I wanted to compile some Rococo paintings, but it turns out that it's much harder to do than I had supposed. As a result, this is a particularly pervy handful. But I don't just think Rococo is great just for its perviness.
I am drawn to Medieval and early Renaissance art because it is full of creepy characters making strange faces and gestures (and those gross Virgin Marys, squeezing their breasts between their fingers at smiling little men), but many of the the things that are charming and revelatory about those paintings are not intended by the artists.
Then, after a certain point in the Renaissance, painting gets really boring. I hope I'll change my mind about this like I changed my mind about Rococo, but right now the majority of what I see in French, Italian, and Spanish painting (with obvious exceptions such as Velasquez) from the 17th until the mid 18th century is a snooze. It seems like people's excitement about being able to draw these great heaping naked bodies distracted them from what is really important: faces and characters. I went to the Art Institute the other day and I was particularly offended by two things from this period: the decorative rape scenes and general prevalence of gratuitous boobs. The latter would happen in, for example, history paintings. This kind of laziness and lack of motivation makes an already staged-looking painting completely abhorrent. And when the nudity is motivated, as in a rape, I can't help but think of the ugly souls of the kind of people who would display a porcelain statuette of a woman getting raped in their china cabinet.
And then something magical happens in France. Everyone wakes up. The dark popes in their heavy robes, the fleshy, anonymous cherubs, the women who previously only seemed to have looked at their reflections in tapestries instead of in mirrors and the heat of their sheets--good morning! Most of them put some clothes on, the blush returns to their faces, and suddenly, they are very interested in talking to you, the viewer. Some gawk, disturbed and curious, while others keep their distance, luxuriating in their vanity, or climbing it, like a crystal rope, and perching on the branches of haughtiness mistaken for dignity (while the painters laugh). In other paintings, you just get fresh, beautiful faces.
Marie-Rose de Larlan de Kercadio de Rochefort
The dark backgrounds take on the colors of nature, steal its brightest shades and when they overdo it, they do it consciously--and for joy! (And, in my opinion, much more honestly than the Impressionists.) These worldly portraits return to the vivid, almost cartoonish individuality of the Medieval figures and this time they are real, living men and women. It's such a relief to see them.
Obviously, there is good and bad Rococo painting. But what you can always a deep pleasure in the sexy fruits of life that is, furthermore, often treated with an ironic detachment. And lightness. I was telling these things to my friend Corinne as we were passing into the rooms where we would get to see it, and then, in the very first room the centerpiece was this perfect example by Jean-Baptiste Oudry. I think it's called "Still Life with a Monkey and Sexy Fruits."
My favorite game to play at the Art Institute is finding the monkeys and severed heads in the paintings while going around the collection chronologically. This painting would be that secret corner of an older religious scene (like an adoration of the Magi), but now its really big. Oudry painted this because monkeys are really funny and they deserve to have their own paintings. Because paintings can reflect life, and life's delights.
Lady Reading Abelard and Heloise
This painting struck me at when I saw it yesterday because it was the first one I'd seen in a century that had a good reason to show breasts and wasn't some dumb rape scene. This woman is half-naked because she is reading a sexy book and it's hot. The lace of her dress is rubbing against her nipples. She is delaying gratification.
UNLIKE HER FRIEND FRAGONARD:
What a sicko.
What a freaky, freaky sicko. Did two different people commission these, did one guy commission two of these, or are these just for Fragonard himself? I love that guy, there is a self-portrait by him at the Art Institute with these thick, Impressionist-y brush strokes that perfectly mold the bony angles and hanging skin of his aged face, but man--what a perv.
This lady gets it:
And so do these guys:
Especially the Rhinoceros.