility, your body and mind moving in tandem, together it’s a powerful combo where all systems are go, and when that happens, the mind is turned on to the stimuli around you as you walk. The synchronicity, the harmony, walking, gives body and mind, is irreplaceable. This is a process that painters get ideas from, returning to their canvas, full of inspiration, visuals, ideas, provided by their walk! Van Gogh’s paintings of the potato planters, his sight holding them in his artist’s eyes, as he walked through the Dutch countryside, Utrillo’s cafe scenes, clearly from his meanderings through the winding Monmartre streets in his absinthe haze, Lautrec’s cabaret posters, his brothel paintings, walking with his infamous cane, that held a beaker of absinthe, or brandy in it’s hook, making his flaneur experience compatible with his drinking. The SITTER has a very different experience. One is stationary, compact, confined. Whereas the WALKER is movement, freedom, mobility, unleashed!” Transitory poetic in the historic” Baudelaire says. As only he could, using his poetic liscence freely. Yes, there is the possibility to “achieve transcendence” as you wander, walk, stroll stride, saunter the city streets. It’s the unexpected encounter, the surprise event, the sudden illumination, the street action, people, traffic, energy, all carry the flaneur’s ahead, around, and towards new sights, different views of old sights, and unfolds untapped resources of the mind that your walk inspires!
While Oscar Wilde, the poet, playwright, gay icon was serving his prison sentence in 1897, for sodomy, “gross indecency” with other men, he wrote a journal he entitled, “De Profoundis”.
“I let myself be lured into long spells of senseless and sensual ease. I amused myself with being a flaneur, a dandy, a man of fashion, surrounding myself with the smaller motives and the meaner minds.” He was feeling regretful, experiencing a prison sentence, ill, depressed, facing the end of a colorful, if turbulent life.
Wilde was the ultimate dandy. He carried flaneur to another level, where his strolling, or cruising, the modern description, walking the city gave him material for his literary works, as well as his erotic lifestyle as well. He was proud of his “dandy” status, unapologetic for anything he did, giving the social environment he lived in many tantalizing moments! This dress, his curls, his homosexual identity, all made him quite the outrage! Another flaneur about town, artist in the making, personality extraordinaire!
There have been many flaneur’s who have made history, as observers of the city, depicting their imagery artistically since the late 19th century. Walking is not especially newsworthy on it’s own, but the distinct qualities of the FLANEUR set him apart, this unique individual activity, absorbing, the city as a classroom, a studio, a library, a stage, where life unfolds in its personal way, view and viewer merging as one, strolling, wandering, gawking, gaping, while walking your turtle or lobster on a leash, leading to creative vision and fresh inspiration, galvanizing new goals, energizing a wider view, while revealing an expansive horizon timeless and free!