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The Eighteenth-Century French Rococo: Some Terminological, Methodological, and Theoretical Considerations George Poe I N AN IMPORTANT DISCUSSION of the dangers and fallacies inherent in stylistic approaches to artistic expression, René Wellek warned us already a half-century ago, in more specific reference to the literary art, of the necessity of not thinking of a “ period” as an “ abstract pattern” (read a “ style” ) in and of itself but rather as a “ time section, dominated by a . . . system of norms, which no work of art will ever realize in its entirety.” 1Other than the helpfully rigorous linking of the signifier, “ period,” to the signified, “ time section” (stopping short of any synecdochic extension to the second term of the oft-recruited nominal binary “ period style”), two other points tied to Wellek’s careful wording are worth noting: the qualifier “ dominated [by]” rightly sug­ gests that concurrent systems of norms can be aesthetically afloat during a given “time section” ; and it seems equally rightminded to posit that no individual work of art can fill the dominating systematic bill “in its entirety,” implying in turn that there must be some dimensions of the work which answer to another system—or to other systems—of norms. In considering, then, the so-called “ rococo,” the delimiting question of its approximate “ time section” offers a good point of departure; diachronically speaking, to what broad-based “ section” should aesthetic attention be drawn within the framework of eighteenth-century France (the spatiotemporal framework, in turn, within which rococo visual art was created, from which the appellation “ rococo” itself emerged no doubt toward the very end of the century, and to which one can best look for manifestations of a rococo aesthetic beyond the visual arts)? I would roughly suggest a “ section” similar to the rather traditional temporal scheme proposed by Georges Duby for “ Chapitre VI” of the second volume of his masterful Histoire de la France2: from the moment of social release concomitant with Louis XIV’s death in 1715, through the middle years of the century where multiple forms of liberty were appear­ ing and evolving, to the fall of the Bastille in 1789 and, soon thereafter, of the Ancien Régime itself. Though a long and incredibly complex period of history, this three-quarter span of the French eighteenth cenVol . XXXIII, No. 3 57 L ’E sprit C réateur tury possesses a sociopolitical identity which tends to hang together around the almost inevitable logic (or what appears as such now) of a mounting déluge which Louis XV and Louis XVI’s extragavant ancestor had already set off during the previous century. What was going on aesthetically and intellectually (which might be referred to as the “ con­ temporary cultural program” ) and how the latter interfaces with the sociopolitical and socioeconomic time section just delineated represent different—even if ultimately related—questions. At least three systems of stylistic norms seem to surface as one looks heuristically beyond the mismanagement of thrones to the contemporary cultural order.3More­ over, the possibility of yet other systems should continue to be explored, as the French eighteenth century was nothing if not stylistically plural. For the moment, however, I would defend here, as in earlier studies, the legitimacy of the decorative-art grounded term “ rococo” to serve as a triadic complement to “ late-Classical” and “neo-Classical” aesthetic tags on the one hand (normally accepted for the outset and then later years of the French eighteenth century, respectively) and the generally sanctioned “ pre-romantic” tag on the other (operative during the final years of the Ancien Régime and evolving into full-fledged “ romanti­ cism” around the dawning of the new century). I would stress, following Wellek’s useful statement, that systems of cultural norms such as the three just delineated—which I prefer to call stylistic “ currents” in an attempt to avoid any monolithic echoes which may reverberate, particularly in rococo studies, around such an over­ worked term as “ style(s)” 4—can indeed be coexistent, though it was equally suggested that one of the currents might step to the fore, or momentarily “ dominate,” within a time section such as the 1715-1789 one proposed above. I have argued elsewhere...


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