Dandy: Big Visions, Great Personalities, Grand Gestures
Post by Inessa Kouteinikova
This is a collection of thoughts about artistic representations of Dandy found in literature, photography, painting, sculpture, architecture, design and social practices. According to dictionary definitions, a dandy is ‘a man who gives exaggerated attention to personal appearance.’ In my research, I treat Dandy broader, as a network of ideas and relationships among media and modernizing, global subjectivities. My analyses focus on geographical case studies – a work of art from a French museum, a piece of Scandinavian design, an American architectural sample, a Russian fin-de siècle aristocrat, an Anglo-Saxon gentleman or, a fashionable place in Italy. I compare these case studies in order to rethink relationships between personality and consumerism, entertainment and rigidity and their flexible intersections at different historical moments in the long rope from the nineteenth century to our days. With time, visual images of Dandy were becoming ever more accessible commodities, and their erotic and intellectual functions made them imminently sellable in an increasingly interdependent global capitalist system that became a foundation, venue and engine for modern visual exchange across vast geographies.
For “Sublime Imperfections,” I track the dynamics of Dandyism that fortifies eccentricity and consumerism. By unpacking the eccentric dimensions of the Dandy project – that is, discussions about dandyist deviations from established social norms – we refine our understanding of individualism. “Aristocracy, superiority of the mind… a burning desire to create a personal form of originality”: this is the highly individualized reading of Dandy of Charles Baudelaire.
I also wish to link the significance of Dandy to a broad array of global subjects, whether defined by morals, nationality or religion – British, French, American, Russian, Middle Eastern, Italian, Jewish, Muslim, and Western European in general. This form of localized study profoundly affects broader arenas of study – of Dandy’s national identity, and also of homoerotic subcultures, female authority and agency, representations of class, social transgressions and sexual conduct.
Dandy is a traveling concept, and has moved across many disciplines and cultures. The concept of the Dandy traveled across discourses about influential European figures such as Brummel, Lord Byron, Oscar Wilde, Marcel Proust, Mikhail Kuz’min, or Sergei Diagilev. The concept allows us to study these figures and their individual behavioral patterns, their primary desires to be liked and be remembered by posterity, their looks, dress and inner world.
British and French eighteenth-century satirists were mesmerized by the idea of the Dandy’s bravura, grace and fearlessness, as they filled the pages of the first satirist journals with merciless Dandy caricatures. While most of them exclusively discussed issues related to clothing and dress, their discussion of the Dandy’s bodily practice sometimes demonstrates the blurring of boundaries between individual and society, conformism and provocation, appropriation and distancing. A concrete example of such a wider social debate was offered by satire of Europeans who culturally cross-dressed. Some tried to live Dandy’s lives as much as they could. Was such immersion a liberation from the Ancien Régime, Victorian social restrains, or from Russian orthodoxy and American Puritanism – one that sought for a gratification of focused or subconscious drives, including the exercise of dressing up? By extending dialogue and interchange across gender, class, geography and cultures, we explore ourselves while trying to understand what we really want from our own and others’ cultures.
I look thus at the spread of Dandyism in visual images, fluid, unstable, varied, not only across Europe and Russia, but also translated into new meanings and conventions in America and Asia. I find Dandy a profoundly liberating concept, an emancipatory project, yet it needs to be historically based in order to understand its relationship to other disciplines and on-going projects, including the “Sublime Imperfections” project. In my upcoming exhibition on Dandy: grand gestures, great personalities, big visions I explore the interstices of Dandyism as images that are part and parcel of a vast global trade in Dandyist images.