Thursday, November 7, 2013

Rococo (pt. 9)

To get a better sense of this we can look at a painting by the artist Fragonard, who was among the most popular French artists at this time.  Pictured here is a prime example of Rococo painting, called The Swing.
An aristocratic woman is at a secret, romantic rendezvous with her lover, who is pictured on the bottom left, hiding in the bushes and looking up the woman's skirt.  They are out in a very natural setting and away from public observation.  The statue of the young angel on the left is shown holding a finger up to its mouth in a gesture of "silence," to further demonstrate that this meeting is secret (and therefore of questionable integrity).  The man on the right is probably a servant who may have arranged the meeting.  It's a scandalous piece of artwork for many reasons.  Riding on a swing was of course an unrefined activity for a lady during that time, but kicking off one's shoes had to have been even more uncivilized.  But the setting reminds us that they are in an uncivilized situation; they are out in nature, hidden from the eyes of the city and all who would condemn them.  They can afford to be uncivilized and even downright immoral in their flippant, easygoing way.  They can do whatever they want; and why shouldn't they, since they are men and women of money and resources?  It does not matter to them that their people are starving under taxation and famine; they are aristocrats, and they can certainly have a bit of adulterous fun at their own convenience.  It's utterly scandalous—the man is virtually reaching out his arm for the woman's genitalia—but consider the colors and tones Fragonard uses to create the scene.  Warm greens and soft blues establish a dreamy atmosphere of pastoral beauty and comfort, while the delicate pinks of the woman's dress connote a kind of soft loveliness and playful passion.  Angelic statues surround the place, rich lighting reigns down from above, and flowers bloom in radiance—all is bright and gay in the world of this painting.
Soft colors, light brushstrokes, delicate figures, and peaceful settings are all common motifs in Rococo art.  Life was, after all, quite good for the wealthy; and the wealthy were the only ones financially stable enough to spend money on commissioning artists to paint for them.
A friend of mine, who was also a student of art history, once defended his reasoning for liking Rococo art best among other historic art forms.  "I know it's silly," he said, "and the whole history behind it with the French aristocracy is awful; but just the style of the paintings themselves is what I like, because they're beautiful.  The colors, the brushwork—it all creates this kind of dreamy utopia.  It's painting an ideal way of how the world should be."  Although I couldn't say that Rococo is my favorite style of art, too, what he said is totally accurate.  He's right; the French painters during this period were attempting to paint an idealized version of the world (like Voltaire's "El Dorado") and, in so doing, were participating in the Enlightenment quest for the perfection of mankind.  Ultimately, it's a philosophical genre of painting; it's just that these artists arrive at their answers to supreme truth and utopian fulfillment in the spendthrift lives of the aristocracy.

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