Tag Archives: Fragonard

Fragonard, Kundera and the Pleasure of Slowness

22 Apr

“Why has the pleasure of slowness disappeared? All, where have they gone, the amblers of yesteryear? Where have they gone, those loafing heroes of folk song, those vagabonds who roam from one mill to another and bed down under the stars? Have they vanished along with footpaths, with grasslands and clearings, with nature? There is a Czech proverb that describes their easy indolence by a metaphor: “They are gazing at Gods windows. A person gazing at God’s windows is not bored; he is happy. In our world, indolence has turned into having nothing to do. which is a completely different thing: a person with nothing to do is frustrated, bored, is constantly searching for the activity he lacks.”

(Milan Kundera, Slowness)

Jean-Honoré Fragonard, The Progress of Love – Reverie, 1771

Milan Kundera’s novel “Slowness”, his first novel written in French and not in Czech, was published in 1995. Like all of Kundera’s work, “Slowness” is a philosophical novel. The plot line and the characters serve only as a starting point for the exploration of topics such as slowness, pleasure and hedonism as things of the past, and how the modernity, speed suppress sensuality; modern people have no time for idleness of conquests of love, everything is about the goal and not about the process. To contrast the motifs of slowness vs speed, slow seduction vs rash conquest, Kundera combines two plot lines set in different times. One follows a couple driving in a car to a countryside chateau in France, and the other goes back in past, Kundera takes us back to the wonderful 18th century by retelling a story originally written by Vivant Denons in which the two lovers have a night of slow seduction full of secret symbolism and love language. This is how the novel begins:

We suddenly had the urge to spend the evening and night in a chateau. Many of them in France have become hotels: a square of greenery lost in a stretch of ugliness without greenery… I am driving, and in the rearview mirror I notice a car behind me. The small left light is blinking, and the whole car emits waves of impatience. The driver is watching for his chance to pass me; he is watching for the moment the way a hawk watches for a sparrow. (…) I check the rearview mirror: still the same car unable to pass me because of the oncoming traffic.Beside the driver sits a woman: why doesn’t the man tell her something funny? why doesn’t he put his hand on her knee? Instead, he’s cursing the driver ahead of him for not going fast enough, and it doesn’t occur to the woman, either, to touch the driver with her hand; mentally she’s at the wheel with him, and she’s cursing me too.

And I think of another journey from Paris out to a country chateau, which took place more than two hundred years ago, the journey of Madame de T. and the young Chevalier who went with her. It is the first time they are so close to each other, and the inexpressible atmosphere of sensuality around them springs from the very slowness of the rhythm: rocked by the motion of the carriage, the two bodies touch, first inadvertently, then advertently, and the story begins. Then begins their night: a night shaped like a triptych, a night as an excursion in three stages: first, they walk in the park; next, they make love in a pavilion; last, they continue the lovemaking in a secret chamber of the chateau.

Jean-Honoré Fragonard, The Progress of Love – The Pursuit, 1771-72

I read “Slowness” five years ago, but this philosophical discussion is something that comes to my mind often and it dawned on me now how connected the slow seduction from Kundera’s novel is with the French Rococo painter Jean-Honoré Fragonard’s series called “Progress of Love” which was originally commissioned by Louis XV’s mistress Madame Du Barry for her pleasure pavilion designed by the architect Claude-Nicolas Ledoux. Despite the beauty and vivacious nature of these canvases, they weren’t displayed for a long time in the pavilion, Du Barry soon ended up returning them to the painter. The reason behind her odd dissatisfaction with the master pieces is unknown, perhaps the resemblance between the young lad and the king Louis and the girl and Du Barry was too strong, or perhaps the Rococo spirit of the paintings was going out of fashion and she wanted something less kitschy, more elegant and simple.

I certainly don’t share Madame Du Barry’s opinion. If I could travel in time, I would have persuaded Fragonard to sell the paintings to me and then I would hang them in my luxurious countryside castle and gaze at them and daydream all day long. I just love the elegance and romance in these artworks, the secrecy and the innocence of this love chase. In “The Pursuit” the young lad is handing her a rose, like a true romantic and cavalier. “It’s thy love I want, don’t run away from me!”, his lovely face seems to say. Her answer to this flirtatious proposal is a ballerina-like pose. Kundera directly mentions Rococo art and Fragonard in “Slowness”: “The art of the eighteenth century drew pleasures out from the fog of moral prohibitions; it brought about the frame of mind we call “libertine,” which beams from the paintings of Fragonard and Watteau, from the pages of Sade, Crebillon the younger, or Charles Duclos. It is why my young friend Vincent adores that century and why, if he could, he would wear the Marquis de Sade’s profile as a badge on his lapel. I share his admiration, but I add (without being really heard) that the true greatness of that art consists not in some propaganda or other for hedonism but in its analysis.

