Sunday, February 27, 2011

Immersed in Fragonard's World, or, A Kiss at the Frick

One of Lobster & Canary's favorite places is the "Fragonard Room" at the Frick Museum in NYC. (Click here for the Frick's description of the room, and scroll down especially for the superb virtual tour.) We could sit for hours there, moving only to shift our gaze from one painting to another, deepening our selves into what Fragonard portrayed, until we are wholly absorbed into the Arcadia, flowing with the progression of love, until we are part of the story and indeed make the story our own.

But where is this place? It is a fantastical world created through the ever-changing interaction between Fragonard's paintings, their positioning in the physical space at the Frick, and the viewer-- an immersive, interactive, multimedia game avant la lettre. (*) It is a play setting, with a narrative suggested, yes, but waiting for the viewer to complete it, make it real-- to join it. An enclosed garden of the mind, lush, feathery and fronded; Fragonard takes us into the mysterious woods-- those copses striated with walls and statuary-- other artists put in the background of their grand historical or religious paintings, the vistas glimpsed from the window behind a duke or on a hillside above the procession. Fragonard puts us inside, and teases us to fulfill and participate in a story of intimacy, desire, pursuit, consummation and contemplation. (**)

We are surely near the enchanted wood in A Midsummer Night's Dream:

"Where oxlips and the nodding violet grows,
Quite over-canopied with luscious woodbine,
With sweet musk-roses and with eglantine:
There sleeps Titania sometime of the night..." (Act II, scene 1/ Oberon speaking to Puck).

And to the Countess of Pembroke's Arcadia:

"Does not the pleasantness of this place carry in itself sufficient reward for any time lost in it, or for any such danger that might ensue? Do you not see how everything conspires together to make this place a heavenly dwelling? Do you not see the grass, how in color they excel the emeralds [...]? Do not these stately trees seem to maintain their flourishing old age, with the only happiness of their seat being clothed with a continual spring, because no beauty here should ever fade? Doth not the air breathe health which the birds (both delightful both to the ear and eye) do daily solemnize with the sweet consent of their voices? Is not every echo here a perfect music?"

And who are the players? She seems startled, he uncertain, or is that merely a trick of our eye? Have they a prior connection? Is he agent for another, or a principal in Cupid's game? What words does he use to entreat and plead his case? What words does she use to deflect, encourage, taunt or reassure?

Is he doomed Acis and she Galatea? ("Not Showers to Larks so pleasing,/ Nor Sunshine to the Bee;/ Nor Sleep to Toil so easing/ As these dear Smiles to me," as Pope said of them). Is the giant Polyphemous lurking just beyond the pastoral gate?

Perhaps he is Amadis of Gaul, reuniting with Oriana, to protest his faithfulness after his long absence on the Insola Firme, and to plan how best to overcome the enmity of her father, King Lisuarte?

Or maybe she is Aricia, overcome with relief to be welcoming Hippolyte in the Forest of Erymanthus, protected by Diana, and to have survived the rage of his stepmother?

Then again: could this be Polexandre, finding at last after so many adventures on strange and elfin shores, his Alcidiane, heretofore only a vision and a hope?

Finally, what is to become of the young lovers? As Dryden posed the question in "The Flower and the Leaf; or, The Lady in the Arbour":

"...she gave her maid to know
The secret meaning of this moral show.
And she, to prove what profit I had made
Of mystic truth, in fables first conveyed,
Demanded till the next returning May,
Whether the leaf or the flower I would obey?"

If ever you can, dream yourself a while into the Progress of Love in the Fragonard Room at the Frick-- it will well repay your effort.

(*) Scholars have done good work exploring how Fragonard and the Madame du Barry envisioned the placement of the original four paintings at her chateau and how Fragonard might then have positioned the four plus the additional two in his relative's house when du Barry rejected the paintings. The lively academic debate underscores the importance of understanding the context of the art, of seeing these scenes not in isolation but as a unified composition...stills from a movie or play, as I view it.

(**) A brilliant riff on Fragonard's "Progess of Love" is Yinka Shonibare's "Jardin d'amour" installation at the Musee du quai Branly in 2007. Click here to see this. Lobster & Canary is a huge fan of Shonibare's ongoing revisionist interpretations of Western art (we noted his recent show at the Brooklyn Museum of Art). Fragonard to Shonibare, in the garden of love-- a multi-player game that has been "online" for centuries, drawing on themes and characters going back to Homeric times...

1 comment:

JP said...

That was a great post. I've often been struck by the though that 'Fragonard takes us into the mysterious woods-- those copses striated with walls and statuary-- other artists put in the background of their grand historical or religious paintings', but could never articulate it, or the idea that Fragonard invites into a sort of collaborative narration.