The flaneur was a familiar figure in nineteenth-century Paris: a solitary, quasi-artistic man (though not always) who strolled the streets like an urban epicure. A psychogeographer perhaps, avant la lettre. Identified by Baudelaire in his essay “The Painter of Modern Life” (1863), he has become as essential to our picture of that period as the demimondaine, the fashionable café dansant, the top hat, and the glass of absinthe. It’s tempting to imagine tourists in the first half of the Belle Epoque waiting on boulevards to see one pass by with cane, monocle, and superior expression. The flaneur has also had an echoing afterlife: my first novel (Metroland, 1980) featured two pretentious adolescents in the London of 1963 who theorize that by “lounging about in a suitably insouciant fashion, but keeping an eye open all the time, you could really catch life on the hip—you could harvest all the aperçus of the flâneur.” Their anachronistic questing is only partially successful.
But there was another character on the Paris street at that time, who had already been there for centuries but was less noticeable and less fashionable. This was the badaud, or gawker: one who stands and stares at anything going on—a carriage accident, a fire brigade in a hurry, a sudden police arrest, or a suicide being fished from the river. If the flaneur is an active idler, the badaud is a stationary, passive one, ready to stare open-mouthed at any phenomenon that offers novelty or puzzlement. The flaneur is of a higher social class, a borderline artist, and a loner: you cannot imagine a concatenation of flaneurs eagerly exchanging observations. The badaud, by contrast, is always liable to form a group or crowd, either for a mass gawk or some communal response. The badaud is predominantly male, but women are allowed to stop and stare and mingle and gossip as well. Badauderie is more democratic than flânerie: you need no qualifications to indulge in it.
Badauds had history as well as numbers on their side. My five-volume 1882 Littré Dictionnaire de la langue française has a mere four-line entry for flâneur, with no mention of Baudelaire but instead a single quote from Charles de Bernard’s novel La Chasse aux amants (1840). The entry also is marked with a dagger, indicating that the word had not qualified for the Académie française’s dictionary. The entry for badaud, by contrast, is a good six inches long, offering quotes from Corneille, Voltaire, Béranger, and Régnier. (The earliest literary citation, at which Littré turned up its nose, comes from 1534. Rabelais, in Gargantua, judged Parisians “so stupid, so badaud, so inherently inept,” that the mildest diversion, like a juggler or a mule with tinkling bells, would draw an immediate hungry-eyed gathering.) Most uses of the word are pejorative, reassuring both writer and reader that they are a cut above such ignorant and probably illiterate street occupants. But these are not entirely passive human beings: the usual synonym for un badaud is un curieux, who may lack the sophisticated investigative gaze of the flaneur but is not entirely impervious to his surroundings.
Bridget Alsdorf’s Gawkers is about the iconography of badauderie. It is a rich, dense, wide-ranging survey whose central figure is the Swiss artist Félix Vallotton (1865–1925): “the foreign Nabi,” as he was known in that short-lived group that also contained Pierre Bonnard, Édouard Vuillard, and Maurice Denis. Vallotton was the most political of this largely apolitical movement. When the Dreyfus Affair broke, Vuillard, who was Vallotton’s closest friend, wrote to him, “My heart races when I read the newspapers and I try not to let myself get sucked in all day.”
Vallotton’s response, on the other hand, was to draw ferocious front-page cartoons for the leftist, pro-Dreyfus magazine Le Cri de Paris. One of them shows the corpse of a naked woman (representing Truth) being hoisted dripping from a well, with the caption “So that’s why she never came out”—“that” being the fact that her torso is transfixed by a French army officer’s sword. In 1902 Vallotton produced twenty-three prints for a special number of the anarcho-socialist journal L’Assiette au beurre: here are thuggish policemen, flagellating priests, fat and furtive businessmen, sleek lawyers, unjust employers, cruel schoolmasters, and trigger-happy property owners. In one image, a dozen policemen roar down a street, sowing fear and confusion, above the caption “Le jour de boire est arrivé.” Although, as Alsdorf observes, “we have no written record of his political views,” we certainly have a clear graphic record of them. Vallotton in these early years was of the anarcho-left, like his friend the wit and art critic Félix Fénéon. Later, in a safe yet increasingly frustrated bourgeois marriage, he longed to be more active. He was appalled by the slaughter of World War I and frustrated by his enforced inaction; even the far-from-military Vuillard was sent to guard bridges.
