Saturday, January 22, 2011

From Rococo to Neoclassicism

The architectural theorist Francesco Milizia documented his views of the Baroque style in 1785 in a savage indictment. He viewed it as already hopelessly old-fashioned. Under his definition of Baroque, much that belonged to High Baroque was mistakenly included. Rococo was already past its peak in central European architecture by the 1780s. In terms of domestic interior decoration and furnishings, best represented in France by the "Louis XV" style. Rococo was going out of favour in Europe by about 1770. In large European cities. Neoclassicism grew in popularity, and where taste was more conservative, there was a return to the academic traditions of the Bolognese and Roman schools. The Louis XVI style in furniture, which became fashionable during the 1770s and 1780s, was characterized by ornately caned wood or stucco decoration. It was tantamount to a variation on the Rococo theme but with a preference for straight lines, a limited range of floral iconography and pattern, a more measured rhythm, and a new. less luxuriant repertoire of decoration. In effect, the gregarious, rich Rococo style gave way to a more austere and serious artistic-sensibility. With gradual and various modifications, Rococo gradually progressed towards Neoclassicism with no discernible, abrupt break. As these stylistic changes took place.

The term "Neoclassicism" is given to a clearly definable taste in Europe that was based on the pursuit of beauty through the imitation of models drawn from antiquity. The instantly recognizable style of this new movement was clear in all aspects of art. With its sources in the Grand Tour, it emerged between the mid-18th and early 19th century through the ideas of scholars such as German painter Anton Rafael Mengs (1728-79) and archaeologist and art historian Johann Joachim Winckelmann (1717-68). They shared strongly-held beliefs based on classical ideals, which were already being revived elsewhere in Europe. Neoclassicism was probably at its most creative during the short, intense period known as the Empire style. Later, some elements of the movement interlinked with those of Romanticism, a relationship that was to destroy the style from within. Neoclassicism was a comprehensive style that embraced painting and architecture, literature and music. It also made an impression on the applied arts, where it inspired the design of fabrics, jewellery, furniture, and ceramics. As the movement became more established, the characteristics of the Neoclassical style varied from country to country - as did the name. For example, it became the sober Regency style in England and the grandiose Empire style in France. In Germany, it was expressed in the comfortable, relaxed Biedermeier style; in Scandinavia, the light, airy Gustavian style, typified by the use of light-coloured wood. In North America, it resulted in the simple Federal style.

                                                 Three Graces from Pompei


Following the discoveries at Herculaneum (1738) and Pompeii (1748), both near Naples, extensive archaeological excavations were carried out in and around Rome during the last quarter of the 18th century. The finds, such as those at the Lateran (1779-80), attracted a steady flow of visitors to the Eternal City, already an essential stop on the Grand Tour — a standard feature in the education of English gentlemen. The cosmopolitan community of Rome swelled as enthusiastic observers came to admire the newly discovered masterpieces. According to Winckelmann, the prime theorist of Neoclassicism, sculptures such as the Apollo Belvedere and the Laocoon epitomized the antique qualities of calm, simplicity, and noble grandeur that were so desirable.

Origins of the Style

As symmetry was gradually introduced into the lavish ornamental motifs of the Rococo style, so the Neoclassicist ideas slowly began to spread. Work from this transitional period retained some delicate grace while displaying some
distinctly Grecian traits. The new aesthetic revealed a reaction against the excesses of Rococo ornamentation and the frivolity of the prevailing fashion for curved lines, in favour of what was seen as the noble simplicity of antiquity. This weariness with Rococo style was evident from the 1730s onwards in the writings of Voltaire (Le Temple dugout, 1730), the architect Jacques-Francois Blondel (De la distribution des maisons de plaisance, 1737), and the abbot Le Blanc (Letters to the Count de Caylus, 1737-44). Many Neoclassical ideas were founded in the scientific ideals of the French Encyclopaedists, who believed in the enhancement and promotion of public morality through art. French philosopher Denis Diderot sought to make virtue appealing and render vice ridiculous and unattractive, linking the concept of beauty to goodness. He advocated the social responsibility of the creative artist, whose work would be destined for the collective well-being and education of the community.

Johann Joachim WINCKELMANN

The influential German Johann Joachim Winckelmann was the key theorist of Neoclassicism. In his widely read volumes Reflections on the Imitation of Greek Art (1755) and History of Ancient Art (1764), he proposed the study of ancient art by means of a reasoned method. Winckelmann recommended that one should take a fresh look not only at the statues and vases of antiquity but also at the whole of the ancient Greek civilization. An enthusiastic and near-fanatical scholar, he perceived an ideal beauty in the cool elegance of Greek art, the perfection of which seemed to him to transcend nature. It epitomized the "noble simplicity and calm grandeur", whereby harmony of line determines form and is more important than colour. While Winckelmann recommended the adoption of ancient forms, he disapproved of cold copying, emphasizing the importance of recreating the true Greek spirit. Standing before the Apollo Belvedere Winckelmann warned, "At first glance you may see no more than a lump of marble, but if you know how to penetrate the secrets of art you will see a marvel.''

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