Jean-Honoré Fragonard, The Progress of Love – The Secret Meeting, 1771

Despite faking fear and disinterest in the first canvas, there is our love heroine again, pale and delightful, dressed in a white silk gown. The place of their secret meeting is part-Rococo and part-Romantical; statues and vases are man-made ornaments, but the trees and the mood are summery and romantical. Pink fragrant roses everywhere, birches, serene blue sky and all those tiny light green leaves on the trees. I love the special shade that appear often in Fragonard’s trees, this turquoise, teal shade, the love-child of green and blue. The girl’s face shows concern, as if she had perhaps heard someone’s footsteps approaching. And he had just climbed up the overgrown ladder to the secret walled garden. Can this get more romantical?

I love to enjoy all the little details of the painting such as this letter the girl is holding in her hand. It seems this is the love letter from the young cavalier, filled with sweet words of seduction and details about the secret meeting in the garden which is now taking place.

First stage: they stroll with arms linked, they converse, they find a bench on the lawn and sit down, still arm in arm, still conversing. The night is moonlit, the garden descends in a series of terraces toward the Seine, whose murmur blends with the murmur of the trees. Let us try to catch a few fragments of the conversation. The Chevalier asks for a kiss. Madame de T. answers: “I’m quite willing: you would be too vain if I refused. Your self-regard would lead you to think I’m afraid of you.”

Everything Madame de T. says is the fruit of an art, the art of conversation, which lets no gesture pass without comment and works over its meaning; here, for instance, she grants the Chevalier the kiss he asks, but after having imposed her own interpretation on her consent: she may be permitting the embrace, but only in order to bring the Chevalier’s pride back within proper bounds.

When by an intellectual maneuver she transforms a kiss into an act of resistance, no one is fooled, not even the Chevalier.

Jean-Honorá Fragonard, The Progress of Love – The Lover Crowned, 1771-72

The third painting of the series “The Lover Crowned” shows the girl crowning her lover with a crown of pink roses. A crown for the man of her dreams who managed to seduce her. The may be the most vibrant painting out of the series, the colours are just wild; look at all that red and pink of the flowers, the red attire of the lad who seems to be painting a portrait of them, and then the lovely mustard yellow dress the girl is wearing. There isn’t a direct connection between Fragonard’s series “Progress of Love” and the 18th century couple in “Slowness” in terms of content, the story line is different, but it is the element of slow seduction, slow approach to pleasure that unites these two eighteenth century arts. Kundera describes the slowness of one summer night’s seduction, with every detail carefully planed and the pleasure delayed, and Fragonard’s approach is even broader because it portrays the slowness not only of one night’s seduction in a pavilion, but a carefully planned, romantic and innocent game of love which ultimately brings sweet, ripe fruit. Here are some passages from “Slowness”:

The end of the first stage of their night: the kiss she granted the Chevalier to keep him from feeling too vain was followed by another, the kisses “grew urgent, they cut into the conversation, they replaced it. …” But then suddenly she stands and decides to turn back.

What stagecraft! After the initial befuddlement of the senses, it was necessary to show that love’s pleasure is not yet a ripened fruit; it was necessary to raise its price, make it more desirable; it was necessary to create a setback, a tension, a suspense. In turning back toward the chateau with the Chevalier, Madame de T. is feigning a descent into nothingness, knowing perfectly well that at the last moment she will have full power to reverse the situation and prolong the rendezvous. All it will take is a phrase, a commonplace of the sort available by the dozen in the age-old art of conversation. But through some unexpected concatenation, some unforeseeable failure of inspiration, she cannot think of a single one. She is like an actor who suddenly forgets his script. For, indeed, she does have to know the script; it’s not like nowadays, when a girl can say, “You want to, I want to, let’s not waste time!” For these two, such frankness still lies beyond a barrier they cannot breach, despite all their libertine convictions.

“I see her leading the Chevalier through the moonlit night. Now she stops and shows him the contours of a roof just visible before them in the penumbra; ah, the sensual moments it has seen, this pavilion; a pity, she says, that she hasn’t the key with her.