Alsdorf’s book is timely: the past few years have seen a resurgence in Vallotton’s reputation, which has long been occluded by those of Bonnard and Vuillard. After his death it took nearly a century for the Swiss artist to have his first major public exhibition in the Anglosphere, shared between the Royal Academy in London (2019) and the Metropolitan Museum in New York (2019–2020). His auction prices are rising fast. And the more he is shown, the more clearly he stands separate from his fellow Nabis. For all their overlap in color-block composition in the 1890s, Vallotton, before and after, was always pulling toward the hard-edged north rather than the soft-edged south; he was more often a confrontational artist than a seductive one. Like Vuillard and Bonnard, he painted street scenes and domestic interiors. But Vallotton’s streets are full of social conflict, while his interiors may frame violently ambiguous emotional scenes. He was an ideas man rather than a sensualist; and where Vuillard and Bonnard may be quietly humorous in their play of colors and textures, Vallotton is sharply witty and satirical.
Nowhere is this shown more brilliantly than in the black-and-white woodblock prints he did in the early part of his career. It is an appealing paradox that Vallotton loved to fill the small space of a woodcut—often no more than nine by thirteen inches—with crowds of people, whereas his paintings, generally much larger, are populated sparsely, if at all. His crowds are also often in movement: demonstrators fleeing in panic, policemen—typically low-browed and loutish—slashing away with batons and swords, passersby being drawn in by a street huckster.
Deuxième Bureau contains thirty or so people lining up for theater tickets, each in a different attitude. In Le Coup de vent a smaller group is caught in a gust of wind, holding on to their hats and to each other, while a little dog has been lifted off the ground and spins comically as if in a centrifuge. In L’Ivrogne a whirl of small children mock an elderly drunk who has just come out of a bar. You find yourself wondering how Vallotton can get so many effects into such a small space. Equally surprising is his ability to convey such a range of tonality using only black and white. In Le Bon Marché (1893), female customers pore over bolts of fabric, and as with Le Coup de vent, the viewer senses the different textures of their outfits. You can’t be sure if this is something Vallotton has achieved or something he has provoked the viewer into supplying, but the effect is undeniable.
Vallotton was, as Alsdorf puts it, “the fin-de-siècle artist most fascinated by badauds as a social phenomenon with deep relevance to art.” In L’Accident, a zincograph of 1893, a horse and carriage has just knocked a woman down in the street, her basket spilling its contents around the horse’s leading hoof. Three men attempt to haul the animal back, while the coachman pulls madly on his reins. An adolescent girl comes toward the incident; a mother and child watch; two male figures stand on the pavement; one, perhaps connected to the woman and child, appears to have just decided to ignore the incident; the other, his head cropped by the top of the print, seems to be in a dilemma, his body turning backward as if he has changed his mind and might possibly help, or at least carry on looking.
Of images like this, Alsdorf reports that “several writers have described the elevated perspective that Vallotton employs in his urban scenes as a mechanism of distance and omniscience, a way for him to remove himself (and us) from the scene.” This seems overinterpretative. If you show things from street level—as in Deuxième Bureau—you get a mass of overlapping bodies with the heads at more or less the same height. If you show things from an elevated viewpoint, you cut out the overlapping and can include more people more clearly, enabling the construction of a dynamic scene. Why should this indicate a judicial indifference?
The concept of the badaud seems more slippery and metamorphic the closer you get to it. One moment all seems clear, indeed nicely categorized: Louis Huart’s Physiologie du flâneur (1841) distinguishes the sophisticated flaneur from lesser faux-flaneurs: the musard (idler), the batteur de pavé (pavement pounder), and then, lowest of all, the badaud, who comes in two categories, “simple” and “foreign” (presumably this means Parisian versus out-of-towner). But Alsdorf points out that a couple of decades later Baudelaire, in his famous essay, “does not mention badauds at all, but he folds several of their distinguishing features into his characterization of the artist as ‘the perfect flâneur.’” Gawking can be a permanent state of mind shared by full-time street-corner loungers; but there are part-time opportunists as well. Their social status is also looser than as at first defined.
