Friday, October 25, 2013

Rococo (pt. 7)

An emphasis in artistic subject matter on the aristocracy and the carefree luxury of the aristocratic lifestyle is perhaps the key, defining element of French Rococo art.  The word comes from the French rocaille (meaning rock or stone, but here indicative of a valuable gem or pearl).  Rococo art seeks to lavishly display the opulence of wealth, social status, political power, and all of the benefits assigned during the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries to the French aristocracy.  This is the extreme opposite to the plain, honest art style of the Protestant Reformation and the Dutch Baroque genre paintings.  This period of art history discards humility and piety, and replaces saintly martyrs or biblical heroes with contemporary persons of social rank and privilege.
This was maybe the beginning of French predominance in the art world.  France was, by the latter half of the eighteenth century, the world leader of artistic style.  The nation rose in influence under the reign of Louis XIV, also known as the "Sun King," who claimed Divine Right Kingship and associated himself with Apollo, appealing in one stroke to both the doctrines of the Catholic religion and the traditional beliefs of the Ancient Greeks and Romans.  His reign was historic as probably the longest enthronement of any single king in modern European history; he was king for over 72 years.  Here he is seen painted by Hyacinthe Rigaud, standing proud in magnificent and enormous robes bearing the French symbol of the fleur de lis.  An old professor of mine said it best when he observed this painting and commented, "What legs!"
It was Louis XIV who first moved his capital from the city of Paris to the Palace of Versailles, the building which, like no other structure during that time, defined the Rococo Period through its extravagant decorativeness and over-the-top stock of precious finery.  Versailles is where French Rococo reached its height, and it was from there that the next three generations of monarchs would reign in lavish opulence, whilst their people, the lower class and peasants of France, grew increasingly unhappy over the failing economic situation of the country.
The French nation soon plummeted into debt from the aristocracy's lifestyle of excess.  The magnificence of the Palace of Versailles became to the lower class a constant reminder of the aristocracy's irresponsible spending and ineffective government.  France's participation in the Seven Years' War brought the nation's economy to even more desperate levels.  To compensate, heavier taxation was placed upon the populace.  Attempts to reform these oppressive tax laws were vetoed.  Meanwhile, the rich aristocrats and royal noblemen continued to expand in wealth and prosperity, but they gradually fell into disfavor with the general public.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Rococo (pt. 6)

