Ahhh…civilization!

Forget this ah…wilderness, back to nature stuff!  Get with the real, the civilizing program. Why does everyone I know recoil in horror when I show them pictures of rococo interiors or drag them into the Met period rooms?  How far we have come from our roots.  The book, The Age of Comfort by Joan DeJean recalls them to us, with style.

The 18th century English may have had the edge in satire, hands down (French caricatures of the time seem to me to be crude in comparison with what the Brits were able to produce; see Gatrell’s book and these posts) but the French had it in the style realm.  Ms. DeJean’s book narrates how our homes came to be what they are, why French style has been synonymous with style for so long, and reveals the origin of toilets (no, the English did not invent them), blinds and curtain treatments, sofas, armchairs, night tables,  bidets and boudoirs, living rooms, reading rooms, and the whole notion that one’s architectural surroundings should encourage a way of life, or reflect one’s consciously held values of the good life.

She describes the rise of cotton as the darling of the fashion industry, indeed, the rise of a fashion industry is itself a part of her subject.  Looking at 18th century images of people today we may feel they are over dressed and formal, but compared to their fathers and mothers, they were practically naked.  Such freedom – as Rousseau said, man born free, is everywhere in chains… Is the first step towards liberty to dress well?  No wonder Oscar Wilde was so fond of French culture.

Today, such philosophical notions are part of the standard training of architects and architectural historians, but their origin is usually traced to the Bauhaus, the Functionalist idea,  William Morris and the Arts and Craft Movement.  Who would have joined Morris in a spiritual marriage with Francois Boucher, but they are brothers under the skin after all.  Decoration was an almost ethical pursuit for the Age of Comfort:  it emodied ideals of life, leisure, sex, romance, and the development of the intellectual and moral self.   So much for rococo frivolity!  What could be more serious than pleasure!

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10 Responses to Ahhh…civilization!

  1. suburbanlife says:

    Aargh!!! The pictured salon in this post reminds me uncomfortably of my childhood home. My mother’s Eastern European tastes for domestic fashion coincided absolutely with the Louis XVI Rococo formality. That certain curvature of legs on furniture, the sinuous s-shaped flourishes, is an awful pervasive and almost genetic aesthetic hangover which to this day makes me nauseous. Add to that the bibelots, signifiers of class and education, and other showy dust-catchers, and I suffer from indigestion. Ah – the good life – but someone has to maintain it and clean it. My mother couldn’t do this well, with or without outside domestic help, so I have this almost Peter Greenaway dusty atmosphere, where mysiad dust-motes gild shafts of sunlight, permanently etched in my mind when it comes to French Decor, or preciousness of any sort. Definitely, not pleasurable a sensation. G

  2. lichanos says:

    Thank you, suburbanlife, for presenting the other point of view so well!

    Well, not having seen your mother’s furniture, I can’t say if it was the real thing, or some faux knock-off, but either way, yes, it takes a lot of dusting! To have an interior like this in the ‘burbs of NJ, where I live, without a household staff would be rather foolish.

    But, what is preciousness to you may be so because it is out of its original context. I love rococo, but I wouldn’t furnish my living room with it!

    As for “the bibelots, signifiers of class and education,” now we are getting into the realm of kitsch, with the original intent of the style transformed into something shallow and status-mongering.

    You associate rococo with pretentious “formality,” but as the book points out, the style was intended to encourage the very opposite: intimacy; informality; conversation; spontaneity

  3. AWMTI says:

    On an unrelated note, I appreciate you attempting to straighten out Troutsky and company. It’s unfortunate that no one wanted to engage in an honest debate.

  4. lichanos says:

    @AWMTI:

    Debate on what..?

  5. mark says:

    Oh, but ‘mysiad dust-motes gilding shafts of sunlight’ are among my very favourite things. There is, it is true, an oppressive quality to the accompanying silence, but such an imaginative space is the perfect location for the birth of a delicious sensuality – and I confess to having put such locations to this suitable use from time to time…

  6. mark says:

    ‘myriad’ ‘n’ all

  7. lichanos says:

    Re: “myriad dust-motes gilding shafts of sunlight…

    I recall that George Orwell, hardly a rococo figure, cited just such a phenomenon as inspiring him to become a writer in one of his autobiographical essays – “Why I Write,” I think it was.

  8. Ducky's here says:

    Didn’t this period inspire the term “wretched excess”.

    No freaking way I spend any more time staring at a Watteau fete galante … the pure stinky cheese.

  9. zeusiswatching says:

    I took in the Getty in Brentwood with my wife a couple of years ago. I made a point of showing her the rooms of the Rococo period and she now truly appreciates the age because she was able to see things in context. The only thing missing was the music of the period too.

  10. lichanos says:

    @zeus

    If you visit NYC, be sure to go the period rooms of the Met – they are fantastic.

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