As she converses, Madame de T. maps out the territory, sets up the next phase of events, lets her partner know what he should think and how he should proceed. She does this with finesse, with elegance, and indirectly, as if she were speaking of other matters. She leads him to see the Comtesse’s self-absorbed chill, so as to liberate him from the duty of fidelity and to relax him for the nocturnal adventure she plans. She organizes not only the immediate future but the more distant future as well, by giving the Chevalier to understand that in no circumstance does she wish to compete with

They approach the door and (how odd! how unexpected!) the pavilion is open!

Why did she tell him she hadn’t brought the key? Why did she not tell him right off that the pavilion was no longer kept locked? Everything is composed, confected, artificial, everything is staged, nothing is straightforward, or in other words, everything is art; in this case: the art of prolonging the suspense, better yet: the art of staying as long as possible in a state of arousal.”

By slowing the course of their night, by dividing it into different stages, each separate from the next, Madame de T. has succeeded in giving the small span of time accorded them the semblance of a marvelous little architecture, of a form. Imposing form on a period of time is what beauty demands, but so does memory. For what is formless cannot be grasped, or committed to memory. Conceiving their encounter as a form was especially precious for them, since their night was to have no tomorrow and could be repeated only through recollection. There is a secret bond between slowness and memory, between speed and forgetting.

Jean-Honoré Fragonard, The Progress of Love – Love Letters, 1771-72

The last painting of the series “Love Letters” shows the lovers in a happy union. Again in some beautiful garden with roses and statues. A little dog is lying near the roses, perhaps hinting at the fidelity of the love union, or perhaps just enriching the painting with his cuteness. The girl’s rosy cheeks and pink dress are cuteness overload, and the way the young cavalier is gazing at her is of equal sweetness. Red parasol is a nice Chinoserie hint. But now, to end, I would like to share another quote from the novel “Slowness” about hedonism:

In everyday language, the term “hedonism” denotes an amoral tendency to a life of sensuality, if not of outright vice. This is inaccurate, of course: Epicurus, the first great theoretician of pleasure, had a highly skeptical understanding of the happy life: pleasure is the absence of suffering. Suffering, then, is the fundamental notion of hedonism: one is happy to the degree that one can avoid suffering, and since pleasures often bring more unhappiness than happiness, Epicurus advises only such pleasures as are prudent and modest. Epicurean wisdom has a melancholy backdrop: flung into the world’s misery, man sees that the only clear and reliable value is the pleasure, however paltry, that he can feel for himself: a gulp of cool water, a look at the sky (at God’s windows), a caress.

Modest or not, pleasures belong only to the person who experiences them, and a philosopher could justifiably criticize hedonism for its grounding in the self. Yet, as I see it, the Achilles’ heel of hedonism is not that it is self-centered but that it is (ah, would that I were mistaken!) hopelessly Utopian: in fact, I doubt that the hedonist ideal could ever be achieved…

I think the whole philosophy of slowness, pleasure, idleness and hedonism is something we could all use in our hectic, fast modern lives over-bombarded with information and changes, just take things slow and enjoy them.

Percy Bysshe Shelley’s Love’s Philosophy is 200 Years Old

22 Dec

My favourite poem by the Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, “Love’s Philosophy”, was published on the 22nd December 1819. I cannot believe that this gem of a poem is 200 years old, yet it feels so youthful and fresh, like the first clear skies in spring. English critic and poet Leigh Hunt published the poem in the 22nd December 1819 issue of the newspapers “The Indicator”, which he edited from 1819 to 1821. Then later, in 1824, Mary Shelley published the poem again in the “Posthumous Poems”. The beautiful, innocent mood of the poem was inspired by the poems of the Greek poet Anacreon which celebrated love. The second generation of Romantic poets; Shelley, John Keats and Lord Byron, looked up to the Classical world, the Romans and the Greeks, for inspiration, wisdom and Beauty.

Jean-Honoré Fragonard is well-known for his paintings of stolen kisses, secret meetings, coquetry, indolence and frivolities in romantic garden settings, but this painting here, called “The Souvenir” is announcing the Romantic vibes which took over the European art in the late eighteenth century. The girl is alone in the woods, carving the name of her Beloved in the tree so every living creature in the nature can know the secret of her heart. Her pet dog, usually seen as a symbol of fidelity in art, is observing her. Look how pretty her pink dress is, and how delicate the whole scene is. I can imagine this girl would love Percy Shelley’s poem.

Jean-Honoré Fragonard, The Souvenir, 1776-8

Love’s Philosophy

The fountains mingle with the river,
And the rivers with the ocean;
The winds of heaven mix forever
With a sweet emotion;
Nothing in the world is single;
All things by a law divine
In one another’s being mingle-
Why not I with thine?