Restoration literature featured a high influx of humor and wit doubtless attributable to the widespread sense of higher cognition characteristic of the Age of Enlightenment.  The poet John Dryden was the foremost champion of early Restoration literature, to be followed later by the genius of writers such as Jonathan Swift, Daniel Defoe, and Alexander Pope.  Named the country's Poet Laureate in 1668, Dryden was, among other things, a gifted playwright.  He wrote in the style that was becoming increasingly popular at that time and which would continue to develop for another century.
The style of Restoration Theater was one which centered on comedy as the top genre.  Stage plays at the time had turned very much to take after the French style and had given up the prior Shakespearean glory of swashbuckling action and drama, replacing it with what was known as "sentimental comedy."  Again, the cleverness of witty intellectual writing was held as the better trend during this period, and satire was largely prevalent.  A classic example of Restoration comedy can be seen in William Congreve's play The Way of the World, which makes use of satiric witticisms and clever puns to mock the finer aspects of aristocratic living.  As things progressed, Restoration writers became increasingly liberal with their content, flashing satire at every institution and doing it through virtually every method.  One popular subject for critical humor at this time was women, and one need only read Swift's poem "The Lady's Dressing Room" to get an idea of how sexually explicit and downright squalid the comical tastes of the time had become.  Secular though the subject matters were, through satire writers became popular as political spokesmen and the propagators of new social philosophies contributing to the Enlightenment development.
Dryden paved the way for all of this.  Among his most famous plays, he wrote one entitled Marriage à la mode (or "Fashionable Marriage" in French).  The play later inspired artist and social critic William Hogarth to produce a series of paintings under the same name in 1743-1745.
Hogarth took more interest in painting common people in London streets and taverns than he did in painting portraits.  He enjoyed exposing immorality and foolish customs, and Marriage à la mode is no exception.  In the first painting, or Scene I of the series, entitled The Marriage Contract, Hogarth makes fun of arranged marriages, which was then still the predominant practice among the aristocracy.  We see the bride and groom sitting next to each other on the far left, but neither is facing the other.  In fact, they hardly seem to notice each other—not a very promising start to the marriage, no doubt.  The groom looks bored and is holding a small box of tobacco.  The bride looks depressed.  (Women at this time tended to lose far more in marriage than what they gained from it).  A lawyer at her side flirts with her (as indicated by his coy smile and gesture of the arm).  The scene is starkly opposite to the idealization of marriage which we are naturally inclined to imagine when considering that happiest of unions.  Through his sarcasm and ridicule Hogarth makes the event far more dismal and absurd in effort to comment on the silliness of the aristocracy's observance of marriage and phony love on the surface level but also, in a deeper level, the aristocracy's broader ludicrousness in general among all aspects of society.  To the right of the painting we see the father of the bride looking over the marriage certificate as if it was a business contract, mocking the upper-class preoccupation with wealth, economics, and power.  Also, the artist pokes fun at the aristocracy's pompous fixation with titles of nobility.  The father of the groom (on the far right) proudly points to his family tree to proclaim the superiority of his lineage and status, but Hogarth has ironically painted him as suffering from gout, a disease which was at that time believed to be caused by gluttony and alcoholism, making him clearly not a specimen of noble worth.  Even the two dogs in the far left corner, the symbols of fidelity from Baroque art, only add sarcastic humor to the scene.  Hardly loyal by devotion, the two are literally leashed and tied together in a dark joke on what Hogarth observes as the true nature of marriage, the male standing tall and the bitch, collapsed, despondent on the ground.  Satire like the kind used in Hogarth's painting was popular during this time as a clever way to denounce vice or folly.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Rococo (pt. 5)

The Protestant Reformation had been against religious images and the pomp of artistic creation as a form of pride, but the return of the Stuarts to the English throne, along with the growth of the aristocracy, brought back art's importance.  The art of this period reflected the social sentiment of national stability and political peace.  With all its major upheavals of war and revolution behind it, England could once again focus on the themes of peacetime and educational growth.  The overall effect on the art during this time was a more flowery, pleasant style that focused on everyday social affairs instead of historic revolutions and religious wars.  Portraits became especially popular, and people invited foreign artists from all across Europe to paint for them.  It was during this period that the British art of portraiture was perfected in such artists as Thomas Gainsborough, who painted the famous Blue Boy.
The artist Thomas Gainsborough was admired for his delicate brushwork and rich, glistening pastel colors.  Sir Joshua Reynolds, another skilled painter at that time and Gainsborough's rival, stated once in a lecture that the color blue was detractive, and that it should never be used as the primary color in a portrait.  Gainsborough took this as a direct challenge and decided to paint a portrait with blue in it.  The portrait was of a young man dressed in blue, and its popularity proved Reynolds wrong.  However, rather than feel cross at his rival for outperforming him, Reynolds praised Gainsborough's achievement in a subsequent lecture after Gainsborough's death in 1788.

Friday, October 18, 2013

Rococo (pt. 4)

