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PRINT Summer 2008

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the Rococo

AROUND 1720, the French artist Jean-Antoine Watteau painted a signboard for his dealer’s shop that depicted an idealized view of the gallery on Paris’s Pont Notre-Dame. Downplaying its commercial status, Watteau portrayed the shop as a setting for elite sociability, while heralding the new aesthetics of the Rococo, then known as le style moderne. At the signboard’s right, a trio of elegant customers ignore the old-master paintings on the walls and politely converse with a gallery assistant about a gilded table mirror and other objets d’art. Behind them, two visitors, one a man and the other a woman, inspect a large circular canvas that shows female nudes frolicking in a pastel-colored landscape. The man’s gaze is firmly fixed on the nude bodies themselves while the woman, brandishing a magnifying glass, admires the painting’s loose, sensuous brushwork. To the left, a chic young lady dressed in shimmering pink satin casts a downward glace at a half-crated portrait of Louis XIV, whose image of absolute authority bears little relation to the art world as Watteau and his dealer see it—an open, indeterminate arena shaped not by royal decree but by personal taste, communal pleasure, and the heady climate of a burgeoning market.

Analogies, of course, could easily be drawn between our own climate of critical pluralism and unbridled consumerism, making all the more timely “Rococo: The Continuing Curve, 1730–2008,” on view through July 6 at the Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum, in New York. This extensive and exuberant exhibition (curated by Sarah Coffin, Gail Davidson, Ellen Lupton, and Penelope Hunter-Stiebel) uses 370 objects to explore the Rococo not only in its heyday (ca. 1730–65) but also in its periodic resurgences across a variety of media throughout Europe and the United States from the nineteenth through the twenty-first centuries. The show’s definition of what constitutes Rococo style is surprisingly broad, particularly in the more recent examples on display. Bentwood chairs, psychedelic posters from the 1960s, and Dale Chihuly glassware are all said to embody the inventive “spirit” of the Rococo, primarily because of their formal engagement with its sinuous, asymmetrical lines and curves. While this may be a somewhat oversimplified interpretation of the revolutionary style and its legacy, the exhibition nevertheless gives us fresh impetus to consider what the Rococo was in its prime, and what it might mean today.

The Rococo, as Rémy G. Saisselin has written, began as a series of renunciations—a rejection of grand, heroic subject matter; hierarchical distinctions between media; and an understanding of art itself as the exclusive province of the king, the church, or the old nobility. In their place, the Rococo substituted a love of the clever, playful, ephemeral, and oblique in works of art that demanded an active engagement with their viewer as a vital component of their meaning. The Rococo theorist Roger de Piles put it this way in a 1708 treatise: Art should seek not to instruct but to entertain and “call the spectator, to surprise him, and oblige him to approach it, as if he intended to converse with the figures.”

But viewer or spectator is not exactly the right word here. Rococo objects invite us not so much to see as imaginatively to touch, hear, smell, or taste, and thus are linked to an eighteenth-century emphasis on the senses as the primary vehicles for enlightenment. This is perhaps best experienced through an encounter with the Rococo’s paradigmatic art form, the decorated interior, exemplified by François de Cuvilliés’s mirror cabinet at the Amalienburg, 1734–39, in Munich. This intimately scaled oval room, which was originally part of a small hunting pavilion, combines a prodigious use of mirrors, gilded paneling, and organic, serpentine forms that seep past the boundaries of their frames to merge with our space. As our eyes begin to circulate around the room, mirrored reflections and gleaming surfaces dissolve the boundaries between nature and artifice, object and subject, generating a destabilizing effect that demands contemplation and delight in equal measure.

Although the Cooper-Hewitt could hardly be expected to summon such a splendid, site-specific environment, the show does begin with a number of illuminating eighteenth-century examples. These include a magnificent silver soup tureen by the Rococo visionary Juste-Aurèle Meissonnier in the shape of a large clamshell surrounded by a crayfish, a dead pheasant, carrots, some leafy vegetables, and sea foam. The tureen’s virtuoso craftsmanship and painstaking surface detail perform an artistic alchemy in which silver mutates into soft ruffled feathers, delicately veined leaves, and articulated claws. This is also true of other works in the show, including a German giltwood torchère that mimics the slow, viscous melt of candle wax.

While such examples are certainly lavish, the Rococo object was both elitist and accessible, and therein lies its enduring appeal. In the eighteenth century, its innovative, naturalistic forms departed from classical and royal precedent and allowed both noble and nouveau riche patrons to forge a new language of luxury and good taste (or bad taste, depending on your perspective—the point was that you had a perspective). Like all eighteenth-century luxury items, Rococo objects were handcrafted, but the use of new techniques and materials such as stucco and gilt bronze, instead of marble and gold, meant that more could be produced with the same “look” for less money. The Cooper-Hewitt exhibition also includes designs in the form of prints by Meissonnier, François Boucher, and Thomas Chippendale, which circulated throughout eighteenth- century Europe and provided a range of artists and patrons with access to Rococo design principles. Such prints helped democratize the Rococo, notably those known as découpures, which were inexpensive sheets of ornament that consumers could cut out and use to decorate fans, fire screens, and the like.

