Tag Archives: hedonism

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.

Ode to Indolence – Dolce Far Niente – Sweet Doing Nothing

10 Apr

Indolence, thou art the sweetest, most delightful thing on earth!

John William Godward, Dolce Far Niente (Sweet Idleness) (or A Pompeian Fishpond), 1904

‘Dolce far niente’ is a wonderful Italian expression meaning ‘sweet doing nothing’, and it illustrates the dreamy, hedonistic, self-indulgent nature of indolence, and the enjoyment of it. In art, such paintings are rare prior to the nineteenth century, but in the late 19th and early 20th century, in the artistic climate influenced by the Pre-Raphaelites and Aesthetic movement with its ‘cult of beauty’, their popularity grew. Artists such as Lawrence Alma-Tadema, John William Godward and John William Waterhouse dared to tackle the subject and they painted numerous vibrant and beautiful paintings of this theme.

There’s a certain pattern of beauty in all of these ‘dolce far niente’ paintings: a beautiful idle woman dressed in her finery, lazing around in sumptuous surroundings, doing nothing, gazing in the distance or at the viewer. Usually they’re presented in luxurious and idealised settings, aesthetically inspired by the Roman empire, lounging on animal skin, wearing gorgeous diaphanous fabrics, perhaps holding a flower in their hand or teasing a kitten with a peacock feather, and in one painting, two women are even shown gazing at a snail and feeding it, what a way to spend an afternoon! Certain motifs appear in all of these paintings: finely painted marble balustrades or just marble in general, balconies overlooking the sea glistening underneath a perfectly blue sky with a few clouds, animal skin, clothes and hairstyles inspired by the styles of the Ancient world, flowers and flower pots, lush Mediterranean vegetation and plants such as oleander, lavender, cypresses, orange trees, even poppies, thyme, basil etc.

Lawrence Alma-Tadema, Silver Favourites, 1903

Godwards was the protégé of Alma-Tadema and their styles hold similarities; they both drew inspiration from the imagined luxury of the Ancient Roman Empire and the warm, rich, fragrant, mood of the Mediterranean, they both painted in a Neoclassical style with fine, elegant brushwork resembling that of Ingres, especially when the subject is that of a female body; both made paintings full of light and vibrancy. And now a glimpse of sadness in all this beauty; Godward committed suicide on 13th December 1922, at the age of 61, falsely believing that the idealised, dreamy style of his art will fall out of style with the arrival of new painters such as Picasso. In his suicide note he allegedly wrote: “the world is not big enough for myself and a Picasso”. I wonder just how many lives that devilish painter known as Picasso has ruined, having in mind the awful way he treated my poor, darling Modigliani.

These paintings exude beauty, but that is their only purpose. Well, the purpose of all art should be to present us mortals with an ideal of beauty we’ll never be able to achieve, to move our hearts and souls to react, to elevate us. But the beauty of these paintings really is all that they possess; they have no moral or social message, they are not portraits, they don’t show a mythological scene or tell a story in some way.

John William Godward, Dolce Far Niente, 1897

Also, despite the fact that these ‘dolce far niente’ paintings were at the height of their popularity in the late 19th century, the mood of indolence and hedonism can be traced in earlier art as well, especially the Rococo. If you take a look at some paintings of Fragonard or Boucher, you’ll see that most of them show pretty women doing nothing; reading love letters, waiting for a lover, daydreaming; lavishly dressed in gorgeous surrounding of eternal spring with tamed nature and marble statues. Also, the famous Winterhalter’s group portrait of the French Empress Eugenie and her ladies in waiting; technically, yes, it is a portrait – it has a purpose, but come on, doesn’t the setting and their faces evoke nothing but sweet enjoyment of indolence? Gustav Klimt’s beautiful and sinister nude femme fatales shown in a lesbian embrace, adorned with flowers, with intricate backgrounds, are also pretty indolent. My point is that it’s not necessary for a painting to bear a name ‘dolce far niente’ to be one, it’s more about the mood and the setting.

John William Godward, Summer Idleness: Day Dreams, 1909

Despite their popularity in the age of the Aesthetic movement, there’s nothing really decadent about these painting. Their lack of purpose, or a social or moral message, might have infuriated Ruskin. The dreamy, escapist nature of these paintings struck a cord with the audience of the time. Victorians were huge escapists and their tendency to be easily carried away by daydreams and fantasies about a perfect fairytale world enabled them to appreciate works of painters such as Waterhouse, Alma-Tadema and Godward who never painted reality, but instead dipped their brushes into a paint of magic and dreams and created innocent, idealised, brightly-coloured reveries which continue to capture the imagination of people today.