I said that many other philosophies relating to politics dominated the Enlightenment, and these will become equally significant later on.  Particularly, John Locke's theories on the natural rights of man (that of life, liberty, and property) influenced the political arena of the late eighteenth century.  In lieu of such absolutist demonstrations as those seen in England under King Charles I, Enlightenment thinkers took it upon themselves to produce political theories and models for the ideal governmental system.  Where all this political speculating would lead, the latter half of the century would show; but for now let's resume our look at the Restoration Period in Great Britain before we cross over to France and look at Rococo art.
The Great Fire of London struck in 1666 and lasted four days, destroying 89 churches.  Commissioned to be in charge of reconstruction was a young British architect named Christopher Wren, who was also at the time a professor of astronomy at Oxford University.  Wren's challenge was that he had to design the churches to fit in their small, predetermined spaces.  He therefore used tall, slender steeples to build upwards, not outwards.  These steeples became significant in England and later in North America as the architectural preference, and even though he drew from Greco-Roman designs, Wren is credited with their introduction into the modern world.  His most famous creation he went on to design: the façade of St. Paul's Cathedral.
This cathedral was the tallest building in London for over two hundred years and still continues today to be one of the city's most endearing landmarks.  In designing it, Wren created deep porches at two levels to instill a pattern of light and dark values (recalling Baroque tradition).  Each porch has a pair of huge columns supporting it, and as the building goes up, the porches grow thinner, pointing the viewer's look to the top dome and tympanum.  The two towers on either side beautifully frame the building.  By employing this unity of design, the cathedral appears reminiscent of Classical structures like the Parthenon; all parts of the building are symmetrical and balanced, very similar to the ancient Roman architectural technique.
As I mentioned, this form of structural design would become vastly significant to England and North America in the following centuries.  Sir Christopher Wren was knighted in 1673, when he was just above forty years old.  He is to this day considered one of the greatest architects in history.  Today, the London skyline itself serves as Wren's legacy, because he was the one responsible for the construction of over fifty churches after the Great Fire.  It is for this reason that Wren's eldest son wrote on his father's tombstone at St. Paul's Cathedral in 1723 the inscription which, translated from Latin, states: "If ye seek my monument, look around."

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Rococo (pt. 3)

Although the ideals popular during the Enlightenment will not radically shake the European (and, in fact, the worldwide) political scene for another hundred years or so, we ought not to continue anachronistically; so we will quickly put a few of those ideals on the table now, and we will have to keep them in the back of our memory for later.  The great thinkers of the Enlightenment are no unfamiliar names: John Locke, Thomas Hobbes, Denis Diderot, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, René Descartes, Adam Smith, and Voltaire, just to name a few.  Each of these (and several others) is important to the development of Western philosophy, but there is simply too much there to examine each of their writings and ideas.  So, not to neglect the others but only for the sake of time, we will focus mainly on Rousseau, whose philosophies will directly influence the future of the art we will be looking at.
But first it is essential to understand that around this time the idea of what the French called bon sauvage (the philosophical concept of the noble savage) was being established.  Perhaps directly influenced by the Colonials, who were observing and interacting with the native "Indians" first-hand, European philosophers had to rethink the nature of mankind upon discovering what they saw as a totally different race of humanity.  Despite the wholesale slaughter of countless natives via their own expatriates, the European populace slowly fell toward favoring the "savage" because of the belief in man's inherent state of purity when left uncorrupted by society and technology.
This concept was further established (but certainly not first thought of) by Jean-Jacques Rousseau, a writer, philosopher, and musician who lived during the latter half of the Enlightenment Period.  Rousseau's novel Émile propagated the notions that children are born pure, and that it is the culture of society which corrupts the mind and heart of innocence in youth.  Children, he argued, should be raised in the country, in nature, like peasants (or savages) in order to mature more naturally (and, consequently, more ideally).  It was here that the word "kindergarten" originated—a German word comprised of the words for "child" and "garden."  Rousseau's idea of education was one which sought to put children in better touch with Nature and the pure, unadulterated pastoral world of God's creation.  Through natural unfolding, left alone to grow in countryside settings away from technological influence, children, Rousseau asserted, would develop as purer human beings than even the greatest of his contemporaries.  This ideology is still seen all around us today in our own education system.  Early American leaders and entrepreneurs bought into this philosophy and applied it to their construction of college campuses and universities across the nation.  This is why so many colleges are decorated and supplied with verdant foliage, to the resemblance of a public park or garden grove.  It's not just for looks; it stems (no pun intended) from the idea that our youth should be raised and educated in nature.  Most universities in the United States today are still kept to look this way.
With this notion the only logical conclusion to arrive at is that truth, purity, and the holiness of God can be found in Nature, since it is through living in harmony with the natural world (like a savage) that one becomes truly noble.  We have seen a focus on pastoral landscapes in art before, during the Dutch Baroque period of art; but note the distinction.  The Dutch Baroque artists were acting from religious motivations—Protestant motivations—in effort to express the idea that the natural man could be holy without the intermediation of the Catholic Church; and the humble peasant could, in his own plowing-field, be considered as holy as—or more holy than—the most decorated bishop in the Vatican.  It was about religion and the Protestant view of man's direct relationship to God.  The Enlightenment view of Rousseau is very different.  It erases God and claims that mankind can be perfect in and of himself if only raised to live in harmony and peaceful coexistence with the natural world that God created.  Since God's creation is inherently good, a savage living off the land is closer to holiness than a nobleman.  No longer is it about relating to God through Nature and everyday observances and living; it's about becoming ideally perfect in and of one's own human nature through separation from civilization.  This is a very important concept, and I may not be explaining it clearly enough; perhaps a little later on we can discuss it some more.  A simple way to tell the difference between the two mindsets is in the physical manifestation of their art.  The Dutch Baroque artists, you will recall, often included a spire, or church steeple, in their landscape paintings as a symbol of their humble religious devotion, a reminder to serve God faithfully; the later Romantics, as we will see, paint equally lovely images of natural landscapes—but without the spire.  This apotheosis of Nature will become grandiosely significant later on, but for now it is merely introduced.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Rococo (pt. 2)