One of Alsdorf’s primary examples, Jean-Léon Gérôme’s L’Accident (1901; currently missing and available only in a black-and-white print version), is a fait divers in paint and print. Something has happened in a street: perhaps someone has been stricken by illness, accident, or drink—we can only guess, because the fallen one is made invisible by passersby leaning inward as in a football huddle. In the buildings above, onlookers fill the windows and balconies (and have a better view of the victim); a woman rushes toward the huddle, while a policeman also approaches with a leisurely gait—he has seen it all before. It is a brilliant image of gawking, but here the gawkers are not those street-corner idlers patronized over the centuries but mostly middle-class people going about their business (even if that is only shopping).
Alsdorf’s scope in this beautifully produced book is considerable: gawkers appear not just on the streets of Paris, gazing at accidents and incidents, at usual and unusual behavior. They gawk at theater bills, and then go inside the theater and gawk at the action. When cinema cameras appear on the boulevards, the gawkers run up to them and gawk into the lens, only to be reminded—in a shrewd commercial moment—that the processed film will shortly be showing at a nearby cinema, whereupon the gawkers pay to go in and gawk at themselves gawking at the camera. At times there seems to be an infinite regression of the concept, and gawking becomes ubiquitous to the point of meaninglessness.
Alsdorf’s excellent chapter on the theater contains visual evidence from Boilly to Daumier to Degas to Cassatt to Vallotton (who only ever portrayed the audience, never the stage) to Eugène Carrière’s extraordinary Théâtre populaire (1895): sixteen feet long by seven feet high, all brown, gray, and ocher, with scumbly white highlights, and an extra reason to visit the Musée Rodin in Paris. Maupassant wrote that the best place to study crowds, and crowd behavior, and the public display of passions was the theater. (As actors frequently testify, each audience is different.) Both Boilly and Daumier show a group of spectators on a “free performance” day, when those who could not normally afford a ticket were allowed entrance. Nowadays we are all too familiar with our own images; less so back then. As Alsdorf aptly remarks, Daumier “showed his audience what they looked like when they look.” Boilly is a bit snootier, Daumier more generous and human. Here are people who have probably never been to a play before, but does this automatically make them dumb gawkers, or just first-timers not yet sure of the social rules? Some of these theater scenes show attentive audiences, others bored ones; but the latter response could just be a properly critical one to a dull play. Crowds are always composed of individuals; one window-shopper might be an idle gawker, the next a potential purchaser making his or her considered choice. It’s not that Alsdorf overstates her case; more that this is a good book to argue with.
But this leads to a wider point of artistic intention. When Vallotton hewed his woodcuts, was his purpose descriptive-satirical or prescriptive-ethical? Alsdorf sides with those who believe that he and others who portray badauds are presenting us with an “ethical dilemma.” Should we—and indeed would we—intervene or not when a carriage runs over a shopper? Are we mere idle bystanders or citizens with consciences? Or just, as Alsdorf puts it, “armchair tourists of other people’s tragedies”? Is the “message” of Vallotton’s prints, as she proposes, that “with witnessing comes responsibility”?
This seems to me excessive—and indeed a bit punitive. Perhaps someone in 1893, looking at L’Accident, might wonder what he or she would do if confronted with similar circumstances. (Though is there any evidence that they did?) But in 2022? Do we really respond to the print by wondering what we might do if confronted by a car running over a shopper? For a start, not by thinking, “Here is an ethical dilemma—how should I behave?” Surely, in any case, and in any age, we respond instinctively (which is not to say unethically, rather that the ethics are in the psychological background, not forcefully present at the time). We intervene, or not, almost without thinking—though also, most likely, by reaching for an iPhone and (ethically, practically) calling the police, or (unethically) filming the scene and putting it on social media. Such responses relate to the “bystander effect,” also known as “bystander apathy,” a concept posited by two social psychologists in 1968, according to which “the number of bystanders around a victim is in inverse relationship to each bystander’s impulse to help.”
Alsdorf is an admirable close reader of images, clever at picking out, in a mass of bodies, a tiny figure who is doing nothing more than staring back at us, as if, across the centuries, he has spotted us gawking at him and is gawking back. Her considerable attention to Vallotton peaks in a powerful account of the painting Le Bon Marché (as opposed to the print). This is considered by many to be Vallotton’s greatest painting. Created in 1898, it was the star of his London and New York shows, though it has now returned to private hands. It is his only triptych (an occasional form for the Nabis—Denis did one in praise of domestic bliss, Bonnard several). In a traditional religious altarpiece the outer panels would direct our focus toward the central image, while the scale is normally constant across the three panels. The Nabis acknowledge this precedent while dismantling it. Outer panels still relate to the central one, but both scale and focus can be separate from it: the largest figure—as in Le Bon Marché—may well be in a side panel.