By the nineteenth century, the Rococo had been codified as a historical style, and had come to signify the sumptuous excess and aristocratic pedigree of the ancien régime. In France during the Second Empire (1852–70), Napoléon III and the Empress Eugénie—who was obsessed with Marie Antoinette—supported a revival of Rococo art and design to stimulate the economy and encourage national pride. At the same time, the Rococo satisfied a nostalgic desire to escape Haussmannization and the Industrial Revolution. Edmond de Goncourt’s antipathy for the Paris then being brutally carved into shape by Baron Haussmann (which he bemoaned as “these new boulevards, lacking in all curves, implacable axes of the straight line”) eventually led him and his brother Jules to flee to the suburbs, and to decorate their house as a series of Rococo period rooms. There, as Edmond wrote, he could turn his back on the present and become “a sleeping beauty from the era of Louis XV.”

The Rococo, of course, has continued to connote luxury and excess right up to the present day, when we are experiencing something of a “neo-rococo” moment. During the Gilded Age, American industrialists such as Henry Clay Frick (aided by his dealer, Joseph Duveen) patronized the style to provide their residences with an opulent, old-world veneer. And it should not be surprising—given the Rococo’s long-standing association with market forces and consumerism—that the current neo-rococo upswing first emerged in the boom years of the late 1980s. Two works from that period are on view at the Cooper-Hewitt: a gilded mirror by Jeff Koons titled Christ and the Lamb, 1988, and a Sèvres-inspired porcelain tureen from 1990 by Cindy Sherman, which pays homage to Madame de Pompadour, the bourgeois mistress of Louis XV and one of the culturally savvy female patrons who originally promoted the style.

Seeing these contemporary works alongside their eighteenth-century counterparts allows a rich set of historic associations to emerge well beyond their shared serpentine contours. Sherman’s soup tureen, emblazoned with an image of the artist dressed as Pompadour, channels a Rococo celebration of the malleability of identity—particularly gender identity—and the role of commodities in aiding this play. Meanwhile, if Koons’s flamboyant mirror was seen by many in the ’80s as an affront to sophisticated sensibilities, the show reminds us that the artist was actually expanding on the Rococo’s traditional dismantling of boundaries, in his case between art and design, good taste and bad, avant-garde and kitsch. Likewise, Koons’s continued embrace of the Rococo today hinges on his implicit understanding of its essentially democratic nature as something that makes people feel good about themselves and their tastes, regardless of their economic backgrounds or “cultural histories.”

Despite these notable inclusions, one wishes that the Cooper-Hewitt had dug deeper into the next generation and engaged the Rococo’s relevance for contemporary art and design on more than a formal or stylistic level. The current neo-rococo tendency, which emerged in the late ’80s, may have originated like its eighteenth-century forebear as a gesture of renunciation, snubbing both the macho expressionism and cool Minimalism and Conceptualism of the previous two decades. It affirmed instead a love of the pleasurable, delicate, frivolous, and feminine, which, for some, embodied sexual freedom as well as economic prosperity. These impulses are evident in the Buenos Aires–based arte light movement of the ’90s, represented by the work of Benito Laren and Jorge Macchi. Laren’s cheerfully tacky drawings, which are decorated with shiny bits of metallic paper and dressed in chintzy gilt frames, seem especially neo-rococo in their diminutive scale and use of domestic, vernacular materials. In a gallery setting, they look less like art objects and more like gifts exchanged among intimates.

For other artists, the Rococo offers a fertile body of previously unmined source material that can be used to explore private emotions, fantasies, and desires. Elizabeth Peyton’s elegant, sepia-toned painting Marie After Vigée Lebrun, 1993, which is based on a 1783 painting of the ill-fated French queen, transforms an oft-reproduced historic portrait into a mediation on interiority and the possibility of connecting with the past, even after it has reached us through a variety of filters. A similar sensibility pervades the work of Karen Kilimnik, who appropriates eighteenth-century sources and re-creates Rococo interiors such as boudoirs, garden pavilions, and period rooms. (Kilimnik shares this interest with Rachel Feinstein, whose seductively whimsical Sorbet Room, shown at Marianne Boesky in 2001, was directly inspired by the mirror cabinet at the Amalienburg.) These environments attempt to provide alternative forms of aesthetic pleasure and entertainment while simultaneously emphasizing theatricality and artifice—like a Rococo stage actress with a few too many beauty marks.