The Restoration Period in England is synonymous with flourishing literary and artistic expression that had been all but fully abandoned during the prior Revolutionary Period.  Theaters had been closed during the Interregnum, and during the period of Civil War the literary environment saw only the proliferation of political and religious tracts to spread Revolutionary ideals.  But after the return of Charles II, the nation settled comfortably back into its former state of stability and unity.  Literature, science, and the arts were allowed to continue under the king who gave official royal approval to the Scientific Revolution.  The Restoration brought about the reopening of theaters, and for the first time women were permitted to perform as actresses on the stage.
The Restoration Period of British literature and art could be argued to span through the latter half of the Scientific Revolution, but the time in which it particularly dominated was a time in Western history known as the Age of Enlightenment.  The Greco-Roman quest for knowledge that was the Enlightenment went a step further than the Scientific Revolution, which sought out answers to practical questions about the nature and order of the universe.  Having established the pragmatic institution of science as a key sector of European society, the great thinkers turned increasingly toward those questions which exact science cannot fully answer: and those questions dealt primarily in philosophy, especially political philosophy.  Religion became less and less a part of the equation.  This had been developing since the Renaissance—but even the Renaissance was qualitatively religious in practice, as Renaissance Humanism did not completely throw away the remembrance that God (or gods) was the ultimate Creator of humankind.  The Protestant Reformation had again turned the eyes of Europe and the Western world toward religious concerns, and even during the Baroque Era science was most often practiced as a counterpart to religious faith (as I explained in an earlier article).  What changed in the Age of Enlightenment was an increase (I would say, dramatic increase) in secularized thinking.  Whether this arose from the faith-numbing effects of scientific knowledge, from the necessity for practical philosophers amidst the continent's continual political struggles, or merely from the transference of the public eye, after more than a century of religious conflict, to matters more earthly, it is not for me to argue; what is to be said is that the Enlightenment was perhaps the first fully irreligious historical movement in Western civilization.  (This is not to say you will never come across the word "God" in your readings of Locke, Rousseau, and Voltaire; it is, rather, to assert that the lifestyle implications of true faith-based religious devotion were done away with in all matters philosophical.  Put simply, it was maybe the first time in Western history that the fate of nations was allowed to be put in the hands of human reasoning and wisdom.)

