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Stepping out: the flâneuse claims the city for herself

Forging a pattern for a new archetypal character distinct from that of her oft-cited male counterpart, the flâneuse savours the city in a way that has historically been denied her

We can all, more or less, point to the flâneur and know who we’re looking at: a man, probably white, probably fairly well off, with two strong legs and time on his hands. Not a dandy, showing off his good taste and his acquisitions, but an urban aesthete, walking for the sake of walking. He idles about town, checking in here, wandering off there, taking in a matinee in the theatre of the city. ‘The crowd is his domain’, Baudelaire told us in The Painter of Modern Life (1863); ‘his passion and his profession is to merge with the crowd’, rejoicing in the ‘ebb and flow, the bustle, the fleeting and the infinite’. In his more contemporary incarnations, he takes the form of the psychogeographer, charting and mapping the city with his feet, alive to the smallest shift in the psychic landscape, taking note of every bit of graffiti, every abandoned warehouse, every dog, every gum wrapper, and wringing them for meaning.

Baudelaire does not, however, allow that a woman might be an idler, a painter of modern life. He eyes her up, puts her in a poem, but does not let her speak. Eyes, décolleté, hips, he takes her apart, like any other object in his city of fragments. His passante – Ô toi que j’eusse aimée, ô toi qui le savais! – is assumed by critics to have been a sex worker.

But maybe she was (also) an artist. (What is art? Prostitution, Baudelaire wrote in Rockets.) In Baudelaire’s world, women do not set brush to canvas; rather they turn themselves into works of art, making themselves up and, through the homogenising effects of rice powder, become ‘an abstract unity of texture and colour in the skin’, resembling more a statue than a human. ‘Agile et noble, avec sa jambe de statue’: what the passante sees, when she looks back at him, Baudelaire does not wonder. Can a statue see?

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The sociologist Janet Wolff has pointed out that the literature of the modern city, the very way we understand modernity, its affects on the city and ourselves within it, is written from a male perspective and ‘describes the experience of men’: Baudelaire, De Quincey, Benjamin, Simmel (and more recently Ackroyd, Self, Sinclair). Would-be flâneuses have struggled to reclaim the right to walk in the city, to let it infuse their work with its energy, its surprises, its sometimes uncomfortable and sometimes thrilling juxtapositions, thereby building up a literature of modernity from a non-male, non-hegemonic perspective. We have to look a bit harder to find the literature and art of flâneuserie, another viewpoint on the city and its possibilities. 

For many creative women, access to the city has supplied an indispensable amount of material and inspiration. As Virginia Woolf told a friend in a 1930 letter, ‘I cannot get my sense of unity and coherency and all that makes me wish to write the Lighthouse etc unless I am perpetually stimulated’. And it is the city, and only the city, that can stimulate her in this way: ‘[O]ften I plunge into London, between tea and dinner, and walk and walk, reviving my fires, in the city, in some wretched slum, where I peep in at the doors of public houses’.

‘The woman who would walk through the city unimpeded, undisguised, is constantly reminded that she does not have the right to linger’

Women had to find ways around the social prescriptions that would keep them either indoors or forever accompanied, often resorting to dressing in drag or going undercover. George Sand didn’t wait around to get permission to wear trousers, when she arrived in Paris in 1831. As she recalls in her autobiography, published in 1855, she found that her full skirts and dainty little shoes were no match for the Parisian mud and, similarly, held her back from going wherever she wanted to go, without attracting unwanted attention. ‘So I had made for myself a redingote-guérite in heavy grey cloth, pants and vest to match’, Sand writes. ‘No one knew me, no one looked at me, no one found fault with me; I was an atom lost in that immense crowd.’

The flâneuse is probably trying to pass by without your noticing her. From the 19th century with its theory of separate spheres – men in public life, women in domestic life – to our own day, with its concerns about street harassment, the woman who would walk through the city unimpeded, undisguised, is constantly reminded that she does not have the right to linger. In the 19th and early 20th century she often had to hand over her hard-earned money to justify occupying public space – for example, at a café or in a department store – she could not set herself apart, flâneur-style, from the transactions that take place daily on the street. Still today, in our supposedly evolved era, our egalitarian society, there are times of night when she’d better take a taxi if she can afford it, or stay in if she can’t. The city is not built for her. Every statue is a heroic man on horseback; every boulevard or metro station or public area is named after a visionary, accomplished man. 

One hundred and sixteen years after Baudelaire wrote the Painter essays, a young woman who is not yet an artist takes to the streets to pass the time: Sophie Calle has dropped out of university and travelled aimlessly for awhile (travel as flânerie; the world as city pavement). Back home in Paris, finding herself at loose ends, no longer able to recognise herself in her own city, she takes to following people around the streets, just for the pleasure of it. When, one evening at a gallery opening, she encounters the very man she had been following that morning, she decides it is a sign that she should follow him wherever he goes next. Where he goes next is Venice. 

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Sophie Calle captures real life in her voyeuristic art, encroaching on strangers’ privacy and taking us along for the ride. Image © ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2019

‘Calle del Traghetto, Campo San Barnaba, Ponte dei Pugni, Rio Terà Canal […]’: she jots down in her journal the names of the streets he walks down and bridges he crosses, noting when he asks for directions, when he buys a paper, where he and his wife stop, what they look at; when he takes a certain picture, she imitates him, kneeling to get a similar angle. As she trails him, noting his every movement, she becomes obsessed with him. It isn’t long before she believes herself to be in love with him. The notes and the photographs would become a project called Suite Vénitienne (1980).

Is Calle a flâneuse? Her notes are full of action verbs – I walk, I go, I watch, I arrive, I return, I enter, I wait – but their objects all depend on someone else’s volition. She no longer walks because she has nothing else to do; she walks because she is in pursuit. Perhaps we ought not to look for the flâneur’s autonomy in the flâneuse; she is not simply engaging in a female version of a male activity, but a woman inventing her archetype every time she walks out of the door. With so many examples of male flânerie to choose from, and very few narratives of flâneuserie to hand – that is, until we start to look for them – what the flâneuse might do is an unwritten story. As Calle notes down the names of the Venetian streets in her notebook, she’s inscribing herself again and again in the city: her surname is the Venetian dialect for road.

Calle’s project shows us that the flâneuse’s city is a space of coincidence, and potential – all the more so because access to it has been hard won. Suite Vénitienne shows the way cities, and the way we move through them, create connections between people where none formerly existed. Once women win access to them, they too can partake of the myriad coincidences, and feed their work with their walking. There’s a black and white photograph I like that appears at the beginning of Calle’s subsequent book. A woman’s bare foot, or bare but for a stocking (right), hovering near a man’s trouser-clad leg, above a pair of penny loafers. Her toes are pointed; they look as if they are about to graze the man’s calf. The background is difficult to identify; there is some metal cross-hatching, the number 94; maybe a vaporetto. It captures the way we brush up against each other in the city, the way we often don’t even know what, or whom, we’ve brushed up against. 

This piece is featured in the AR March 2019 issue on Sex + Women in Architecture awards – click here to purchase your copy today