Walking in the City: The Flâneur By: Diane Han | English Columnist
noun, plural flâneurs
1. idler; dawdler; loafer.
It is the second half of the nineteenth century in Paris, a time of grand transformation, rapid urbanization, and technological innovation. The city is under constant construction - and destruction. Capitalism is on the rise. For the first time, Parisians are witnessing the mixing of social classes in cafés, theaters, and concerts. In the spirit of urban unity, and as a result of the city planning reforms, people are losing individuality in favor of a collective identity.
But among these Parisians is a man, deliberately resisting the loss of selfhood - let’s call him Monsieur Anonyme. He is the man of style and leisure. He is about five foot seven, but his tall topper hat and long black coat magnifies his height. His upright posture conveys a sense of confidence and dignity. His refined handlebar moustache makes it difficult to tell his age, but he still maintains the curious eyes of the twelve-year-old. He is well-dressed in a subtle manner, so impeccable that it goes unnoticed. He spends his day wandering the streets of a city that is never the same one day as it is another.
Monsieur Anonyme is the prince incognito, completely overlooked, who wanders around the city. During his aimless stroll, he observes the noises and urban dynamics from a distance: the clippity-clop sound of horses’ hooves, monsieur and his mistress walking down the newly built boulevards, the ambient chatter from the sidewalk cafés. The noise and ashes from neverending demolition and construction of buildings. He pauses his walk and takes out his pen and sketchbook. He begins depicting the urban scenes of his time. He is the flâneur.
The 19th century French poet Charles Baudelaire coined the term flâneur as “the passionate spectator,” who is “away from home and yet to feel oneself everywhere at home.” He was a literary figure "to be at the center of the world, and yet to remain hidden from the world.” He was the man of wealth and taste, free of financial responsibility. Investigating spectacular urban scenes from detached view, this emblematic figure of modernity was able to portray the true sentiments of a developing urban culture through poems and paintings.
Below are a few paintings by some flâneurs, often referred to as the Impressionists. They captured the glittering sites of recently urbanized city and entertainment scenes. Yet, from a distant view, they also acknowledged the ugly shadows that often lurked within the urban scenes.
Let’s step into few paintings of flânerie with our Monsieur Anonyme:
Paris Street; Rainy Day 1877
Rain mercilessly bore down on the recently renovated cobblestone streets, reflecting the pedestrians in a gray tone similar to the color of the city. Monsieur Anonyme, unwittingly moving his body to avoid rain, walks toward the refined couple. He wonders, ‘what is their relationship? Are they married? Probably not. The married woman of wealth is not often present in the public spaces.’ He thinks to himself, fixing his gaze on the couple and remaining unseen. He also notices the sense of urban homogeneity and finds it to be intriguing. By distancing himself from the homogeneity, he feels freed from the hollowness of capitalism and commodification. He portrays the city in a neutral tone with a neutral voice. Monsieur Anonyme captures the ephemeral moment in a rapidly developing city.
At the Café 1878
Leaving the busy street behind, Monsieur Anonyme slowly steers his way into an alley and heads to a crowded café on the sidewalk. He often stops by this café to overhear the ambient chatter and observe the unprecedented mixing of social classes. He pushes the door to hear the noise of the bell door hanger. “Tinkle.” A lady responds to the bell ring by slowly turning her eyes toward Monsieur Anonyme. Noticing her subtle attention, Monsieur Anonyme suddenly realizes that he is, too, part of the urban scene. Deliberately hiding himself by pulling his topper hat down to his brows, Monsieur alienates himself again from the scene. He takes a seat in the corner and resumes his natural act of crowd watching.
The Star (Dancer on Stage) 1878
Here, Monsieur Anonyme partially reveals himself behind the stage. It is his much awaited time of the day. He regularly takes a visit to the concert hall and watches the dancers on stage. Today, he observes a young ballerina en pointe. Monsieur Anonyme knew the lone dancer since she first joined the ballet company. She was about the age of seven and was most likely forced to join the company to support her family. Sensing her potential in the glittering eyes, he decided to sponsor her career as a dancer. By hiding himself in the dark, he allows the viewers to focus on and fully appreciate the elegance of the dancer. This time, he chooses to conceal himself not to freely observe the people but to accentuate and honor the beauty that results from hard working and suffering in the behind scenes.
Translating their impressions of urban life into the forms of art, the flâneurs, such as Gustave Caillebotte, Edouard Manet, and Edgar Degas, enable the viewers to see marginalized parts of the metropolis that often went unnoticed. Looking at this painting leaves viewers with a sense of enlightenment - they may find a neglected beauty in an urban scene they once viewed as hostile or banal, or a forgotten meaning in everyday life.
Before drawing to a conclusion, I want to note an interesting cultural difference and shift. While the term flâneurs generates a sense of admiration and envy in France, in English translation, flâneur is often associated with a politically negative connotation, referring to the meaninglessly loitering man of privilege. In a contemporary sense, flânerie may seem like an outdated concept.
But perhaps, embracing certain characteristics of flâneurs can still liberate and inspire us. I often see a part of myself in Monsieur Anonyme. I take joy in observing street life: the ambient chatter of random people – in different languages, people dashing through the crowd or ambling down the street with eyes on their phones, dogs barking, the drilling noise of construction, the revving engine of motorcycles, the protest, the famous “Hell Yeahh.” The noises of everyday stress seem like nothing from the detached view.
The unsettling nature of the city often makes me feel trapped by the everyday pressures, the stress, the regrets from the past, and the fear of an uncertain future. Fully immersing myself in the city – yet detaching from its contents, I seek to liberate myself from the burdens of daily life. When I come back to the reality, I find myself somewhat distanced from unnecessary stress of the urban scene and often more motivated. With my fresh pair of eyes, I can find beauty and meaning in what often feels like an inhospitable urban scene.
Therefore, I want to encourage you to pursue the very French act of flânerie - take a step back from the concrete jungle and alienate yourself from your surroundings every once in awhile.
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