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Rococo (pt. 1)

James I of England died in 1625, leaving behind a reinforced heritage of Protestant unity in Great Britain.  As sponsor of the King James Bible (1611), he established Protestantism as the national religion of England after continual religious struggles for dominance between the Catholic and Protestant Churches.  The Post-Reformation attention to matters of religion carried on through to this time, and the religious conflict known as the Thirty Years' War still had another twenty years.  When James I died, Charles I took over the English throne—Charles I who was married to Henrietta Maria of France, a Catholic.
Charles took his authority to new limits.  Whereas his predecessor was more often given to compromise, Charles was seen as inflexible and rigid.  This style of leadership may have been inspired by James I's authored work, The True Law of Free Monarchs (1597), a very important book that proclaimed the divine right of monarchs as God's deputies, so to speak, the father of their people, in complete authority, and only accountable to God Himself.  Charles I must have taken those ideas to heart when he dismissed Parliament in 1629.  His increasingly Catholic tendencies had attracted the discontentment amongst Parliament toward its ruling king, and instead of seeking to compromise and reach agreement Charles pushed his authority to the ultimate level.  The equivalent today would be of Barack Obama firing Congress and declaring himself the sole ruler of America.  It was a highly controversial act.
Initially, nothing happened.  After all, Charles was the king; it was for him to decide what is and is not legally permissible in the English government.  The country sank into economic instability soon after he took total control.  During this eleven-year period, known as the "eleven-year tyranny," English Anglicanism was brought into new proximities with Catholicism.  William Laud, a man closely aligned with the Catholic Church, was instated by the king as the Archbishop of Canterbury in 1633.  The Eucharist was reintroduced, and the altar dominated the church.  England was turning Catholic again under a king who was undoing all that James I had stood for.
After the eleven years, members of the old Parliament reconvened to secure and expand their rights in the face of the king's absolutist tendencies.  This new Parliament also wanted to bring Archbishop Laud to trial for attempting to corrupt the Anglican Church to Catholicism.  In response to this unauthorized meeting, Charles I arrested five members of the Parliament for treason.  Riots were launched.  By 1642, Parliament had raised an army against the king, and Civil War had begun in England.
The conflict ended in 1649 when, after the defeat of the Royalist army, King Charles I was beheaded and the Commonwealth of England was instituted.  The late king's son, Charles II, and his mother, the Catholic Henrietta Maria, fled to France and remained there in exile for more than a decade.  Meanwhile, back in predominantly anarchistic England, various political and religious organizations jockeyed for power until they were all overtaken by Oliver Cromwell in 1653.  England was split between followers of the Revolution and Loyalists to the original throne.  It is during this time that John Milton began writing Paradise Lost, a masterpiece of literature that is still considered today as the greatest epic poem of the English language.  Many scholars have claimed the conflict in the poem between God and Satan relates to an intended political allegory inextricably connected to the fall of Charles I from the throne and the ensuing Revolution.
Cromwell died in 1658, and his son, Richard, took over as Protector but was soon expelled for being considered unfit to govern.  A year after his expulsion, Charles II returned from France and reclaimed the throne.  The event effectively ended the almost twenty-year-long Revolution and launched a period of English history known as the Restoration.

Friday, October 4, 2013

Still Life (pt. 8)

Of this particular genre of painting there is a certain element of pathos which should be understood.  There is a touch of sadness to be found in a still life.  Here is a painting showing no action or event taking place; rather it pictures an inanimate, quiet, and often lifeless world.  There are almost never any people in the paintings.  The scene is set in a lonely room, often dark and often obscured from full view.  How far back the room goes we do not know; we don't even know where we are, really.  Dreamy, cloudy, and almost mystical, it is no wonder that Baroque still lifes generated a symbolic connection with religious paintings.  This period and genre of art could fill an entire life's work of study and research—and a very interesting study that would be—but we will stop here to move on.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Still Life (pt. 7)