See, the mountains kiss high heaven,
And the waves clasp one another;
No sister flower could be forgiven
If it disdained its brother;
And the sunlight clasps the earth,
And the moonbeams kiss the sea; –
What are all these kissings worth,
If thou kiss not me?

Fragonard and Goya: The problem of leisure, what to do for pleasure?

9 Dec

Jean-Honore Fragonard, A Game of Hot Cockles, 1775

Jean-Honoré Fragonard was a master when it came to turning fantasies into realities, in the realm of his canvas at least, he wasn’t a magician or a magic fairy. Fragonard, a pupil of Boucher, brought elegance and youthful playfulness into Francois Boucher’s sumptuous and slightly erotic compositions. Whereas Boucher intertwined mythological scenes with the unrestrained lives of the wealthy nobility, Fragonard painted worlds which are neither real nor mythological, but his own dreamy havens. His is the world where love never dies and sun never sets. The painting “A Game of Hot Cockles” isn’t even the finest example, his series called “Progress of Love” is the height of romantic escapism in that fanciful kingdom of love and dreams.

In the painting above the figures occupy just a small portion of the canvas, while the tall trees stretch on and on. He paints trees in a variety of shades, from the warm green-yellowish leaves in the foreground to the gentle hazy blue-greens in the background. The mysterious park is like a theatre stage where games take place. The inspiration for the dazzling landscapes in the background of his painting came from his travel to Rome in 1756, and so does the vibrant colour palette. In contrast to the greenness, the figures are dressed in vibrant jewel coloured clothes; ruby red, sapphire blue, amber yellow, pink as rose quartz.

Detail of Fragonard’s painting

In a dreamy park surrounded by woods a dreamy group of silk-clad figures are enjoying their leisure time and playing a game, and not just any game, but a very Rococo one called “game of hot cockles” which was a popular game for the Christmas time even in the nineteenth century. The game includes one person placing their head in someone’s lap while a third person is hitting their bottom, and the person has to guess who spanked them. A man had a unique opportunity to place their head in a pretty woman’s laps, and ladies had a chance to do the same. Such a silly and naughty game with an erotic undertone instantly became a hit with the indolent French nobility. One could intentionally name the wrong person so that this “wicked game” continues. The group is playing the game, but what are the lady in a red dress and the man in blue doing in the far left corner? Perhaps he’s telling her ‘Hey, I would like to spank you, but it needn’t be part of the game.’ To which she disapprovingly replies ‘Oh, please, can’t you see my dog is listening’.

Lyrics from the Gang of Four’s song ‘Natural’s not in it’ come to mind:

“The problem of leisure
What to do for pleasure
Ideal love a new purchase
A market of the senses….
Renounce all sin and vice
Dream of the perfect life
This heaven gives me migraine”

Francisco José de Goya y Lucientes, Blind Man’s Buff (La Gallina Ciega), 1788

The works that Goya is known for today, the imaginative, but dark and disturbing “Los Caprichos” are in the start contrast to his earlier works painted for the court. “Blind Man’s Buff” belongs to Goya’s court phase or his Rococo phase. Both the theme and the colour palette are lighter, and he was influenced by Watteau in this period. It is part of the series that Goya painted for the Royal Palace of El Pardo in Madrid. The painting shows a group of young people playing the game of blind man’s buff.

The man in the middle is blindfolded and trying to touch the other players with a long wooden spoon. I remember playing that game when I was little, but we never used a spoon, how funny! One man, the one on the right, is dressed in an elegant French attire while the other three men and the women are all showing off their vibrant Spanish costumes which they chose to wear in order to emphasise their nationality and culture. In this detail you can see the wonderful vibrant colours, that red and that yellow are so eye catching! It all looks so dreamy and naive, which goes in tune with the spirit of Rococo and its never ending pursuit of pleasure and love for enjoying life.

The Straw Manikin (La Marioneta) by Francisco Goya, 1791-92

Here is another painting from the same royal series by Goya, painted a bit later though, called “The Straw Manikin”. I already wrote about it here. Times are getting darker and Rococo is in demise, and here an innocent outdoor game is taking a twisted touch. Girls are throwing a straw doll in the air, but look at his face expression; so passive, so resigned, they can do whatever they want with him. He is powerless in the hands of females.

