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A Cupid's head with wings.

ROCOCO started as a style of interior design. According to Henri-Russell Hitchcock, in his book, Rococo Architecture in Southern Germany, it began when Louis XIV's chief architect, J. H. Mansart, required his dessinateur, Henri Lepautre, to create 'a novel sort of decoration' for Versailles. This happened in 1700, and as the style became popular, first in France and then, by the time of Lepautre's death in 1743, in Switzerland and Southern Germany.

The popularity of the style in Bavaria had to do, at least in part, with the speed with which effects in stucco, the predominant material, could be produced. The Bavarians had from early medieval times been woodcarvers, bringing to their naturalistic figures the mysticism of a people accustomed to the loneliness of pine forests and the closeness and mysteriousness of nature. In the new style, stucco was used extensively. It could be modelled more swiftly than wood and it did not split down the grain. It could be reinforced with animal hair, straw or other easily available fibres to carry a certain amount of weight. When it was sized it could be painted, gilded or silvered. When an octagonal dome, for instance, was required, the stucco could be keyed upon wood panelling, worked upon the floor and then raised into a permanent wood structure suitably shaped and recessed to receive it. Pillars could be changed into Mannerist pilasters by means of panel-backed wooden armatures filled with stucco, worked and decorated in such a way as to change the whole interior of a church without in any way affecting the original structure. Repeated designs could be manufactured in hand-carved wooden moulds, and fitted into or simply stuck upon the appropriate places. The sometimes stagey character of Rococo, even at its most sophisticated, was not unconnected with the kind of people for whom the churches, palaces and libraries were built or converted. The Wittelsbachs who brought the style to Bavaria were in a not entirely unusual way of the same mentality as the people they ruled. The Rococo style spoke the same language to nobility and peasantry.

Two princes of the Wittelsbach family, during the Wars of the Spanish Succession, the Elector Max Emmanuel of Bavaria and his brother Joseph Clemens, Elector and Archbishop of Cologne, were compelled to flee France after the Battle of Blenheim and came within the influence of the French court. Other Wittelsbachs then living in France were patrons of the Rococo style: the Duchess of Orleans, Elizabeth Charlotte von der Pfalz, and later and more materially, her son while he was Regent of France (1715-23). The Bavarian Elector arranged that Joseph Effner (1687-1745), a son of his court gardener, should go to Paris to study garden design. Effner, however, soon became interested in architecture and began working under Boffrand.

The Treaty of Rastatt in 1714 enabled the Wittelsbachs and others to return to Munich, which they found dull after the French experience, as they looked round for native craftsmen who could execute Rococo work. Among these was J. B. Zimmerman (1680-1758) who, as early as the 1720s, designed and painted a ceiling in the Kammerkapelle at Schleissheim, and another in the library at Benediktbeuren in Upper Bavaria. From these places as well as from Munich the style spread until, by about 1740, there emerged a |Bavarian Rococo', since the Bavarian craftsmen had invested it with their own spirit. There were also influences from other countries.

The brothers Asam, for instance, arrived in Bavaria after study in Rome and the cities of Italy. There seems little doubt that while in Rome they made a study of Bernini's Ecstasy of St. Teresa of Avila, which Bernini had finished in 1646. The frank sensuality expressed by this sculptor became an element in Bavarian Baroque. There were two Asams: Egid Quirin, born in 1692, and an elder brother, born in 1686. When they worked together their creations show enormous breadth of vision and imagination. From 1726 to 1731 they were engaged in decorating the church at Osterhofen. The essential effect of their architectural conversion is from a fairly normal Gothic to a fantastic and graceful Romanesque. Balconies three quarter of the way up the supporting pilasters curve out upon unpierced arches, heavily decorated. The tops of the Gothic windows are rounded off in the Roman style and the spaces under the balconies walled off to make six side-chapels. The tops of the pilasters are ornamented with gilded capitals surmounted by cartouches which curve again towards the roof, itself cartouched and painted with landscapes. There are many optical illusions involved in the shapes of pilasters, ceiling and windows. Gold shades into bronze, pink into white, silver into grey, so that the effect is of a church floating around the congregation at worship -- an effect which is quite deliberate.

The Baroque style at its highest point, early in the preceding century, had developed from an obsession with the antique or classical style. It has an air of grandeur, is sturdy and vigorous at its best, pompous at its worst. It was evolved by those who felt the heady wine of comparative freedom that came with the Renaissance. Nevertheless it was a break with the past that caused social neuroses, and in the wars of the Reformation it had to be defended, not only as a style, but as representative of a freer way of life, a freedom that, unconsciously, carried responsibilities and burdens within it. The formal |broken arch' of the Baroque was not simply an attempt at imitating a cleft in a classical ruin: it was a symbol that European civilisation itself was split, that a straightforward intact arch from the age of medieval faith to the age of reason and enlightenment had split down the middle the whole European psyche between one belief and another.

