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Research at St Andrews

Illustration, interpretation, and innovation : 151 years of visual-arts adaptations of the poetic works of Charles Baudelaire

Student thesis: Doctoral Thesis (PhD)


  • Fiona Dakin

School/ Research organisations


At least 125 artists have adapted the poetic works of Charles Baudelaire using a visual medium. This corpus of over 1000 images dates from 1866 to 2017, and includes illustrations, paintings, photography, comic books, and a television series. This thesis analyses individual images with an aim to uncover new readings of Baudelaire, as well as new approaches to adaptation. The most prominent trend in the corpus is the erotic, highlighting the legacy of Les Fleurs du mal’s 1857 obscenity trial. The representational aesthetic used by many of these artists mirrors the link that Baudelaire draws between close representation and pornography. Several artists have, conversely, used abstract art to illustrate Baudelaire, suggesting that some element of the source other than narrative is being adapted in these works. Indeed, certain proponents of abstraction point towards Baudelaire’s art criticism as an early movement away from representation in the modern age. Ironically, several artists have chosen to adapt Baudelaire using photography, emphasising the role of the imagination in this medium that the poet deemed an imitation of nature. Artists using collage to illustrate Baudelaire play another game with representation in their use of pre-existing artworks. These works evoke the Baudelairean ragpicker, who repurposes junk to create novelties. Finally, the two comics in the corpus recall Baudelaire’s essays on caricature, which emphasise the role of the imagination. These works also focus on elements of the source other than narrative, such as aesthetic and mood. Overall, because these artists make decisions about what to adapt (or not) from the source, this thesis is also a study of what matters most for these readers in Baudelaire’s poetry, and the variety of interpretations tangibly demonstrates its multivalence. Moreover, we discover that adaptations do not necessarily form one-way source-to-target relationships, but rather webs of interconnected artworks in multi-directional dialogues.


Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
Award date30 Jul 2020

    Research areas

  • Visual arts, Illustration, Baudelaire, Poetry, Adaptation, Les Fleurs du mal

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