Design is dead, the material world’s sacred monster, Philippe Starck, announced to a German magazine a few weeks ago, citing all the “unnecessary” things he had created in the course of his 40-year career. The only objects he still felt attached to, he said, were “maybe a pillow, and a good mattress.”
But even without such grand prognostications, “Rococo: The Continuing Curve”—a rich banquet of an exhibition exploring the curvilinear, organicist impulse in design, from its heyday in 18th-century France until the present—feels a touch belated. Rococo style, whether expressed in the airy tracery of stucco work around an Enlightenment drawing room, or the gilded monstrosities of a contemporary artist like Jeff Koons, flirts with supreme frivolity. It has flourished, traditionally, in times of political security and economic prosperity, leaving artisans to imagine (and a sizable leisure class to consume) porcelain teacups with trompe-l’oeil butterfly wings as handles, gilt bronze andirons sporting alarmingly lifelike boars’ heads, swarms of Cupids playing tag around the swirling branches of silver candelabras, and the like.
This show, organized by the Cooper-Hewitt, traces the spread of rococo style from France to the rest of Europe and to the Americas, and finds its exuberant influence resurfacing throughout the history of design, its extravagance alternating with neoclassical and modernist sobriety.
Economic prosperity and political security are hardly the order of the day now. So is it mere escapism that draws us to contemplate with pleasure these elaborately bejeweled snuffboxes and dainty “Turkish” sofas (just big enough for a lady of fashion to curl up on)? Perhaps. But rococo style rarely depends for its effect on a mere surfeit of luxury. Its “trivial,” sensual delights are often rimmed with the unruly forces of nature and the unconscious.
Consider the exhibition’s opener, a spectacular soup tureen conceived around 1735 by the designer Juste-Aurèle Meissonnier, born in Turin to a family of French goldsmiths and now widely acknowledged as the father of the rococo. A clamshell-shaped vessel for “spiced stew,” the tureen’s swirling form is heaped high with silver casts of ingredients that the cook might have handled: the limp corpse of a dead pigeon, a small crayfish, a wayward mushroom, onions, beets, and parsley. Parsnip greens form the knob of its cover, and its base is a barely discernible mixture of cabbage leaves and celery.
The fashionable young English duke who melted down the family silver to commission this piece (part of an enormous table service now largely lost), eyeing it more closely at dinner, might have lost his appetite, for beneath its deliriously fecund form lay an awareness of mortality.
The term rococo—thought to be a combination of the French rocaille, a form of ornament involving rocks and seashells, and the Italian word for “baroque,” barocco—was originally a pejorative, coined by 19th-century artists to dismiss the decorative excesses of the ancien régime. When the style was new, it had no name, though it had a major patron: Madame de Pompadour, the favorite mistress of King Louis XV, who framed French domestic and cultural policy from her dressing table. (One of her pet projects, the porcelain factory at Sevres, named a particular shade of pink for her.)
She and the king were enthusiastic redecorators; they shunned court formalities, preferring instead more intimate quarters, whose furnishings—at once ultra-luxurious and playfully light—would forever be associated with her hyper-feminine and vaguely insalubrious influence.
The subversive new style celebrated deception (gilding being a superficial transformation of the first order). A console table’s wooden base, carved into delicate arabesques, can’t possibly support its marble top, which is surreptitiously mounted to the wall instead. Elsewhere, utilitarian concerns are gently mocked, as in an ormolu wall clock where the figure of Father Time lies helpless below two taunting Cupids. And crossing borders, this quintessentially French sensibility transformed Venetian writing tables and German pleasure palaces into marvels of ornament and artifice.
The curators at the Cooper-Hewitt, in their desire to be encyclopedic, have lessened our pleasure somewhat. The Victorian revivals of rococo they display (including 19th-century American parlor furniture) are something of a letdown after the French originals. And their argument—that echoes of rococo style may be found in the streamlined forms of Art Nouveau or 1950s biomorphic furniture—seems overly broad.
In fact, it’s contemporary Dutch design, as represented here, that offers the most illuminating parallels. Take Marcel Wanders’s Airborne Snotty Vases, whose gnarly shapes (based upon digital images of human mucous in mid-sneeze) recall rococo’s flirtation with the grotesque. And Madame de Pompadour herself might have delighted in Nicolette Brunklaus’s Blonde Curtain, a floor-to-ceiling velvet screen printed with the image of cascading golden tresses, playfully suggesting the feminine as mask and deception.
In contemporary art, at least, heirs to the rococo sensibility are legion. Koons (whose barely functional, immense gilt mirror is included here) may be its most prominent purveyor, but even a cursory mental survey brings up Rachel Feinstein (paintings of bejeweled hags in 18th-century garb and fairy-tale sculpture), Lee Bul (delicate, swirling concatenations of crystal, mirrors, glass, and steel), Candida Höfer (enormous C-prints of rococo Portuguese interiors), Karen Kilimnik (painted fantasies of the trappings of European aristocracy), and the art collective Assume Vivid Astro Focus (over-the-top psychedelia). In their work and that of many others, frivolity takes a stab at eternity.