The faith of Calvin and Luther, while it set free science for technological and metaphysical discoveries, lacked charm and what might be called the human dimension. European man, having lost most of his dependence on the church, found himself upon a dark peninsula staring across an unknown sea. The sturdy independence he had won prevented him from going back, but for a time he lacked a sense of direction, meaning, and purpose. Lacking these, he thought less highly of man; no longer a pilgrim through the world, he tended to find what happiness he could wherever he happened to be. Deserted, as he thought, by God, he grew to find in nature, and in something like a deeper appreciation of the senses, contentment when he could not find happiness. He had lost the feeling of timelessness given him by the medieval church and had found a renewed dependence upon the cycle of the seasons and an analogy between that and the seasons of his own life -- its hope in childhood, its triumph in youth, its cynicism in maturity and the grim pathos of old age and death.

Within the Rococo style with its apparently superficial and sophisticated surfaces, there formed an almost pagan belief in youth and a harking back to the impossible innocence of childhood. For a short time the broken arch was filled, as it were, by a Cupid's head with wings, such as one used to find in sale-room catalogues, out-dated and offered for a song. Such conceptions seem to be less for the art critic and connoisseur than for the lost men and women of the world who, travelling the pine-needled paths of the Bavarian forests, find in the Rococo churches a unique solace -- certainly not of wisdom, but of peace and, sometimes, a kind of joy, which they thought they had left behind them long ago. This renewal, if it happens, is the Rococo heritage. It follows that entry to a Rococo church in the high style either empties human beings or fills them: it is very rich spiritual as well as architectural food. In its day it represented the nearest thing man could get to Paradise.

At its height the Baroque or Rococo style was carried out in stone and was grandiose. As it developed it became more malleable and flexible by the very nature of the materials used. When the designs were strong and bold in what was intended to be decorative in the first place, the Rococo can be said to have held its very theatrical effect together and to have created, in those sympathetic towards it, a type of religious feeling, an attitude in which God, man and nature concerned one thing, whose core was that joy. Much of the Rococo, however, fell short of these heights and deteriorated to mere heavy over-ornamentation and a kind of sickly sweetness. Where the borderline lies between the one and the other perhaps depends a little upon artistic appreciation, but certainly includes an ingredient of the human psyche which can hardly be described except as a response to what has come to us from our cultural past. This is what has been gathered, as it were, on this side of the broken arch, from the other side, the medieval side. All responses will be fundamentally different, the one from the other.

At least the artistic genesis of the Asams' High Altar at Rohr, near Weltenberg, can be traced, for fundamentally this is a three-dimensional representation of a subject, the Assumption of the Virgin, which had often been represented in paint by artists like Titian and Caravaggio. In this the figures are lighted all round from windows both behind, on the sides, and above. The figures are life-size, fully modelled in the round, and except for the Virgin, who wears a gold and blue brocaded silver robe, clothed in white. The altar itself is an open coffin, the apostles grouped round it with expressions of amazement on their faces. Above them, on barely visible wire, two angels with broadly spread wings support the Virgin who, her arms outstretched as though she feels her lightness, looks down upon the figures and smiles.

The drama of the work is undeniable, the vigour of the figures is realistic. Yet there is, too, almost a frivolity, a kind of humour in the composition, for here is a very pretty girl floating, supported by two angels, such as we might meet when shopping in the Mariahilferstrasse in Vienna, or in Munich or, for that matter, if we are lucky, in Bond Street. Nevertheless there is in this the affirmation, often present in the Rococo at its best, that through this we are made one with the pagan past through the Christian ethic into the present time. Here is brought to light, very strongly, that the marriage that the early Christians made with Venus, Diana, Astarte and Persephone, has negated the changes made by the later Augustine, Paul of Tarsus and Gregory the Great. Of course there may not be, for the visitor, any suspension of disbelief at all: he emerges from the church convinced that he has seen the Whore of Babylon (who, in Albrecht Durer's well-known woodcut, was also a very pretty woman), or, worse, that he has seen something vulgar and ostentatious. If he is lucky, however, a part of his psyche may never leave the place at all, for the possession of the past exacts its own price. What remains of him will travel for the rest of his life with the un-Anglo-Saxon feeling that he has seen and experienced a kind of joy never before felt. It is this which the brothers Asam, and others of that age obviously intended him to feel.
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Title Annotation:Rococo style
Author:Parkhill-Rathbone, James
Publication:Contemporary Review
Date:Aug 1, 1993
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