Thadée Natanson called Vallotton’s Intimités woodcuts “stations of sentimental life,” i.e., a secular version of the Stations of the Cross; in Le Bon Marché, as Alsdorf puts it, “religious devotion is a shadow structure for the corruption of modern life.” Its central panel has a crowd of shoppers on a curved stairway, descending into the heaven (or hell) of consumerism. The left-hand panel has an apparently submissive salesman in intimate conversation with a female customer; the right-hand one has a single female figure with her back to us and facing an oncoming crowd of customers, as if she has completed the purchases they are now pantingly heading toward. The outer extremities of the side panels show counters with brightly colored boxes of wares; those on the left display prices, those on the right announce reduced and sale. Fifteen years earlier, Zola’s novel Au Bonheur des dames had described the department store as “the cathedral of commerce”; Vallotton’s painting is a response and endorsement. Here elegant, behatted women pursue goodies where their pictorial ancestors had pursued the Good.
As Alsdorf notes, the painting is “a hinge” between two main strands of Vallotton’s work up to this date: flowing crowd scenes in a compressed space and portrayals of couples caught in often ambiguous, possibly presexual engagements. In the left-hand panel of Le Bon Marché, the customer and the floorwalker are bent over the same object, which could be a perfume bottle or possibly a lipstick; it happens to be pinky-brown, so, as has been suggested, there may be a penile innuendo here. Either way, the couple are engaged in sealing a deal that will give satisfaction to both. And whereas in Vallotton’s series of Intimités, the men are usually in charge, caught in a persuasive posture (sometimes with the implication, or actual sight, of a bed in the background), here the women are in charge. True, that salesman is doing his oily best to conclude the sale, but it is the woman who has the money, and therefore the power. And the purpose of it all, as Zola’s title ironically reminds us, is “women’s happiness.”
But the painting is also about more than this. In 1880, Zola had written an essay on money and literature in which, Alsdorf writes, he “defended modern capitalism as a liberator of the arts, arguing that money emancipates artists and their work from ‘humiliating patronage.’” This was true, though more for some than others, and the emancipation was never straightforward; many of Zola’s literary friends did not fail to note his patent (and to some, vulgar) delight in the money and the goods it bought. Artists, as Alsdorf points out, were often more ambivalent about this exchange of master from the patron to the market. New forms of mechanical reproduction made their work cheaper and more ubiquitous: the rise in the print and poster markets, plus the new range of illustrated newspapers and magazines, provided great opportunities. But what if this sudden new market was as quixotic as an old patron could have been? Does the unfettered market rub away not just at the artist’s sensibility but also at his or her soul? The real-life Bon Marché department store contained a picture gallery designed to imitate the Louvre, but the paintings on display were for sale just as straightforwardly as bolts of cloth and suggestive lipsticks were on other floors. As Alsdorf concludes, the “deflation of art into commodity is precisely what Vallotton’s triptych is about.”
In the same year, 1898, Vallotton painted Misia à sa coiffeuse (Misia at Her Dressing Table), in which the pink-clad, Roman-nosed Parisian socialite and tastemaker Misia Natanson stands in front of a mirror with the tools of beautification lying in front of her, doing a final primp before launching herself into some social event. On the wall behind her is a tiny black-and-white print, clearly by Vallotton, though not immediately identifiable, so perhaps made deliberately generic by the artist. This detail might be sly or mocking, self-promoting or self-punitive; Alsdorf, I think rightly, takes it as a sign of Vallotton’s fear that art has or could become a “bourgeois accessory.” It is as if the real creator of beauty, and the real expression of it, in this painting is the formidable Misia herself.
Vallotton, never as sunny a character as Vuillard and Bonnard, was much given to melancholy and self-reproach. Ten years before his death, with an awareness that his career was in decline, he described himself as “one who watches life from behind a window instead of living.” Perhaps the man who in his art had portrayed gawkers in all their open-mouthed, quizzical vacancy feared that in the end he, as an artist, was not much more than a gawker himself.