‘Modernity is the transient, the fleeting, the contingent’ declared the French poet Charles Baudelaire (1821–67) in ‘The Painter of Modern Life’ (1863), an essay often cited as a foundational modernist document.
The crowded city is the environment where the flux that characterises modernity is at its most intense. Baudelaire’s painter of modern life is ‘a singular man’ who is by nature ‘a great traveller and very cosmopolitan’.
He is a
who strolls the city streets at his leisure:
■ [He] moves into the crowd as though into an enormous reservoir of electricity. He […] may also be compared to a mirror as vast as this crowd; to a kaleidoscope endowed with consciousness, which with every one of its movements presents a pattern of life, in all its multiplicity, and the flowing grace of all the elements that go to compose life. It is an ego athirst for the non-ego, and reflecting it at every moment in energies more vivid than life itself, always inconstant and fleeting.