Monday, April 24, 2006 | They might have been the first Goths: urban, morose, depressed, preoccupied with death and the darker side of humanity, dressed in black, daring in both their life choices and their art. Their life style has survived more than a century, appearing today in photos of hip young people with black-rimmed eyes staring out of magazine ads for music and clothing.
But let’s stop before appearances get the best of us. Poet Charles Baudelaire, composer /pianist Frederic Chopin, and painter Eugene Delacroix were among the circle of artists and bohemians who trolled Paris in the middle of the nineteenth century. They emerged as leading figures in their respective arts, and their astonishing output continues to surprise and sometimes haunt us.
Poetry, music and art lovers will be able to experience the work of these artists on Saturday evening, when pianist Sarah Rothenberg presents a multi-media performance at North Park’s Birch Theater. With its deep mauve color scheme, the Birch seems like a particularly congenial venue for a program that depends on mystery and mood, light coming out of darkness, and images floating in the air. The performance “creates the sense of a dream,” she said in a phone interview from Houston.
Rothenberg titles her program “Epigraph for a Condemned Book,” referring to Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs du Mal (“Flowers of Evil”), a collection of poems that was banned when it was first published in 1857 – in the same year as Madame Bovary, which landed its author Gustave Flaubert in court on obscenity charges. After Baudelaire removed half a dozen offending poems about lesbianism, Satanism, and sex, Fleurs was released in 1861, with a poem about the book’s ban – “Epigraph” – added. An impoverished and mostly ignored bohemian, Baudelaire had relationships with several women, although Jeanne DuVal, a mixed-race woman he met on a trip to the South Seas would be a constant presence for 20 years. The poet died in a nursing home, paralyzed and unable to speak, at the age of 46.
Although he achieved enormous success, Chopin, too, had an unconventional life. Always in frail health, Chopin avoided concert halls, performing his deeply personal compositions in small venues. He had a long dalliance with novelist George Sand, who wrote novels filled with expressions of female sexuality, abandoned her marriage (taking her two children with her), wore men’s clothing, and rolled into a series of affairs. Chopin’s sexual identity has been described as “marginal,” and their sexual relationship was apparently short-lived, although they were together for a decade. After he and Sand split in 1847, Chopin stopped composing and died of tuberculosis two years later, when he was 39.
Delacroix was a buddy of both Baudelaire and Chopin. He painted a portrait of Chopin and Sand, but he never finished the pictures, because when the couple split up, the portrait was ripped in two; the pieces landed in different museums.
Orphaned and impoverished at an early age, Delacroix initially met with criticism. Then he experienced success and fame, and he lived a relatively long life, to the age of 65. Art historians rank Delacroix as the supreme nineteenth-century French Romantic painter because of his biblical and “heroic” themes and figures. Still, in his complex colorizing and lush brush work, he anticipates Impressionism.
With Chopin, Baudelaire and Delacroix, the “modern” age started, Rothenberg said. Urban in outlook, its artists drew on the city’s grime and grit for inspiration and imagery. Paris’ labyrinthian streets were Baudelaire’s raw material. In his most famous work, “Liberty Leading the People,” Delacroix reserved part of the canvas for a Parisian cityscape, with Notre Dame and other landmarks visible in a background obscured by the smoke of war, Rothenberg pointed out.
Passion filled the works of these three artists, Rothenberg said. In Chopin the passion shows up in his highly personal music. “There’s an extremely intimate side to Chopin which sometimes gets lost in the concert hall today,” she said. The focus on Chopin’s virtuosity as a pianist obscures what she describes as his “shockingly expressive” music. Delacroix’s exquisite colors – passionate, wild, uncontrolled – catapult him into modernity. Indeed, Baudelaire called Delacroix the first modernist.
As romantics on the cusp of modernity, the three shared an interest in the dark side. “The mood of melancholy is central to Chopin,” Rothenberg said. As for Baudelaire, she remarked that he defined beauty as essentially bizarre (“Le beau est toujours bizarre,” he wrote). Baudelaire pursued the dark side not only in his own work but also in his fascination with Poe, whose stories he translated.
In a penetrating essay, Baudelaire wrote that Delacroix’s women, display a kind of soul-pain that the painter conveys through the yellowish cast of works like “Les Femmes d’Alger” (Women of Algiers). For all three artists, boredom, ennui, melancholy and spiritual pain define the human condition. If their precursors were Byron and Schumann, their successors were the existentialists.
Rothenberg will use the visual to bring an element of surprise to the program, which she said is especially important for Chopin’s music, which is so familiar that audiences forget how radical it is. She will use a visual technology that was new to the mid-nineteenth century – the camera. “Photography dates the beginning of the modern,” she said. In Delacroix’ time, models were photographed in classical poses borrowed from painting and sculpture. In Rothenberg’s show, the audience will witness Delacroix’ paintings, including the Parisian cityscape in “Liberty” transmuted into photos of his Paris. The camera also gave us something we never had before – photos of people like Chopin and Baudelaire.
Rothenberg wants the audience to understand the different ways we perceive, and she has made a national reputation in drawing the various arts together to achieve that purpose. The audience will go from looking to listening to reading texts that are projected. While they will hear Baudelaire’s poems in French for instance, they will see the words in English projected on floating screens.
“You go from one to the next, and there is something emotional connected between the music and the text. You don’t know sometimes what you’re doing, you’re just moving from one to the other,” she said.
The audience, Rothenberg said, is an integral part of the program. Baudelaire wrote that in all the arts, “there is always a gap (a lacuna), bridged by the imagination of the listener.” Each member of the audience bridges that gap privately, experiencing the art uniquely. Yet the audience’s private imaginative work becomes public, simply because they sit together in the theater. Thus, the arts become the antidote to the loneliness of modern life that these three artists described.
La Jolla Music Society presents Epigraph for a Condemned Book, with Sarah Rothenberg, piano, Saturday, Apr. 29, Stephen and Mary Birch North Park Theatre, 7 p.m. Pre-concert talk with Derrick Cartwright, Executive Director, San Diego Museum of Art, 6 p.m. The program will last 70 minutes, without intermission. Tickets: $15-$50; call 858-459-3728 or go to http://purchase.tickets.com/buy/TicketPurchase?orgid=22672.