The Rococo

Annie Explores an entire era of evil stodge and why it pisses her off

Last Updated May 27, 1997

The Rococo may be the definition of bad stodge. It is at least the definition of bad. What follows is as best an explanation I can muster of why it pisses me off.

To enforce why the Rococo is such very bad stodge, why it borders, almost, on the greatest evil in the æsthetic kingdom, I'll just dabble back as succinctly as possible a bit of the history of ornament leading up to it. Back in Europe in the 10th through 15th centuries there was some great shit going down in art. I have the utmost respect for medieval design; aesthetically and ideologically, it is great stuff. Oh, but it's so very religious!, you might whine. No, no, I will tell you, that is only the half of it. First of all, the religious figures in themselves, saints and sinners and big people holding little buildings are quite pleasing on close inspection, but more importantly, the ephemera-all those vines and trefoils and demons growing everywhere around them, swallowing up and blossoming into every available bit of space ­ now, that is sublime. The medieval conception of religion as represented in art especially the decorative arts, to make a long story short, is really a lot less literal than you may have been lead to believe. There is serious concern therein for capturing a sort of "life force" that goes beyond ones general perception of medieval Christian spirituality. If you ask me, it's an almost existential embracing of all of nature including man and the earth and god in one fell swoop. You see it in the images of unstoppable, sprawling, twisting, bursting, curling plants bordering everything, entwining man and beast-and especially in some later Dutch and German printed examples, filling the entire field and becoming the subject in itself. And did I mention that medieval decorative arts have a strong sense of being beautiful and functional ­ hardly ever frippery? But this article is not supposed to be about how much I dig the medieval, so I'm forced to move on.

[try the National Gallery of Art's Medeival Metalwork and Enamles Page for a tour of some very cool medieval enamel and metalwork from the days before taste went to pot]

Which, would lead us, of course, to that modern conception known as the Renaissance (trumped up when some scholars in the 19th century decided that because their taste veered toward things 16th and 17th century, everyone should be tricked into thinking that that was a period of great advancement and enlightenment in every way  ­ arguable, perhaps in fields like philosophy or engineering or music, but as for decorative art, it does seem to me more a perversion of earlier styles than an improvement on them, they've got the look but not the feeling). First, earlier on around the turn of the 15th to 16th centuries, there was the new ubiquity of the ogival arch. A lot of people call this a late medieval form, but as far as i'm concerned, it's a major turning point, the beginning of a slow-moving, bad trend that would eventually culminate in the horrors known as baroque and Rococo style. The ogival arch in itself wasn't so hideous, but certainly it was a perversion of the clear vision and undeniable grace of the pointed gothic arch. You see them everywhere around this time: architecture, patterns in textiles and carving and metalwork, the backgrounds of paintings. It marks the beginning of the turning away from sleek pointed styles to bulbous, rounded and eventually flaccid forms. An obvious example is to be found in the trendy footwear of the period: no more streamlined gothic pointy shoes-from here on in round-toed, mushy looking foot fashions are the rage for centuries. So, anyway, the Renaissance goes on. A lot happens in Europe and some good art come out of it on the whole: Tudor furniture, Elizabethan literature, Pirate fashions, great music, textiles with good color schemes, jewelry combining chunky gems with light filigree metalwork ­ you know stuff like that. In the meantime though, there are some very disturbing trends developing. The more people get into their new learning and high-tech printed books and reformed religions and historical studies, the more insipid twaddle starts appearing as decoration on everything. It's understandable, why, during the renaissance, especially later on in it, people had these deluded notions, but they're really non-too-pleasant nonetheless, if you ask me. Everyone's busy looking back at ancient Greece and Rome (especially after they start digging it up in a big old frenzy) and admiring these sort of linear stacks of decoration from back then known as candelabra grotesques. They start making their own-with modern sorts of stuff thrown into the stacks. And on top of this, everyone becomes, for a couple hundred years there, completely, utterly obsessed with symmetry. Form following function flies right out the window. In fact, windows are a prime example ­ you'll put the same number evenly spaced on both sides of your front door if it kills you ­ even if it means that the inside of your house is dysfunctional and you've had to put the kitchen three quarters of a mile away from the dining room and rearrange all the walls ineffectively, you'll do anything to get the façade up to roman standards of symmetry. (This is supposedly part of the "Age of Reason" and everyone being all very clever and logical). Now that they're not so stuck on all things devoutly Christian, people also start to be influenced by what's called the moresque or arabesque. As you might imagine, these are ideas and patterns bastardized from Islamic models ­ especially from the rather accessible Moorish Spain. These patterns are quite abstracted; though seemingly derived from vegetal motifs, they twist in turn, especially in western renaissance hands, into symmetrical explorations into positive and negative space in flat design. This is okay in itself ­ and actually works quite well on objects suited to flat design-cloth, jewelry and the like- but I think it gets people thinking. They wonder why they put so much stock in ornament being representational. They wonder why it's all so derivative. They start to be bothered by its trend toward flatness. They even start to fret about it being so symmetrical.

