The Matter of Rococo Ornaments – University of Copenhagen

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The Matter of Rococo Ornaments

Guest lecture by associate professor Michael Yonan

Date: Monday 30. May 2016

Time: 14:00

Centre for Textile Research
Amager Fælledvej 56
2300 Copenhagen S

Michael Yonan is Associate Professor of Art History, Director of graduate Studies at the department of Art History and Archaeology, University of Missouri (Columbia-USA).
He is the Series editor: The Histories of Material Culture and Collecting, Routledge

Host: Corinne Thepaut-Cabasset, Marie Sklodowska-Curie Fellow at Centre for Textile Research


It is a commonplace in art history to say that early modern European art repeatedly placed art and nature into a critical dialogue. This essay analyzes one moment in that dialogue, namely the play between art and nature in eighteenth-century rococo prints.

It was Hermann Bauer who first proposed that rococo ornament served as a mediating element between works of art and their viewers, as supplements both to the works of art themselves and to the observer’s experience of looking.  Building on Bauer, I shall argue that the art/nature divide at the center of rococo aesthetics was in fact a critique of sensation.

Rococo prints offer more than simple explorations of forms; they engage in a proto-scientific examination of perception in the material world.  By “material world,” I refer to represented objects, ranging from flowers to shells to leaves and even incorporating living or once living creatures. By asking viewers to approach the representation of things with a specific mindset—indeed, creating that mindset through the structures of representation employed—rococo prints invite them to assume specific stances toward art and to the broader material world they engage daily.

Those who can assume that idal position find in the rococo a celebration of artistic ingenuity and a valorization of human sensation. Those who could not find their critical sensibilities stifled, confused, or at worst eradicated. I shall explore these two antipodes of rococo perception through counterposing two individuals who theorized its possibilities.

The first is the French silversmith Juste-Aurèle Meissonnier (1695–1750), whose Livre de légumes (1745) imagines rococo ornament as a place for shifting creative apprehension of nature, which he illustrates through representations of artfully arranged yet mundane objects.

The second is the German Enlightenment critic Friedrich August Krubsacius (1718–1789), whose Gedanken von dem Ursprunge, Wachstume, und Verfalle der Verzierungen in den schönen Künsten (1759) exemplifies a broader eighteenth-century critique of rococo design.

Krubsacius critiques the rococo as an art of aesthetic nonsense and pointless mixing, and even worse nonsense oriented toward useless, unimportant, trivial things.  He commissioned the Dresden-based printmaker Dorothea Philipp to make a print of seductive rococo garbage¬–in direct response to Meissonnier–that is meant to illustrate how rococo ornament misleads through beautifying insignificant things.

The paper concludes with some thoughts about how to apply rococo materiality to various objectes, including decorative arts and textiles.