exhibition, painting, Paris

Victor and Honoré

1 Jean-Hubert Fragonard, L'Heureux

Jean-Hubert Fragonard, L’Heureux Moment, ou La Résistance Inutile [The Happy Moment, or Resistance is futile], circa 1770-1775, bistre wash on pierre noire-prepared paper, watercolor highlights, 22.9×34.8cm, Philadelphia Museum of Art

Two beautiful first names, “victory” and “honor”, for two very different exhibitions. Fragonard, named in fact Jean-Honoré (Honoré Fragonard was the painter’s cousin, more interested in Thanatos than Eros…), died in 1806, and by then Bonaparte had become Napoleon entirely. Victor Hugo was born in 1802 –a date echoed in his famous poem “Ce siècle avait deux ans…”– and he would call the Bonaparte of his times, Napoleon III, “Napoléon le Petit”. Therefore, to compare Jean-Honoré and Victor may be arbitrary, yet I can’t help but see them as two faces of the same coin, as a photographic positive with its negative (but who is what?), as the two-faced Roman god Janus.

2 Jean-Baptiste Charpentier, La

Jean-Baptiste Charpentier, La Culbute [The Tumble], after J.-H. Fragonard, aquatinte, 27.3x30cm, J.-H. Fragonard Museum (Grasse, France).

Jean-Honoré Fragonard was a wise and serious man, claims the biographical label at the beginning of the exhibition “Fragonard in Love” –which took place at the Luxembourg Museum in Paris until January 24, 2016 (a much better effort than this one). His infamous ménage-à-trois with his wife and his wife’s sister, Marguerite Gérard, would only be a myth. As for his children: the biography mentions his daughter Rosalie, born six months exactly after his marriage to Marie-Anne Gérard, and whose death at nineteen years old greatly pained him, but never alludes to his son Alexandre-Évariste (a mediocre painter, by the way), who might have been conceived with Marguerite, as Sophie Chauveau posits in her remarkable book. Well then, OK: Fragonard was a fine husband and father, untouched by the debauchery of his contemporaries. Does this mean that his art, famously sensual if not erotic, was about escaping his orderly life and liberating himself?

In any case, this exhibition is bursting with joyful sensuality, with levity, although not with superficiality since melancholy softly imbues it all, for pleasure is always transitory in this world. In face of the ubiquitous libertinage of the times, Fragonard resembles the character in the etching pictured above (by Jean-Baptiste Charpentier, for Fragonard’s painting is lost): a nice young artist painting a young country girl, when suddenly everything goes tumbling down because of a paramour rushing the model… Erotic impulse and creative turmoil are linked: the painter is embracing his canvas with the same ardor as the lover’s.

3 Jean-Honoré Fragonard, Deux

Jean-Honoré Fragonard, Deux femmes sur un lit jouant avec deux chiens, ou Le lever [Two women on a bed playing with two dogs, or Waking up], circa 1770, coll. Resnick, 74.3×59.4cm

Flesh, veils, thighs, breasts… are everywhere, but they are too white, too clean, too polished to be truly erotic –and nipples are too red to be true. There are transparent and sometimes heavy-handed allusions (firecrackers frightening two disrobed beauties, waterworks inundating three others); in fact, a somewhat vulgar and actually quite icy sexuality. The only full frontal female nudity is pictured above, with a vulva so slick and hairless that it loses all sex appeal (I find much more enticing the shadowy reflection of her back in the mirror). If Fragonard’s bodies express themselves eloquently, the faces he paint remain silent more often than not. In lieu of the expected hymn to joy, we find a lack of feelings, with no real characters emerging: are we only copulating bodies? What’s more, there is nothing to remind us that Sade was his ––antithetic– contemporary.

NM 5415

Jean-Honoré Fragonard, La résistance inutile [Resistance is futile], circa 1770-1773, 45x60cm, Stockholm National Museum.

