A new look at Rococo

François Boucher: The Triumph of Venus

The Rococo style of European art has always left me cold: too pastel, too frivolous, too pretty. I’m more into  the Renaissance painters and the Impressionists. But with UCSD art historian William Norman Bryson as my guide in his new course Art and the Enlightenment (audio feed), I’ve decided to take a closer look, and it seems that Rococo may be more than just a pretty face.

In lecture 2 of this course, Bryson makes the case that Rococo had its serious side. He outlines the mind-body problem, a matter of weighty philosophic discussion during the 17th and 18th centuries. Their dispute boils down to the question, is the soul separate from the body? On the one hand, the dualists, like René Descartes, argued that humans have a soul that is separate from the body. And on the other hand the empiricists like John Locke and George Berkeley rejected dualism and argued for the primacy of sensation in our experience of the world.

And Bryson contends that sensual Rococo, which celebrates the body, playfulness and sex, is surely about sensation. Thus, even Francois Boucher’s famous butt paintings (see example above) that portray an abundance of female posteriors, are taking sides in this philosophical dispute.

Bryson brings humor to his discussion of art, and is a lot of fun to listen to. Sadly, there are no recorded visuals with the course, but it’s not too hard to track down the paintings he discusses if you are near a computer with a web connection.

(Standard warning about UCSD classes: UCSD erases most its courses at the end of the quarter.  So if you see a UCSD course you like, subscribe and download today.)

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