I always knew that the French have a light-hearted view of adultery but I never knew just how far back that view went until I went to the museum. That museum, the Museé du Luxembourg, happened to be open on New Year’s Day in Paris, which is really the main reason I chose it. The expo’s title, “Fragonard in Love” was also intriguing. Fragonard was billed as an artist during the rococo period and I liked the way that word sounded. I thought that checking out something rococo would be the perfect, rosy way to welcome 2016. And rosy it was.
I must admit I did not know what “rococo” actually referred to so I did some background checking. Rococo painting started in France in the early 18th century and was famous for
its curvy lines and its depiction of amorous encounters and fluffy, flirty, sensual scenes of love – usually happening in the grand outdoors on a Sunday afternoon (actually I just threw in that Sunday afternoon part; it could have been any day of the week.) So, more than 200 years ago, the French were already immortalizing the pursuit of sensual pleasures and blatant adultery as a way of life. Wow.
I followed the crowd through the museum and stopped where they stopped. I lingered longer where they lingered longer just to see what caught their collective eye. Without a doubt, the erotic paintings were the most popular. I wanted to get a photo of one of them and had to wait about five minutes before the guy in front of me finished his picture-taking from every angle imaginable to man and woman alike. But the photo was worth it.
The paintings themselves are absolutely gorgeous. There are luminous pastel colors that draw your attention from across the room. It’s as if someone hid a light bulb behind
the paintings and turned it on just when your eyes hit the canvas. I was particularly attracted to the subject of one work of art entitled “Les Hasards Heureux de l’Escarpolette” which literally translates as “The Happy Accidents of the Swing”. The canvas was pretty and feathery enough but I was drawn to what it depicted. It’s a good story.
This Happy Accident was a commissioned work for Jean-Honoré Fragonard. The wealthy man who paid for it (whose identity is uncertain) could, of course, choose the subject matter. What he wanted for all the world to see was his lover on the swing being pushed by her old, ugly husband in the gray background. The man on the receiving end of the push was hidden in the bushes watching the swing show – since, as the lady breezed through the air she had her legs spread open and was tossing off her shoe in a gesture of frivolousness. What she was exhibiting under her petticoat is anyone’s guess but her lover has a big smile on his face. This was solid proof that the French were into flashing long before Brittany Spears or Paris Hilton. Must be in their DNA. (I wonder if this painting from 1767 sparked the beginning of Swingers in general – never know).
I enjoyed this exhibit and happily (no accident) found another one in Paris dedicated to forbidden love (though not so forbidden in France). It is at the Museé d’Orsay, the gorgeous train station-turned-impressionist museum.
It is called “Splendor and Misery: Pictures of Prostitution, 1850-1910” and is a collection of paintings, drawings, peep-shows and objects that obviously have prostitution as its leitmotif. The time period is well over a hundred years after rococo but the subject matter is the same. Some things never change.
The paintings of masters such as Picasso, Van Gogh and Lautrec are shown here as well as lesser known artists with an eye and brush for Ladies of the Night. There is also a sectioned-off part of the exhibit which is for over-18 year olds only. This part shows the beginning of soft-porn – the first filmed peep shows, complete with red curtains and dimmed lighting.
It’s interesting how much the theme of illegal and illicit love is treated by French art and literature. I tried to imagine the same sorts of exhibits in the USA. I couldn’t – no happy accidents there – swing or otherwise.