For those who just joined the series – link to all the previous chapters is at the bottom. I am using the myth of Europa to trace the evolution of art and mindsets across a couple of millennia.
In Europe, the 18th century was the epoch of aristocratic luxury, fuelled by the slave trade, exploitation of colonies, scientific discoveries and advances in champagne production. Besides being known as the time of unlimited conspicuous consumption, it is also appreciated as the Age of Enlightenment. People finally started getting reasonable, until they got to a rather unreasonable stage of chopping heads of people with an apostrophe in front of their names.
The century’s leading art style – the Rococo – is hated by enlightened art critics for its exuberance, gaudiness to a dangerous degree of giddiness, and having nothing to do with the Enlightenment, but is loved by people who come to visit Versailles or St.Petersburg palaces.
What art critics are getting wrong is the appreciation process. If the Rococo is taken with a healthy dose of champagne, it becomes markedly bearable.
The Baroque’s race to create passion, conflict and the catharsis for the viewer had become quite taxing by the end of the 17th century. Rococo artists offered their audiences to sit back on a cosy velvet cushion, relax with a glass of bubbly, and have fun, not taking anything seriously.
Of course, this escapist kind of art couldn’t last long, but while it lasted, it was a great time to live in. That is if you were a part of an aristocratic family with money. Otherwise, it was just as shitty as the 17th century, or maybe even more so.
Start using this visual summary of the Rococo style as your personal Rococo Bingo Card!
There was a trick to becoming a top Rococo artist, though. Follow 9 out of 10 rules, and then…break one. This is why almost everyone knows this painting:
Fragonard broke one rule by introducing a strong diagonal. Shadows are also a tad darker than in most Rococo paintings – this adds some depth that other pictures do not have – but we still have a theatre curtain painted behind the figures rather than real space.
Alas, he never painted the myth of Europa (though a sketch of it survived, so perhaps, he was going to).
Rococo artists presented the myth of Europa in a way that would be very similar to Harvey Weinstein’s defence in 2020: she was never forced, she agreed to it, she said she even liked it, and no one stood up against it because they didn’t know she didn’t want it, because, in fact, she did.
“Take it easy, Princess, it’s one shagging and a lifetime queendom afterwards,” said both Zeus and Harvey (and both made good on their promise).
This early Rococo painting is a perfect example:
No one is taking the situation seriously. The Bull is an imbecile guided by Love, impersonated by Eros/Cupid. The artist might have missed out on adding drool to the corner of the Bull’s mouth, but even without it, you can’t blame the dumb creature for the act – he is simply pulled into abduction by Love. The whole affair is not of his own volition and thus is not his fault.
Eros is not even trying to use his bow and arrows on Europa – there’s no need. The Bull has barely stepped into the water, but Europa is already half-naked. She’s up for anything and everything. Seeing this, Europa’s maids make no effort at saving her – they don’t even try to change their reclining poses.
This is why all Rococo paintings can be reworked into comic strips, which, essentially, they were:
Some of the Rococo paintings of Europa are more complex and intense like this massive scene by Noël-Nicolas Coypel produced ten years after de Troy’s version. However, they are still comic strips, or if a cinema analogy is used, series.
Noel-Nicolas serialised the myth. All paintings before this one were feature films. What you see here is a full season of ten 45″ episodes. There are innovations here that you don’t find anywhere else, like an amphibious cherub; special effects that may put Hollywood to shame; and some dumb mistakes like using paint so thin that preparatory figures and lines have become visible ghosts over time.
My favourite episode here is the one with Neptune and his wife Salacia, arguing which direction they want to go while their marine Uber driver is looking up in frustration:
To finish with the Rococo, the important thing is NOT to take it seriously. You don’t take Jeff Koons, the IT Crowd or tweets with multiple exclamation points seriously, right? Taking it seriously leads to hating it, and hate may lead to the impulsive smashing to pieces of precious little items like this Meissen Porcelain statuette, which would set you back ca.€3500.
The Rococo is there for enjoyment and relaxation.
And don’t forget the bubbly!
One exceptional artist of the 18th century, modernism and contemporary art are left – and that’s not really much. I’ll end Europa next week and get back to the history of art and fragrances.
In case you missed the previous chapters:
Part I – In Antiquity, the age of discovery and adventure, the myth of Europa was a prologue to more exciting stories. Europa was not a victim, just a participant in the grand scheme of things.
Part II – Late Middle Ages and the Renaissance: Search for emotions in the plot and a new meaning of the story. Durer vs Titian. Artists discovered that high-level emotions can be combined with violence and eroticism. First signs of women’s empowerment in art with Europa’s making the Bull do her bidding.
Quiz: Why Rubens copied Titian’s Rape differently to the original and what conjugal infidelity, Jesuits and Velazquez had to do with it
Part III – During the Catholic Baroque, Europa was seen as a saint or a prized whore, but Claude Lorrain made her into a device that allowed his clients to show off their enlightened character.
Part IV – Lutheran Baroque – How did the domestication of women during the Reformation relate to the myth of Europa? Why is Rembrandt’s Abduction of Europa a celebration of Protestant values?