Academic journal article Eighteenth Century: Theory and Interpretation

Ornament's Invitation: The Rococo of Vienna's Gardekirche

Academic journal article Eighteenth Century: Theory and Interpretation

Ornament's Invitation: The Rococo of Vienna's Gardekirche

Article excerpt

Is it correct to talk about rococo ornament as a bearer of meaning, or is it better understood as a transmitter of pure visual delight, pretty to contemplate but of no semantic substance in itself? Even critics seeking to vanquish doubt about rococo ornament's cultural weight often acknowledge, in the end, that its forms don't mean much. Of course within the curves and shells of a typical rococo pattern one finds references to many different historical narratives, both real and fanciful, including Arcadia, the early Christian church, the exotic East, and the actors of the theater, among many. Yet rococo decoration seems to work against a full articulation of these narratives' content, since it insists on presenting its substance indeterminately, privileging an open-endedness borne of lightheartedness and caprice. One might even venture from this observation that an aesthetic as playful as the rococo does not lend itself to the purveyance of weighty ideas. Could the rococo's meanings somehow exist outside of narrative, or are there stories embedded in the curls and arabesques of a typical rococo design? It is hard to escape the impression when visiting prominent rococo rooms - the Salon de la Princesse of the Hôtel de Soubise in Paris, the electoral apartments at the Würzburg Residenz, or any south German rococo church - that these rooms' designers treated major themes within the apparent whimsy of their rococo decorative mode. Does one then condemn the eighteenth century for not taking its own culture seriously, for denying pictorial schemes the sincerity demanded by decorum? Or does one characterize the rococo as an inescapably frivolous pictorial mode essentially unsuited to sobriety?

One way out of this dilemma is to focus on style rather than meaning; and not surprisingly much scholarship on rococo ornament has directed efforts toward establishing its stylistic heritage, typically positioning it at the end of a tradition deriving originally from baroque grotteschi.1 The rococo in this sense typifies the late-period excesses of a style whose effectiveness has worn thin. Alternatively, others have engaged the rococo in an attempt to frame the origins of modernism, since the eighteenth century's obsession with elaborate decoration conveniently provides a springboard for the twentieth century's disavowal of ornament.2 Underlying both of these frameworks is the assumption that rococo ornament requires trans-cultural explanation, that it is best understood in relation to what it is not. Such interpretations put the rococo on the defensive as it struggles against both baroque gravity and modernist efficiency, competitions it can never really win within an art-historical discourse that has traditionally viewed the entire eighteenth century as a stepping stone. Yet another problem arises when one tries to extrapolate from the rococo a kind of "platonic ideal" that characterizes its qualities in absolute terms.3

All of these positions are at odds with demonstrating that the rococo conveyed meanings of substance to its viewers, or at the very least that its meanings are handicapped seriously by shell work's fragmentary and diffuse formal patterning. Rococo ornament's insistence on potential meanings rather than direct ones is itself a greaFpart of its effect, yet that potentiality renders rocaille forms challenging to interpret through art historical techniques more comfortable with fixing meaning onto or around objects rather than assessing meaning as fragments of possibility. This essay contributes to the project of interpreting rococo ornament by demonstrating how the specific visual techniques of openendedness, apparent incompleteness, and spatial complexity found inside one rococo church, the Gardekirche, answers to a complex social network of institutional conflict over divinity and authority.4 My point, ultimately, is that rococo ornament, while seemingly open to a wide range of interpretative possibilities, could and did harness semantic potentiality itself as a political tool. …

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