Jean-Honoré Fragonard – The Swing

4 Apr

Painting The Swing is Fragonard’s most well-known work, and the epitome of Rococo; it’s a fun, frivolous, hedonistic painting imbued with erotic insinuations and painted in rich colour palette full of lightness and vivacity. To most people, and myself included, it is the first thing that comes to mind when thinking of Rococo and today would have been Fragonard’s birthday, so it’s a perfect day for this painting.

Jean-Honoré Fragonard, The Swing, 1767

Painting The Swing shows a young woman sitting on a swing and two male figures lazing around in a pastoral setting. The woman holds a central position and she is a true eye-candy; dressed in a silk gown in a peachy-pink colour, her head adorned with a straw hat. Rosy cheeked and laughing, she’s dangling her legs in white stockings and playfully throwing one of her pink shoes in the air. Her flat straw hat is a fashionable style of the time, called ‘bergeré’ which means ‘shepherdess’, and can be seen in many Rococo paintings, in particular those of Fragonard and Gainsbourgh. The man in the background, a layman, is pulling her swing, while the one on the left, resting amidst delicate pink roses, gets to have all the fun, gazing mischievously at the legs of this gorgeous girl, and not just legs – women of Rococo didn’t wear knickers.

Fantasies, flirting, and debauchery are all intermingled in this voyeuristic scene placed in an idealised setting of lush nature, marble statues and roses, all painted in soft fluttering brushstrokes and bathed with luminosity and lightness which Fragonard took from the Italian masters such as Corregio, who is sometimes considered the forerunner of Rococo, and Tiepolo. The scene is painted so beautifully that one can feel the mood of that carefree afternoon, smell the flowery sweetness that lingers in the air on this late spring or early summer day, you can heard their laughter and a peaceful birdsong.

Sensuality of this erotic reverie is emphasised by the vibrant, lavishing glistening pastel shades, from her pink dress to the gorgeous hazy background painted in the most exquisite shades of green; notice the gradation from the gentle light green where the rays of sun fall to darker greens which exceed into a mystical turquoise mist on the right part of the painting. And then the soft, dreamy blue sky with delicate clouds: the perfect background for us to notice the little pink shoe flying in the air. Sculptures of Cupids, Venuses and angels are popping up everywhere in Rococo art, and this painting is no exception. There’s a sculpture of Cupid on the far left; his finger is pressed on his lips, suggesting secrecy and conspiracy of this naughty game. But will the roses keep their little dirty secrets safe, or will they maliciously whisper them to the moon when the night falls?

Jean-Honoré Fragonard was a pupil of another famous Rococo master – Francois Boucher who painted many portraits of Madame Pompadour, the one of many mistresses of Louis XV, including my favourite one where she’s shown wearing a peachy coloured dress and standing next to an old statue. Fragonard continued his tradition, but the vivacious brushwork is entirely his own. As a marvellous colourist, Fragonard won an award in 1752 which enabled him to spend five years, from 1756, in Rome to study painting, and he returned to France with a rich luminous colour palette. There’s an interesting anecdote about this painting; it’s said that Baron de Saint-Julien asked another painter, Gabriel-Francoise Doyen, to make a painting of him and his mistress on a swing in which he would be portrayed looking at her legs. Doyen wasn’t really impressed with the frivolous nature of this commission and passed it on to Fragonard who made a painting so memorable that I can’t help it wonder what Doyen’s version would have looked like. Small dimensions of this painting emphasise the intimate nature of Rococo art which was meant to be enjoyed in privacy of one’s home, whereas the grand Baroque art was meant for showing off. Rococo is dreamy, intimate chatter in saloons, and Baroque is pompous swaggering in long halls with mirrors and candles, like that of Louis XIV.

And now the Swinging sixties version of The Swing:

Rococo art has many aspects, this ‘frivolous and hedonistic’ one is just one of them, and these days it’s all I need; rose gardens, dreamy blue skies, gorgeous dresses. Titles of the paintings, e.g. Boucher’s The Secret Message, Dreaming Shepherdess, or Fragonard’s The Stolen Kiss, The Love Letter, The Souvenir, The Secret Meeting, Progress of Love and Confession of Love are just adorable. And so are all those ladies painted in gorgeous silk gowns with flowers on their bosoms and lace around heir necks, with straw hats or love letters in their hands, captured for eternity with porcelain white skin and rosy cheeks, daydreaming in parks and forest glades by the statues of angels and Roman goddesses, or having their kisses stolen in luxurious salons by naughty noblemen with powdered hair; in short, doing nothing, doing it sweetly, and doing it in style – Rococo!