Not all neo-rococo works invoke eighteenth-century subject matter or visible stylistic traits. In 2005, the artist T. J. Wilcox presented a show at Metro Pictures in New York titled “Garlands,” whose name derives in part from a term for a collection of concise, loosely organized literary pieces, a form of storytelling that was popular in the eighteenth century. (Such works were often produced collaboratively; they were the “exquisite corpses” of their day.) Wilcox’s storytelling took the form of sixteen short, sumptuously layered films that intimately recaptured an anecdotal event from the past, such as the sad fate of Ortino, the Romanovs’ French bulldog, during the Russian Revolution. Shared themes of childhood fantasy, personal reinvention, and loss were linked in an associative chain that enveloped the viewer within the silence of the gallery’s dark interior, broken only by the wistful hum of the 16 mm projectors. The effect was distinctly Rococo in its mercurial structure and its use of seemingly frivolous details to communicate a sense of humanity and a complex emotional truth.

Other artists eschew this more melancholic side of the Rococo (exemplified by the fête galante paintings of Watteau) to focus on themes of hedonism and erotic excess. Yinka Shonibare’s Swing (After Fragonard), 2001, takes a notorious painting by the French artist Jean-Honoré Fragonard, which depicts a nobleman gazing at his lover’s crotch with the help of a strategically placed swing, and creates a life-size sculpture in which we now assume the nobleman’s privileged vantage point. Shonibare’s work amplifies issues of power and commodity fetishism, while its creeping vines and hyperreal aesthetic also tap into a Rococo sense of the uncanny, of a world in which objects overwhelm and take the place of individuals.

The eighteenth century was, after all, the era in which sofas and pleasure pavilions became characters in novels, where they were given the power to talk or seduce unsuspecting visitors. This Rococo combination of the kinky, the exotic, and the downright bizarre is vividly evoked in a 1748 novel by the encyclopedist Denis Diderot titled The Indiscreet Jewels. The story centers on a lascivious sultan (a poorly disguised surrogate for Louis XV) who owns a magic ring that makes women’s genitals speak, indiscreetly revealing their sexual exploits. Diderot’s novel would have made perfect reading at one of Jason Rhoades’s Black Pussy parties.

The neo-rococo revels in blurring boundaries between art and life, persons and things. For some, it may offer a detour around high modernism—lately the subject of so much “neo-formalist” work—or a rejection of its autonomous aims. In recent years, artists such as Ryan McGinness, Virgil Marti, Jorge Pardo, and Rudolf Stingel have examined the relationship among art, design, and decoration, drawing upon luscious Rococo forms and materials like arabesques and flocked wallpaper (which was widely used in the eighteenth century to simulate cut velvet). Stingel’s updated “mirror cabinet,” shown last year in his traveling survey exhibition, solicited museumgoers to interact directly with the interior by having them carve into the sheets of silver insulation that lined the walls. These machine-produced panels, which evoked cheap surface gilding and may be our answer to eighteenth- century stucco, gave off a simultaneously alluring and postcoital air, especially by the end of the show’s run. Conversely, a Rococo aesthetic is thriving on the other side of the “divide” in today’s design culture, as evidenced everywhere from high-end stores like Moss in New York to the froufrou yet affordable Brocade Home catalogue, launched in 2006. In contrast to the spare lines of IKEA and Crate and Barrel, this new brand offers all things glittery, curvaceous, and flocked, making use of recent technologies like laser cutting to create modern downmarket takes on elaborate Rococo handwork.

An eighteenth-century fascination with performance and role play is also flourishing in ephemeral, sybaritic art-world events like exhibition openings and fairs, which themselves have Rococo roots. The growing ubiquity and extravagance of these bacchanals suggest that, despite a downward-spiraling economy and what some consider a trend toward “lessness” among young artists, the neo-rococo shows no real signs of abating. This past April, for a gala honoring the opening of the Takashi Murakami retrospective now on view at the Brooklyn Museum, designers tricked out the museum lobby to simulate a Canal Street circus of fake bag sellers hawking their wares. What the party planners may not have known was that Marie Antoinette had beaten them to the punch in the 1770s, transforming part of the Versailles gardens into a Paris shopping street, where the French queen masqueraded as a lemonade seller to the delight (and horror) of courtiers.

Another memorable Rococo-inspired performance of sorts took place last December at Art Basel Miami Beach in the booth of the Herald St gallery. There, the London-based artist Cary Kwok, who makes exquisitely rendered drawings of glamorous big-haired men and women from the palace to the street, offered his sculptural hairstyling services like a latter-day Léonard, the beloved hairdresser of Marie Antoinette. The only thing missing was a Watteauesque signboard inviting customers in.

Meredith Martin teaches eighteenth- and nineteenth-century art at Wellesley College in Wellesley, MA.