During this period of great fretting, craftsmen from all Europe (well, at least Italy and Flanders) converge on France to decorate the palace at Fontainebleau. They're all into the mannerism (like in oil paintings and stuff) of their respective countries then travel in France tweaks them all a bit, so they develop this new style whilst at the palace. There's a lot of stucco work around and everyone's very into it. Now, you might imagine that being inspired by STUCCO might lead you to make some pretty dodgy things, and of course, it really does. They start painting lots of ultra-mannerist figures into all the blank spaces of wall and ceiling with stucco frames around them but because they like these stucco frames ever so much, they start imitating its forms in their paintings. Everything becomes surrounded by these strange strips of pseudo-architectural detail. It takes off and spreads everywhere, called Rollwork. Soon it mutates and starts looking less like bits of architecture and more like leather belts curling around everywhere, some even with holes in them. (Hence, the style's more common name: Strapwork). All Europe seems to overlook how hideous this style is and it becomes a new standard of the avant garde, influencing generations to come.

Then one day, some dudes in Prague at the court of Emperor Rudolph II invent this new style called Ohrmuschelstil, which if you have a talent for sounding out German, you'll realize means "ear-like style" or we fancify it in English, the Auricular style. It's early still: 1620's, 30's, 40's, 50's and here's this new style. Not at all based on ancient models or architectural forms, it is a fundamentally new system of ornament. It relies on flowing masses and undulating surfaces to create plastic forms rather than the clearly delineated and articulated elements in other post-Gothic styles. Basically, everything looks like mutant ear cartilage. They make everything from art prints to dysfunctional tea pots in this style. It's really very hideous.

Meanwhile, all that strapwork stuff is trendy as hell. It mutates into scrollwork and bandwork and there are just functionless strippy bits decorating everything. Yup, it's now the time of the full-blown baroque. And you can imagine what this leads to.

Suddenly, everyone becomes obsessed with China. It all has to due with a good economy and the Dutch East India Company and increased dissemination of the printed images and words and such things. Every European and their hamster is rushing to get their hands on some nice imported Chinese art objectand a lot of them, sadly, end up with some fairly shoddily painted vases and things. When the artist types get a peak, they decide it's the best thing since sliced bread (I guess that metaphor is probably offensively anachronistic) and they decide to start painting in this kind of light wispy new shoddy way. They also start sticking sort of pastiche, pseudo-Chinese figures everywhere they can. Most of these dudes look kind of like bald, chubby Europeans in slightly weird clothes. But there they go, onto everyone's walls, their teapots, their art prints, even their textiles. (And women start wearing stubby pointy shoes, supposedly in imitation of the Chinese).

The dreaded Rococo is upon us. Symmetry has gone right out of fashion. In fact, patent asymmetry is very in. It's the 1690's and a former gun designer called Jean Berrain who was very into making deformed, lopsided cartouches (called rocailles) filled sometimes with light scenes and bordered by bandwork is influencing everyone in the extreme. Your friend and mine, Jean-Antoine Watteau starts inflicting his happy, light-hearted, pastel-colored, floofy art on everyone (the most damage is done in the 20 years after his death in 1721 when several volumes of his pattern books are printed).