The value of this all-too-tidy exhibition, other than its pedantic didacticism (echoed in this review…), lies in its margins. For instance: two mischievous “Curieuses”, hiding and peeping through a curtain (that brings to mind Khalil Bey’s), throwing rose petals (are those chaste or metaphorical?) at the passerby, at the onlooker. I wonder what a feminist reading of Fragonard would be, especially in face of the two artworks titled “Resistance is futile”. In the Stockholm version, the scene might be dramatic, but it could very well be more of a simulacrum: the servant grasps the gallant’s wig, but is she laughing or cringing? Is it rape or consensual sex? The soft pillow on the right, shaped like a lusty derrière, parallels the curvy bolster on the left, with cliché overtones. But in the Philadelphia version, if the moment is indeed “happy”, and the resistance “futile”, things are not that straightforward or trite: who is on top? Who is dominating? Who is leading the game? Maybe it is the man who stops resisting… This is not enough to evoke women’s rights, yet it does seem out of tune with the “common” practices of the times. Another remark: Fragonard is in love with reading, his paintings are full of letters, love notes, books –it might serve as an incitation to enjoy this book, the Contes de La Fontaine illustrated by Fragonard, and leaf through it here and there [pdf downloads] (with one hand, if need may be), throughout 540 pages of happiness…

5 Anonyme, Esmeralda, lithographie

Anonymous, Esmeralda, colorized and gummed lithograph, coll. Mony Vibescu

What about Victor, then? The small exhibition “Eros Hugo” at the Maison de Victor Hugo (November 15, 2015 – February 21, 2016) was subtitled “between modesty and excess”. The critic Philippe Dagen would rather have it read “between idealism and priapism”, and he is not wrong. Contrarily to Fragonard, Hugo’s œuvre, even when passion animates it, is almost always modest, chaste and idyllic, with moral sense as its –boring– omnipresent mistress. If some painters and draftsmen sexualize Hugo’s characters (like the anonymous artist featured above), the writer and Peer of France (a senator of the times) always remains aloft, far from such vulgarities and indecencies. But what a stark contrast with his personal life, his unbridled sexuality, his overflowing virility! Although he was a virgin when he married at the age of twenty, he then had a great many affairs and dalliances, he provided for many mistresses and laid many servants, he was caught in the act committing adultery, he shared a mistress with his son Charles… He spun endless tales to hide his affairs from his wife, and even more so from his lover Juliette Drouet. Henri Guillemin’s book, Hugo et la Sexualité (1954), is a good read that shows the contrast between the public figure, a paragon of virtue, and the private man, who did not hide anything, donating all his love letters and –ciphered– diaries to the French National Library, implicitly inviting future scholars to explore all those documents. Guillemin took the opportunity with the application of a monk, much to the chagrin of Hugo’s idolizers. Decoding his diaries offered some hilarious bits: “sec.”, for “secours” [“recourse”, “help”], coded the price of intercourse, “vue au fond du ravin” [“sight at the bottom of the canyon”] is a quite well-put phrase, and the word “cloche” [“bell”] resisted the exegete’s perspicacity until he compared it with a verse in the first scene of L’Épée [The Sword] (a forgotten play that Hugo wrote in a month in 1869): “On secoue, ainsi qu’un jour d’alarmes, la grosse cloche en branle” [“The big bell is jerked, shaken, as if the alarm needed to be sounded”].

6 Francesco Hayez, Scène d'atelier

Francesco Hayez, Scene in the studio, 1825-1830

The exhibition presents, then, prudish public writings and drawings by Victor Hugo on the one hand, and on the other hand his erotomanic biography, with artworks that are supposed to echo more or less harmoniously his urges –without any contextualization, though: had Hugo written about these artworks, or even seen them? We won’t know. Among them, the most daring ones are probably Francesco Hayez’s Scènes d’atelier [Scenes in the studio] (otherwise a very conventional painter), and Achille Devéria’s cheeky lithographs. It also features the sensual clichés of Gérôme, Théophile Gautier, Cabanel, Chassériau… as a mediocre exhibition at the Orsay Museum would. The last room, even if great artworks (by Thoma and Böcklin among others) are featured, claims to undertake a psychoanalytic exploration of Hugo’s thoughts and dreams: absolute nonsense! In conclusion, this exhibition lacks in coherence, when the one on Fragonard had too much of it.

 

Read this article:
in the original French; alt.
in Spanish

Original publication date by Lunettes Rouges: January 31, 2016.

Translation by Lucas Faugère

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