Which Fragonard? A Rorschach Test, Maybe (647 words)
Jerry Saltz recently wrote about Jean-Honoré Fragonard’s Progress of Love, a suite of large panel paintings which is owned by the Frick Museum in New York and currently housed in their temporary home in the old Met Breuer/Whitney building. I visited the installation last week, and I don’t love the billowy, big panels as Saltz does. I agree with him that the starkness of their presentation at the Breuer building is an interesting change from their gilded, swag-curtained room at the Frick mansion, which is closed for a two-year renovation. But now that I’m back home in Houston, Progress of Love lives in my memory as silly and breathy and unattractively beige. (It also seems cartoonishly obsessed with how low those bodices can go before a nipple pops out. Think John Malkovich brushing his lips across Glenn Close’s décolletage in Dangerous Liaisons, that’s the kind of dress we’re talking about. Although—that could just be my reading.)
However, there are some Fragonards that I admire very much, which I saw at the National Gallery in DC a few years ago. His Fantasy Figures, completed around the same time as Progress of Love—in the decade or so before the breakout of the French Revolution—look like something painted 100 years later. They look like Sargent, with their thick, creamy, structural brushstrokes and their wild squiggles of fabric that still read. They are far less finished and fussy, and far more pleasing to my eye.
In fact, when I stumbled into the Fantasy Figures show in 2017, I couldn’t believe it was Fragonard. I would not have made a big effort to see the show on his account—I was at the National Gallery mostly to see their wonderful Dutch things. I wasn’t interested in Fragonard, because, as Saltz rightly says, the first thing you think of with Fragonard is the ridiculous swing.
Those violent rococo delights had violent ends, which seems appropriate when you remember Dickens’ French aristocrat sneeringly tossing a coin at a peasant whose child he’s just run over in his carriage. It’s hard to get behind all the fluffy dresses and tee-hee sexy bits when you know these appalling people were running their country into the ground.
But if I can’t talk about the swing without swinging into a tiresome sermon on social justice (which I’m weary of in the context of art, so my bad for bringing it up), and if I’m going to be a sourpuss about all the frothy lasciviousness, well then maybe I’m no fun.
Or maybe not. Progress of Love and its ilk represented an erosion, a caricature of the gorgeous, nasty, frank eroticism of the early Baroque. Fragonard at his most Fragonard-y bores me in the same way that the Kardashians bore me. I understand that there are people out there (Jerry Saltz) who are fascinated by both. I’m just not. The romance seems studied and insincere, the sexiness performative. Even in Fragonard’s rapey masterpiece The Bolt, I don’t sense real passion or drive or even fear in these people’s faces, any more than I can see how they are going to find each other’s naked bodies amidst all the fabric clogging the scene. Ugh. Someone’s going to have to wash all that linen. There I go again: no fun.
I also think Fragonard’s more well-known stuff, from a stylistic point of view, is too wispy and cobwebby. I just don’t care for the way it looks. But those meaty Fantasy Figures look great, and you get a sense that these people have a pulse.
Maybe it’s personality test: Fragonard’s Fantasy Figures versus his Progress of Love. Or it could simply be personal taste.
(FWIW, to me the highlight of the Frick-at-Breuer was the close pairing of the Holbein Thomases—More and Cromwell—in a side nook. Also there was a fantastic room of porcelain grouped by color.)