Now, you can see why these guys were excited about what they were doing ­ after years of looking backward at classical models, they had finally developed something utterly new. A whole new vocabulary of for ornament, a new living architecture, a fluid, plastic medium captivating the contemporary artistic consciousness while capturing the public fancy. The thing is though, it is SO ugly and vacuous. Watteau and Boucher just go crazy with it, not to mention the hundreds of painters, printmakers and decorators that today are considered comparatively second-rate. And need I remind you of Fragonard?

[try the National Gallery of Art's search engine for lots of nasty Rococo paintings from the national gallery]

But why is it what they were doing so aesthetically displeasing to me? Now, not all art has to be deep and meaningful, certainly there is room in the world for some things that are whimsical, if they are satisfying at some visceral level or other. But look, say, at Boucher's Birth of Venus, or the wall of a well-to-do parlor decorated around 1700 or maybe a silver urn or a print of the ideal garden folly about that time ­ or women's hairstyles for christsake. How does it make you feel? My gut reaction tends to be "yuck", and further inspection reveals nothing further of redeeming value. In the two-dimensional work, there is this off-putting, unsettling feeling of extreme lightness and masslessness. Everything that was ponderously volumetric in mannerist work becomes like a brittle twig in an anti-gravity chamber: figures, trees, landscapes, the still-present random pseudo-Chinese items, the inevitable fountains, all light and sketchy and insubstantial-but not in a satisfyingly ethereal way, more like someone couldn't be bothered to draw them well, or finish them or put any stock in them. Curling rocaille shapes and post-rocaille disintegrating shreds of rocailles appear unstoppably over and over again, in the decorative arts (especially all over the walls) as if they are an unthought-through standard-issue must-have. (I'm not saying that Rococo artists didn't think and plan, i'm sure they did, but it's just that what they decided was worthy to output so effectively conveys their valued impromptu whimsy as to look like half-assed shit). Then there's the color palette of the movement: muddy pastels with a lot of gold trim. Contemporary modern scenes are rife with the bad colors and textures of fashion of the time: endless yards of too-shiny silk and taffeta in light pinks, blues and pastel-tinted greys and the ubiquitous huge grey hair.

Alleged functional objects tend to get so encrusted with ornament around this time that the are rendered practically useless, or at any rate, their form and structure are entirely lost. Rococo chairs, with their every piece of wood bowing and twisting into needless curves, are further embellished by elaborate carving and often gilding and over-active upholstery as well. Where is their essence? Are they but collections of ornament upon ornament so laid one upon the other and interwoven so tightly that the object would otherwise fall to pieces?

[try Tulane University's periods and styles for designers for lots more Rococo interiors]

Candelabra are so encrusted with three dimensional decorations that the flames must compete for attention amidst the mountains of twisting gold. For those who can afford to be fashionable, interiors smack of overdecoration. Overuse of sculpture, of gold and of half-finished looking wall and ceiling painting. Furniture is overburdened with needless ornamentation and large-scale rooms look pompous rather than grand or elegant. The whole effect is like that of a Louisiana swamp touched and frozen by king Midas in the midst of a wracking windstorm.

And the worst thing about Rococo, is that it doesn't even go away. Sure, people stop wearing those big grey wigs, (except for some members of the legal profession in England), and neo-classicism becomes trendy. There's all that political upheaval because of the French and all sorts of things happen to style because of it: Regency, Empire ­ and then Queen Victoria comes along, and some serious shit starts going down. But I swear they've all still got Rococo in their hearts, even Queen Victoria for her purchases of quaint yellow print wallpaper. Luckily, the good guys come and whack some heavy design reforms on the world during the 19th century. Thanks to Ruskin and Dresser and Morris and Mackintosh and their countless friends, we are saved from an endless scourge of Rococo doom. Sometimes it will creep back in ­ like Richard Morris Hunt's evil, evil Vanderbilt Mansion in Newport ­ but with a little caution, it can be avoided these days. If you ever feel tempted by the dark side, remember that you'll probably like a functional tea pot better than an overdecorated tea pot in the long run.

And that, my friends, in a topsy-turvy way, is why I hate the Rococo and think it is seriously bad stodge.



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