What is bohemian?

  • Published
Keith Richards, Sienna Miller and Pete Doherty

The word "bohemian" is bandied about now, applied to everyone from Pete Doherty to Kate Moss, but what exactly is one?

Eccentric. Rebellious. Amoral, quite often. But bohemianism was, maybe still is, about much more than just frightening the horses.

The writer Virginia Nicholson recently told the Today programme that "in a sense, we are all bohemians today".

But what is a bohemian, how do you spot one, and might you be a boho, too?

"Bohemian" was originally a term with pejorative undertones given to Roma gypsies, commonly believed by the French to have originated in Bohemia, in central Europe.

The Oxford English Dictionary's definition mentions someone "especially an artist, literary man, or actor, who leads a free, vagabond, or irregular life, not being particular as to the society he frequents, and despising conventionalities generally".

But the connotation rapidly became a romantic one. From its birth in Paris in the 1850s, and the huge success of Murgier's play Scenes de la vie de Boheme, the ethic spread rapidly.

Gypsy clothes became all the fashion, sparking a style which lives on today through lovers of boho-chic like Sienna Miller and Kate Moss. And artists and poets from Baudelaire to van Gogh characterised bohemian ideals.

Its foundations in the Romantic movement of the 19th Century imbued bohemians with an almost quasi-religious sense of purpose.

In Puccini's opera La Boheme, the poet Rodolfo and his friends do not shiver in their Parisian garret where Mimi's hand is famously frozen merely because of their poverty. Theirs, as Rodolfo has it, is a higher, if more sensual, calling.

I am a poet!

What's my employment? Writing.

Is that a living? Hardly.

I've wit though wealth be wanting,

Ladies of rank and fashion

All inspire me with passion;

In dreams and fond illusions,

Or castles in the air,

Richer is none on earth than I.

Although steeped in its French roots, the bohemian ideal transferred easily to many countries and cultures.

In Britain, the pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood and the aesthetic movement of the 19th Century imbued bohemianism with a dangerous, dashing, social cachet. Later, the exploits of the Bloomsbury group - one of whom was Nicholson's grandmother, Vanessa Bell - thrust it into the cultural limelight.

Image caption,
William Burroughs and Jack Kerouac were beat and bohemian

Across the Atlantic, poets and writers like Jack Kerouac, William S Burroughs and Paul Bowles led their own offshoot. And the playwright Arthur Miller's prose conjures the musty essence of that temple of American bohemia, Manhattan's Chelsea Hotel, where "there are no vacuum cleaners, no rules and shame".

"Everyone has a view of what the bohemian is," says Nicholson. "The bohemian is an outsider, defines themselves as an outsider and is defined by the world as an outsider... A lot of people regard them as subversive, elitist and possibly just a little bit immature."

Bohemians were typically urban, liberal in outlook, but with few visible political passions and, above all, creative. Though critical of organised religion, they were keen - witness the pre-Raphaelites and Oscar Wilde - to defend and explore the religious spirit.

Above all, they defied the constrictions of hearth and home and the false morality which they believed underpinned it.

In essence, bohemianism represented a personal, cultural and social reaction to the bourgeois life. And, once the latter was all but swept away by the maelstrom that was the 1960s, the former was doomed, too.

The late Ian Dury lived what could be considered a bohemian life, constantly on the move, awash with musical and artistic creativity, challenging preconceptions of disability, while costumed in a range of sometimes outlandish second-hand clothes, famously complemented with "new boots and panties".

But, apparently the freedom of bohemia palled even for him, as he explained in typical fashion:

I wanna be straight, I wanna be straight

I'm sick and tired of taking drugs and staying up late

I wanna confirm, I wanna conform

I wanna be safe and I wanna be snug and I wanna be warm

So who, today, is a true bohemian?

Keith Richards who, by his own admission "used to walk down Oxford Street with a slab of hash as big as a skateboard", is regularly touted as the ultimate boho. But, as he told the Daily Telegraph's Neil McCormick: "The image thing is a ball-and-chain. There's nobody like Keith Richards that would ever be alive. No way. But you can't buck the image. As long as I don't have to be that guy all the time, or with my friends."

Paul Stokes, associate editor at the NME, says: "It's more difficult with Pete Doherty. When Pete first came out his talent was enormous. But his tolerance for the bohemian lifestyle has hit the buffers. His work with the Libertines was lauded, but the missed gigs with his next band Babyshambles saw his fans lose patience."

Image caption,
Ian Dury ploughed a lone furrow

Stokes cites artists like Patrick Wolf, Naysayer and MGMT as worthy heirs to the bohemian tradition. Morrissey, he says, has lived a boho life but his love of boxing and league football now count against him. And Amy Winehouse "doesn't strike me as someone who would drop everything and go to Marrakech".

Laren Stover, author of Bohemian Manifesto: A Field Guide to Living on the Edge, has identified five archetypes: Nouveau, gypsy, beat, zen and dandy.

Bohemians might look for work as nude models, she suggests, will be banned from fancy restaurants for use of patchouli and will have a bookcase containing all the Romantics, Jack Kerouac's Dharma Bums and erotica by Anais Nin.

"And in the pantry there are obscure grains from South America, medieval spices and a miniature Krishna," Stover says. "Your diet may be considered extreme: macrobiotic, vegan, or a real nose-to-tailer who knows 100 ways to cook and saute a snout. And nothing you wear was inspired by a fashion magazine."

Nicholson, author of Among the Bohemians, believes today's bohos retain that original spirit of revolt. "We take it for granted that society is fluid, that informality prevails. On the other hand there's still plenty to reject: there's consumerism.

"In a sense the environment movement could be seen as today's bohemians. There's that sense of sacrifice, there's that sense of purity, there's that sense of a burning mission, of giving up things."

Related Internet Links

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites.