EYE CANDY FOR THE RULING CLASS: “Les Caresses Dangereuses”

“Later, during the Renaissance, the mad were displayed in cages set up in the streets, or were visible through the bars on the windows of their cells in the as yet unreformed asylums. In fact, up until the early nineteenth century, Foucault tells us, some asylums even
charged admission to behold the spectacle of the insane. Like animals on display in a zoo, the mentally ill were furnished with only a bit of straw, and were usually only barely — if at all — clothed. The idea was that, like animals, the mad were indifferent to their surroundings ; to such things as fluctuations in temperature, or the stench or their own refuse.” ….( Kathryn Fraser)

It was this retreat from the vulgar objective reality of harsh social conditions, and grotesque treatment of vast majority of society to which Rococo art fermented and developed its aesthetic. A fantasy world far removed from the rough and tumble,and the distant beat of Jean Jacque Rousseau’s Noble Savage and French Revolution.

Tom Strini:the Sherpherdess in Fragonard's painting is not really a Shepherdess...Observe those pink, flawless feet, fetchingly exposed as objects of 18th-century eroticism, and the soft hands. Though placid sheep lounge about her, this young woman does not deal in livestock. She and the lover, who approaches from the distance, are playing at a pastorale. They are sensual aristocrats pretending to be peasants for a sexual frisson. French aristocrats of the day were a little funny that way. Note the blatantly phallic branch at the lower left. In the background, Fragonard strategically arranged a spray of grayish-golden grasses aligned with the end of the straining branch. The symbolism here is witty and elegant, but not exactly subtle. The branch protrudes through a pink ribbon twined about it and tied to a basket of roses picked at the peak of bloom. The rod and the rose, the male and the female, are bound together with soft, sensual fabric. The alleged shepherdess fondles another branch above her head and gently pulls it down to meet the plane of the more masculine branch below.

” Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard are sweeter.‘ When Keats wrote this line about the music makers on the Grecian Urn he was only giving a new twist to the old response that we actually hear the sounds the artist asks us to imagine. For Keats the ‘ditties of no tone’ are ‘more endear’d’ than if the pipes were to play to the ‘sensual ear’. It sounds far-fetched, but the human imagination is a powerful thing when expertly manipulated. Conjurors know many devices for creating convincing phantoms through the setting up of uncontradicted expectations and so, on a different level, do the purveyors of erotic art with their varieties of suggestive veiling.” ( Gombrich )

The Rococo period was the fête gallant featuring charm, delight, freedom as opposed to the Baroque stiffness and formality. It came into existence in the 18th century with the reign in France of Louis XV. It was an expression of the lavish elegance and imaginary fantasy in which the aristocracy lived. In the second row, look at Fragonard’s “The Swing”, Watteau’s painting called “The Gamut of Love” or Boucher’s “The Pastoral” to see the fluffiness of the painting style.

"The pug is the figure situated directly in the center of the tableau, and the main source of symbolic reference. On a shallow level, the pug can be interpreted as a possession that would only belong to the bourgeois. It is not a hunting dog, nor an animal from nature. It is a toy, bred purely for the enjoyment of the upper class. This determines the lady's stature in society. The dog as a symbol generally alludes to marital fidelity . This allusion might be particularly important, given the mystery surrounding the identity of the sitter. The pulling apart of the ribbon teases at the implied fidelity of the dog. The sexual tension is achieved by this "hint" of infidelity. On an aesthetic level, the dog serves to highlight the beauty of the sitter. The dog is to be considered grotesque by the Rococo standards. Furthermore, its features have been exaggerated to make it look more hideous than normal. The vulgarity of the dog makes the light materials and soft skin of the sitter seem more sensual. The distinction between pug and sitter is betrayed here by Boucher's paint strokes. There is a very peculiar brush stroke in the lady's nose, a white highlight of light. It seems oddly out of place, until we imagine what the nose would look like without it. Without this highlight, the nose would look similar to that of the pug!"

The death of Louis XIV in 1715 also brought a big change in the artistic world. Since his son Louis XV was too young to take up the throne, Philippe D’Orleans was appointed reagent of France. The court was moved from Versailles to Paris, and its highly public fanfare gave way to an intimate, quieter way of life. Thus sprung Rococo, an art movement that glorified the intimacy and playfulness of the court. Painters tried to capture the sensuous charm of the bourgeois social life. In particular, this newly found intimate space of exhibition of works, gave way to the erotisism in the art world. The Rococo movement is embeded with both subtly coded and blatant erotisism, with an underlying theme of depicting earthly pleasures and the sensuality of nature.

