Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
August 6, 2008
Sarah D. Coffin, Gail S. Davidson, Penelope Hunter-Stiebel, and Ellen Lupton Rococo: The Continuing Curve, 1730–2008 Exh. cat. New York: Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum and Assouline, 2008. 272 pp.; 380+ color ills. Paper $45.00 (9780910503914)
Exhibition schedule: Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum, New York, March 7–July 6, 2008
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Cindy Sherman, Madame de Pompadour Née Poisson (1721–1764) covered tureen with tray (1990). Glazed porcelain, photo-transfer (silkscreen), painted-platinum decoration. Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum, Smithsonian Institution. Photo: Matt Flynn.

The curators of Rococo: The Continuing Curve, 1730–2008 have gathered an impressive collection of well-known objects from Europe and the United States to showcase the curving beauty of the eighteenth-century Rococo and of later designs with similarly sinuous lines. The show was mounted by members of the Cooper-Hewitt curatorial staff, including Sarah Coffin, Gail Davidson, and Ellen Lupton, with Penelope Hunter-Stiebel as a guest curator. The focus is on the formal elements of the Rococo, demonstrating the historical persistence of sculptural curves across media and through space and time.

The exhibition consists of a roughly chronological display of furniture, ceramics, large and small-scale metalwork, works on paper, and textiles. Despite this great variety, the curving line is primary in the form of each piece. Although the text panels mention “the spirit of the rococo” and define this ethos as celebratory, sybaritic, libertine, and ludic, visitors are largely left to imagine what the furnishings might teach us about the social and physical contexts in which they were first used.

The catalogue and a lecture series produced in conjunction with the exhibition expanded on contextual topics, such as production and transmission through time and across the Western world. The catalogue, in addition, provided an excellent short historiographical discussion by Melissa Lee Hyde. The volume is well illustrated and contains fourteen essays by the show’s curators and other scholars: Hyde, Peter Fuhring, Ulrich Leben, Reinier Baarsen, and Jason Busch.

Upon entering the first gallery of the exhibition, the visitor is immediately confronted with one of Juste-Aurèle Meissonnier’s few surviving masterpieces: a large silver tureen (1735–40) transformed from a functional serving object into a swirling, melting, aquatic sculpture ornamented with incredibly detailed, delicate, and lifelike vegetables and crustaceans. Seeing this object, particularly in close proximity with an etching of the entire set (first published in 1734), makes the show worthwhile in and of itself. The primary position given to this magnificent work, however, also draws attention to one of the problematic aspects of the exhibition.

The objects on view in this first gallery, mostly ornamented with naturalistic flora and fauna shown in robust three-dimensions, date from the mid-1730s on. In keeping with this, a text panel entitled “France, the Nucleus of Rococo” posits the birth of the style at the court of Louis XV. The text attributes development of the Rococo to the king’s love of intimacy and the taste of his most well-known mistress, Madame de Pompadour. This new style is described as a break with the formal Baroque grandeur of Louis XIV.

This point of origin obscures some forty years of a style that relates closely to the intimate, less formal, and sometimes sensuous taste that is defined in the exhibition as Rococo. Many believe that the late seventeenth-century spaces created for Louis XIV away from his Baroque public interiors, including garden follies and pleasure palaces, were among the first expressions of the taste for comfortable, intimate interiors that would become so popular in the following century.

This style of less regimented ornament, often influenced by the arabesque designs of Jean Bérain (most popular during the last two decades of the seventeenth century and the first decade of the eighteenth), was lighter in palette, composition, and subject matter than its Baroque antecedents. The arabesque, with its nonsensical architecture and chimerical creatures, is a fanciful style that visually expresses the same exuberance and freedom that the Cooper-Hewitt exhibition relates to the Rococo spirit. This visual break with formal Baroque classicism can be related to the less regimented behavior enjoyed away from the court ceremonial.

In the 1940s, Fiske Kimball theorized that the Rococo, or goût moderne, spread from royal leisure spaces to Parisian aristocratic homes constructed or renovated after Louis XIV’s death. This chronology is still influential today. The late seventeenth-century arabesque style perhaps had its greatest effect on applied ornament, but furnishings began to take on three-dimensional curves and naturalistic ornament well before the exhibition’s 1730 starting date. Régence craftsmen in the teens and early twenties, such as Charles Cressent, were certainly working in the sculptural mode that is presented in the first gallery. The Cooper-Hewitt’s Rococo narrative, presented both in the exhibition and in the accompanying catalogue, begins with Meissonier, whose designs of the 1730s and 40s were certainly a highpoint of this trajectory, but not the origin.

