Boulevards of Dreams

by Deirdre Kelly

photography by Mike Ford

“Not to find one’s way around a city
does not mean much.
But to lose one’s way in a city,
as one loses one’s way in a forest,
requires some schooling.”
Walter Benjamin

THE FRENCH VERB FLÂNER, when rendered into English, means to stroll without a fixed destination. But flâneur, the word describing the person doing the aimless wandering, is much more difficult to translate. 

“He is an urban walker, a documentary journalist, a dandy poet,” says York University PhD candidate Jason Wang (BA ’12), who is writing his dissertation on the politics of aesthetics in urban literature and culture with a focus on flânerie, the French noun meaning to cruise through a city as a browsing spectator of the theatre of modern urban life.

The 19th-century French poet Charles Baudelaire launched the concept of the flâneur into global consciousness with the publication in 1857 of Les Fleurs du mal. In his celebrated book of modernist poetry, Baudelaire created an impressionistic street walker who flitted through the labyrinthine streets of Paris, gathering sensations, emotions and memories along the way.

The flâneur’s free-form perambulations provided insights into the role of the modern city as a catalyst for both spatial and artistic discovery, prompting German philosopher and critic Walter Benjamin to make Baudelaire’s flâneur a seminal figure in the study of urban modernism with the writing of his unfinished scholarly tome, The Arcades Project, in the late 1920s.

Since then, the flâneur has had many incarnations, including appearances in the canonical novels of James Joyce and Virginia Woolf, Susan Sontag’s seminal 1977 essay collection On Photography, Woody Allen’s 2011 film Midnight in Paris, among other artistic works. His physical wanderings cross the landscape of urban consumer culture, and, as Wang has discovered during five years of research on the topic, his identity is never fixed.

“Just as cities are not static, so too has the flâneur evolved,” says the 29-year-old native of Hangzhou, China, who 10 years ago came to Canada to study at York. “Today, the flâneur can just as easily be a flâneuse, his female equivalent.”

The flâneuse has never had it as easy as a flâneur precisely because she does not possess the same freedom as her male counterpart to stroll the streets at leisure

The flâneuse is not a new phenomenon. Scholars have been debating her existence for decades. In 2017, literary scholar Lauren Elkin published a critically acclaimed (and semi-autobiographical) book on the subject, Flâneuse: Women Walk the City in Paris, New York, Tokyo, Venice, and London, which looks at a group of female writers – Jean Rhys and George Sand among them – and how they engaged with their respective cities by walking aimlessly. But they are the exception rather than the rule.

As Wang and others point out, street walking, when practised by women, has historically invited harassment and other dangers, making it hard for female wanderers to lose themselves in a crowd, a prerequisite for an unmediated experience of modern city life.

“In both Baudelaire’s and Benjamin’s times,” Wang says, “it wasn’t considered respectable for women to walk the streets alone. The flâneuse has never had it as easy as a flâneur precisely because she does not possess the same freedom as her male counterpart to stroll the streets at leisure.”

But with the rise of feminism – and feminist scholarship – women have gained more autonomy over their bodies and the places where they wish to wander (with or without purpose). It’s an idea that Wang, an executive committee member at the Modern Literature & Culture Research Centre at Ryerson University, explores in more depth in an academic paper he has contributed to a book of cultural essays to be published by BookThug in Toronto later this year.

His subject – and that of the entire book – is a real-life person, not a literary myth: American painter and Jazz Age salonnière Florine Stettheimer, also the focus of a 2017 Art Gallery of Ontario retrospective. A so-called “rococo subversive” with ties to Marcel Duchamp, Alfred Stieglitz and other leading modernist artists of her day, Stettheimer documented the streets of New York City in her decidedly feminine paintings, offering an entry point to urban life and experience to her friends and patrons.

She died in 1944, but not before accumulating a body of Dadaist work consisting of poetry, oils and ballet set designs in addition to a nude self-portrait painted in defiance of social convention. In Florine Stettheimer: New Directions in Multimodal Modernism, editors Irene Gammel and Suzanne Zelazo examine her life, legacy and role as a female flâneur or the flâneuse, as Wang describes her in his book chapter “Miss Flutterby: Florine Stettheimer’s Dispassionate Flâneuse and Subversive Urban Consumer.”

“She helped reconfigure ideas about the modernist city and challenge the status quo of women’s public presence and civic participation in the city,” Wang summarizes. “She cast a dispassionate gaze on everything New York had to show her, helping to feminize contemporary urban experience and public life.”

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