William Hogarth, the 18th century English painter and printmaker, called the S-curve the "line of beauty." From this graceful line arose the entire rococo aesthetic, which first flourished in Paris in the early 1700s. Gathering momentum in the salons of Europe, rococo survived by mutating, reaching one of its many peaks during the Art Nouveau movement of the early 20th century. Now, the style's enduring influence on both sides of the Atlantic can be seen in "Rococo: The Continuing Curve (1730-2008)," showing at the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum in New York City from March 7-July 6.
"The movement's inspiration was pastoral, earthly by nature," says co-curator Sarah Coffin. "Smoke, swirly hair, water falling and, of course, the female form, inspired the style that found its way to items as small as snuffboxes and as large as building façades." Master silversmith and architect Juste-Aurèle Meissonnier was the premier rococo ambassador, charged with designing Louis XV's bedchamber for Versailles. Jump forward 200-plus years and the style shows up in a 1966 psychedelic poster by Robert Wesley ("Wes") Wilson of a long-haired, naked woman. The 1986 Spine Chair by France's André Dubreuil which resembles a slatted pasta spoon more than an actual perch has recently been deemed to be rococo; and today Dale Chihuly's otherworldly, illuminated glass flowers echo the nature motif. Even a pair of Miu Miu shoes works the S-curve.
But the strangest collision of rococo past-and-present is a tureen by the contemporary photographer Cindy Sherman, who took a shot of herself dressed like Madame de Pompadour (née Poisson), mistress of Louis XV, and had it printed on a reproduction of an 18th century tureen by the French company that manufactured the original. Lift the lid, and the joke goes on. In the bottom of the dish are further signs of Poisson: pictures of fish.
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