Gustav Lundenberg:Hercules and Omphale: 1735 The mythological story depicted in the painting is the following: For murdering his friend Iphitus in a fit of madness Hercules was sold as a slave to Omphale, queen of Lydia, for three years (Apollodorus 2.6:3). But she soon alleviated his lot by making him her lover. While in her service he grew effeminate, wearing women's clothes and adornments, and spinning yarn.,P. The subject, portraying one of the hero's errors, inspired Boucher to paint one of the most audaciously erotic and best-executed canvases of the century - an agitated, brilliant composition full of wit and joyous verve, which Boucher would only rarely equal afterward.

Art, especially after Watteau, took on an erotic aspect with disturbing undertones on the one hand that was fused with an extreme idealization and refinement on the other. The history landscape had been replaced by micro narratives of intimacy.Just as the dematerialized sensual fantasy world of rococo art appeals more to the eye than to touch, so voyeurs, almost exclusively male,  emerged as a new and increasingly important subject.

"François Boucher- arguably the most celebrated decorative artist of the 18th century, and according to the Goncourt brothers "one of those men who represent the taste of a century, who express, personify and embody it." (Which sure says a lot about the 18th century, eh?) With a pupil named Jean-Honoré Fragonard and a patroness named Madame du Pompadour, one could say Boucher really pwned the Rococo period. Eh?"

When the erotic was redefined as the voyeuristic, even sexual activity had become transformed into optical spectacle.Even images without voyeurs often made it clear the real viewer was a secret observer  as in scenes of adultery, orgies,lesbian scenes and mythologies, female mastu

ion-often while reading a novel- foot fetishes, enemas, spanking games, sadism and rape.

The Raised Skirt. 1742. "... It is not the likeness to the subject that made Boucher's work stand out, but rather the mood that he evoked in the painting. We notice that Boucher hardly ever paints male figures, instead fixating on the woman's femininity and her sexuality. His paintings, like those of his student Frogonard, have high sexual content, to be desiphered by the audience of the time. It was presumed that the viewer would understand the sexual allegory and their implication. Although Boucher did paint a series of highly erotic paintings for the sexual education of Louis XVI , he mostly painted paintings that hinted sexuality only to those who where familiar with the coded messages. Still, Diderot attacked Boucher in 1761 for his sexual allusions advocating sex without consequences..."

…The left hand is very coquettish, and mimics her facial countenance. Her fingers are shown to delicately move around the ribbon. There is not tension in her finger, and consequently no tension on the ribbon, suggesting that it is just lightly kept in her hand. It is almost as if she carefully contemplates the act of whether to “undress” the dog or not.

Fragonard. Girl Making a Dog Dance on Her Bed. 1770. "Fragonard had begun producing erotica after his first Italian sojourn. His light, casual, yet confident handling can be seen in such works as Le feu aux poudres. They celebrate an adolescent pleasure, a rare ensemble in which the thrill of desire is exalted without the least trace of vulgarity."

Her right hand is perhaps a stronger sign of the sexuality. At first inspection, it looks as though she is teasing the ribbon. But on closer inspection, there is a peculiarity in the way she holds it. The poser’s hand is clenched, and the ribbon sits between her thumb and her index finger. However, why does it continue to flow past her hand? This is a very unusual grip, and certainly not a natural one. In fact, it is unclear whether she is holding the ribbon, or whether it is simply placed across her fingers. Yet the ribbon is tense, and the allusion to it being removed is unmistakable. Unlike the other hand that wavers in contemplation, this hand is blatant in its recourse. It tenses the ribbon, and it also clenches at the dog’s leg. Indeed, the uncertainty of the position of the ribbon in the hand makes us look down at the grip she has on that leg, which for the purposes in this painting gives us a phallic reference, an erotic signal.

François Boucher (Paris 1703-1770) Les caresses dangeureuses, oil on canvas, 80 x 64.5cm (31 1/2 x 25 3/8in).

The male viewer can identify himself with that leg, being firmly gripped by the sitter. In light of these observations, it is clear that this painting was meant for an intimate space, such as a chambre or salon in the house of nobility or bourgeois. It is a reference not only to sex, but it is rejoicing in pleasures of beauty. It shows a woman, at the prime of her beauty, not only eluding to sexual gratification, but doing it in a way that is seen as acceptable to it’s target society. There in lies the balance of respectability and indulgence that makes Boucher such an exciting painter. ( read more: http://daize.puzzling.org/school/boucher.html)

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