In addition, the emphasis on Louis XV (who reached majority and formally took the throne in 1723) and Madame de Pompadour (who started to gain influence in the mid-1740s) as taste revolutionaries is misleading. The public formal rooms at court retained Baroque grandeur during Louis XV’s reign. Unlike in the Parisian townhouses, at Versailles the Rococo was considered appropriate only for small, private rooms. It could be argued that it was in elaborate interiors designed for the aristocracy, particularly during the Régence when the court was liberated from Versailles, that the French Rococo reached its full flowering.

After establishing its French birth, the exhibition displays the Rococo diaspora, the spreading of the style from Paris to the Netherlands, England, Germany, Italy, Spain, Portugal, and the American colonies. The text panels describe how the Rococo was transmitted, how prevalent it became, and how regional taste affected the style. Just scanning the wood furniture makes this local variance obvious: The pieces from England have carving that is less robust and more jagged than French furniture; the German pieces do not retain the balanced rhythm or symmetry of the French; the Dutch and American furniture is more dark and static; and the furniture from Italy and the Iberian peninsula is substantial and gilded, and clearly demonstrates the continuing taste for seventeenth-century Baroque design in those areas.

The upstairs galleries are primarily dedicated to furnishings from the nineteenth, twentieth, and twenty-first centuries. Some are true revivals, close reinterpretations of eighteenth-century originals. Others include the characteristic motifs of the Rococo: shells, rocks, and c- and s-scrolls. A number of objects, however, have little to do with the Rococo and seem to have been included only for their curving forms. For example, Samuel Gragg’s Fully Elastic Armchair (1810) is paired with a rocking chair by the Thonet Brothers (ca. 1860) to demonstrate how developing technology in bent wood gave designers new ways to express the serpentine line. As the label mentions, however, Gragg used bent wood to create a Neoclassical form with splayed saber legs in imitation of the ancient Klismos chair.

Other pieces are misdiagnosed as Rococo seemingly due to a typological understanding of ornament and the show’s formal definition of Rococo. For example, although the nineteenth-century American ebonized center table (ca. 1860) on view is ornamented with c- and s-scrolls, it is hard to claim that this piece is Rococo revival. The bronze mounts on blackened wood were often understood to relate to a Neoclassical taste. Moreover, despite the telltale motifs, the somber and restrained table does not embody the sculptural curves or the sensuous, liberated spirit that the exhibition calls Rococo.

In some cases where the objects do not have an obvious physical relationship with the eighteenth-century Rococo, the labels establish how the ancien regime ethos is manifested in the modern-era piece. For example, the text panel describing a blue-green, iridescent, Art Nouveau ceramic pitcher by Lajo Mack (ca. 1901) reads that with its “lush form and sensuous iridescent glazes, this pitcher embodies the rococo elements of art nouveau.” A richer understanding of objects such as this could have been achieved by explaining how the Rococo was rethought and combined with other influences to create a style relevant to its time.

The idea of the “Continuing Curve” becomes particularly problematic with some of the twentieth-century pieces. For example, although the arms of Gerald Summers’s chair (1934) are in the form of large s-curves, this unadorned and un-upholstered work is clearly derived from a modernist sensibility. Other twentieth- and twenty-first century objects on view, however, are particularly wonderful in how they transform or play with the idea of the Rococo. The most well-known example is Cindy Sherman’s Madame de Pompadour Née Poisson (1721–1764) covered tureen with tray (1990) that so closely resembles the Sèvres original (ca. 1757). The eighteenth-century version is also included in the show, but it is situated far away from Sherman’s homage, denying close comparison.

Joris Laarman’s Heatwave Radiator (2003) demonstrates a particularly clever use of the intricate scrolls of the Rococo. As the artists explains in the exhibition catalogue, the more surface area a radiator has, the greater is its ability to heat the air. Therefore, in this instance, elaborate ornament is more functional than a paired-down form. Laarman follows the modernist edict for form to follow function, but challenges the related idea that less is more. Perhaps the cleverness of Laarman’s design could have been made even more obvious by more fully demonstrating the modernist backlash against elaborate ornament.

While the Cooper-Hewitt’s exhibition is a treat for the eye, socio-cultural and historical understanding has been discarded in favor of visual similitude. It provides viewers with a luscious display of sinuous design, but by focusing on the curving form, the show fails to isolate what is unique about the Rococo and how Rococo ideals of intimacy, opulence, wit, and sensuality influenced later periods of visual culture.

Amy Sande-Friedman
Teaching Fellow, Bard Graduate Center

Please send comments about this review to editor.caareviews@collegeart.org.