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Friday, July 29, 2011

Antoine Watteau

Embarkation for the Island of Cythera, 1717,
Antoine Watteau
When the name Antoine Watteau is mentioned images of delicately blissful assemblages of playful, carefree, aristocratic nymphs and harlequins come to mind embodying the worst excesses of the Rococo period of art in the 1700s. His Embarkation for Cythera, for example, is loosely about a pilgrimage to a shrine of Venus on the island of Cythera where lies love without restraint. It is about the concept of profane love intertwined with ideas of freedom and human nature. It is an intricately peopled landscape with a lovely golden aura of eternal sweetness. A second version was painted in 1721 in which Watteau heightened the erotic frivolity. When you find a good thing, milk it for all it's worth. There's some debate among art historians whether the scenes depicted are, in fact, a departure for the island or a departure from it. Both paintings have sometimes been titled accordingly.

Embarkation for the Island of Cythera,
1721 version, Antoine Watteau
What Watteau wanted to do was explore images of love between two individuals, hoping to gain psychological and sociological insights into the male and female sides of all personalities. His paintings are rife with feelings of freedom and the electrical current that is desire, wresting art from the constraints of decorum, searching for what it means to be and feel human. Watteau's images sought to unleash some of Rousseau's noble savage in their intimate portrayal of love.

The most popular complaint regarding this and other Rococo paintings is that they are inherently "feminine", as the French critic Diderot lamented. An English critic, the third Earl of Shatesbury, claimed that looking at a Rococo painting was like looking at a woman's dress, making "effeminant our tastes" utterly setting wrong all judgements and knowledge of art. One can only surmise from this that high or "good" art is supposedly rational, sturdy, and virtuous (read masculine) like the academies and governments which supported such work. This male/female polemic would continue to taint art language for the next 200 years.

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