MY FAVOURITES:

John William Godward, When the heart is young, 1902

All of these paintings are quite similar, but still there were three which captivated me the most. The first one is When the heart is young. If you enlarge the painting, you’ll see how exquisitely the scene is painted, how detailed. I just love her face expression, and the way her hair falls and the lavishing, soft folds of her dress in colour of rose quartz. And she is one absolutely gorgeous woman; there’s a dreamy, sensual aura around her face with lips as pretty as rosebuds, cheeks blushed and eyes so dark, velvety and dreamy, gazing in the distance. Another detail which dazzles me is the fine thin yellow line above the sea, and the poppy flowers in the background.

John William Godward, Mischief and Repose, 1895

Here, I love the title Mischief and Repose, isn’t it cunning? There’s no glistening sea or trees in the background, but I think these two indolent, red-haired beauties in diaphanous dresses are eye-candies for themselves. They’re shown lazing around in an opulent interior of fine marble and animal skin. While the woman wearing a delicate gown made out of a gauzy baby blue material, I suppose the overindulgence in the sweetness of doing nothing has made her tired, I sympathise because it happens to me often, the one on the right is the epitome of mischief, teasing her friend as she sleeps. They remind me of Sappho and her ladies on the isle of Lesbos. Let’s also take a moment to appreciate the great hairstyle of the ‘mischief woman’; voluminous curly hair in a low bun with shiny ribbons. And these gauzy long gowns which reveal more than they hide are so alluring, especially on the woman on the right; how softly and gently the fabric covers her body, how delicately painted. I hope it’s not just my imagination that’s intrigued by this illusive mysteriousnesses.

John William Godward, Dolce Far Niente, 1906

In Dolce Far Niente from 1906, the rich purple and red colour of her flimsy dress really appealed to me, but also the composition: she is painted reclining on a tiger skin, on some marble balustrade, with her hand above her head, her dark hair falling in cascades, and you can’t help but notice the sensuality of her pose; you can follow the curve of her body against the background of oleander trees with lush blossoms and serene sea in the distance. I don’t know why, but it reminded me of a sentence from Osamu Dazai’s novel No Longer Human: “I could see through the tall windows behind my bench the evening sky glowing in the sunset. Seagulls were flying by in a line which somehow suggested the curve of a woman’s body.” Another thing I love is the sky; vanilla coloured sky, and the lush Mediterranean vegetation; the gorgeous pink oleander blossoms and cypresses in the background. Sun is slowly setting in the distance, rich fragrances colour the air…

John William Godward, Idleness, 1900

I have been dazzled by these paintings for some time, and my thoughts upon gazing at these idle women are a mix of empathy and envy. I am their equal in indolence, it is my most beloved pursuit: doing nothing and doing it sweetly. I am a connoisseur in indolence! Dolce far niente should be written on my gravestone. My idea of a perfect afternoon is to wear something outrageously gorgeous, lie on my bed, listen to music and gaze at the pictures on my wall, the blue sky or tree tops through the window or flip through my art books, and then drift into daydreams. For me, a day of indolence is a day of happiness! This is how I find inspiration, then I write a post, and voila!

I shall finish the post with a great quote by the writer Jerome K. Jerome, who obviously understand indolence very well:

It is impossible to enjoy idling thoroughly unless one has plenty of work to do. There is no fun in doing nothing when you have nothing to do. Wasting time is merely an occupation then, and a most exhausting one. Idleness, like kisses, to be sweet must be stolen.

John William Godward, Tranquillity, 1914

John William Godward, In the Days of Sappho, 1904

John William Godward, An Idle Hour, 1890

John William Godward, The quiet pet, 1906

John William Godward, Summer Flowers, 1903

Franz Xaver Winterhalter, The Empress Eugenie Surrounded by her Ladies in Waiting, 1855

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

John William Godward, Playtime, 1891

Lawrence Alma-Tadema, In the Tepidarium, 1881

Charles Edward Perugini, Dolce Far Niente, 1882

John William Waterhouse, Dolce Far Niente (The White Feather Fan), 1879

John William Waterhouse, Dolce Far Niente, 1880

William Holman Hunt, ‘Il Dolce far Niente’, 1859-66

Auguste Toulmouche, Dolce Far Niente, 1877

What are your thoughts on indolence? Was there a dolce far niente painting that particularly dazzled you?

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!