In order to lend more thoroughness to our examination of this genre, we will look at one painting, at least, in detail.  This painting, then, is called Still Life with Parrots, created by Jan Davidsz de Heem during the late 1640s.  (By the way, so many people crack jokes about titles such as "Still Life with Parrots" for its apparent lack of originality.  It is important to remember that many paintings were produced without being given distinct titles, and ones such as this are probably names bestowed on the painting by patrons, critics, or other people, not the artist).
What do we see here?  The painting contains a lavish variety of foods, ornate utensils, and a pair of parrots around an extravagantly prepared table.  Everything is expensive: expensive silverware, exotic food, expensive parrots, etc.  Nevertheless, it doesn't matter how enviable these objects are; the fruit is going to go bad if it is left around and not eaten.  The tablecloth appears to be falling off the table, so perhaps the food will simply fall onto the floor before it goes bad anyway.  There is an extraordinary wealth of objects in this painting, but they are all being ignored.  Insects (specifically butterflies, which do not live very long) have their pick at the goods, and, somewhat randomly, there are a couple of parrots just hanging out amidst the scene.  Do you think the parrots are bickering over the food?  The one on top looks down slyly from its perch and holds something, an unidentified object, in its beak.  Perhaps these animals know something we don't.
Because the objects are so expensive and rare and because they are so brightly colored, the painting becomes something of a "visual feast" to the viewer.  The dark curtain in the back contrasts with the bright food, and everything in the work draws your eye across the canvas in a curvy line.  There is an "s" curve: starting at the lower right corner, the objects sway upwards in the line of a letter S, leading your eye through the entirety of the work.  This is a masterful way to construct a painting, because our eye is able to absorb all the incredible imagery of the work in a flowing motion that is almost as graceful as the delicate brushstrokes de Heem used to paint it.
The food, as I said, is all left out to rot or be eaten by the animals, indicating a thematic focus on the mortality of this world, but the food items also serve to connote spiritual teachings.  The lemon has been peeled away to demonstrate the stretching out of this earthly life's term to its last bits.  The wine reminds us of Christ's last supper with His disciples.  The expensive, exotic shells, representations of the economic vivacity during this time, also bring the viewer back to fundamental ideas about vanity and the futility of riches, the vanitas theme epitomized.  If you take to examining still lifes to any great quantity you will soon become familiar with the exhaustive list of symbolic imagery conveying religious ideals or stories, often sort of random connections like a certain flower representing the Virgin Mary and things of this nature.
The beauty is stark in this painting, with vivid colors and an abundance of items set on the stage like a collage.  Everything about it shouts of the vibrant majesty of all that there is in life to enjoy—it's just that the artist makes the point to his viewers that these things don't last very long.  The food will rot; the birds will fly away; the black curtain will close on the scene.  Death is the pervading, imminent truth in most of these paintings.  It oozes from the canvas as baldly as the glistening oils themselves, shiny, cracking, breaking down through the passages of time, hanging somewhere on a museum gallery wall.  Says the king in Shakespeare's Richard II: "I wasted time, and now doth time waste me."
What of the setting?  Past the table, a good three-quarters of the background is covered by a large, impending curtain of black.  That dark, ominous veil comes over the painting like a shroud, again probably indicating the vanitas message of imminent mortality, but there is a patch of openness beyond it as well.  We see a kind of porch area with a Doric column, and it's overlooking a grand view of the sea and a bright horizon over it.  Many miles away, this area of the work shows itself as a very small portion of the canvas, a few dots on the grand surface that extends almost as large as 5' x 4'.  Nearer to the viewer and the scene is a sky of tempestuous and foreboding clouds, dark, threatening, and implying the oncoming of a storm.  You may have thought the curtain was bleak with its black undertones of death, but the scene behind it appears just as grim.  However, de Heem adds the tiny bit of light almost in the center of the painting, next to the column: the bright horizon line above the sea that can either denote the hopeful rising of the sun on the dawn of a new day or the descending of the sun to foretell the arrival of night.  The meaning remains ambiguous.