YOU MUST BEWARE DECORATIVE EXCESS which leads to a violent revolution. Both aesthetic and political, this cautionary tale provides the standard explanation of the relationship between the exuberant usable arts of Rococo and the severe history paintings of Classicism, as well as between monarchy and modern democracy. It is now exhibited convincingly at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, in two exhibitions: “Inspiring Walt Disney: the Animation of French Decorative Arts” and “Jacques Louis David: Radical Draftsman”.
As I entered the “Disney” exhibit, I heard a guard ask a little girl if she recognized anything. The tot confidently showed a poster for The beauty and the Beast! Every historian must be thrilled that something created as early as 1991 – let alone, as the Met exhibit proves, with origins as far back as the 18th century – excites the museum’s youngest audience.
Curator Wolf Burchard has astutely realized that some of the Met’s lesser-loved objects have become cultural icons, but not in the way the museum usually presents them. The Met has one of the world’s best collections of 18th century “decorative arts”; they usually languish in the emptiest galleries of the museum. Yet when Disney animated them into characters like the Lumière chandelier in The beauty and the Beast or in scenes from Cinderella (1950), which features the heroine spiraling rags in court dress, they won over the general public. The Met rightly emphasizes the key formal point that Disney drew inspiration from the inherent animation of Rococo design, its kinetic furniture outfitted with multiple moving parts and frothy ornaments. To help us understand the extent to which this impulse pervaded 18th century European culture, the museum artfully presents a copy of a novel, The Sopha: Moral Tale. The 1742 bestseller, like many stories of its time, revolves around a thinking thing.
One beloved Disney character, setting or scene after another has been assigned to items the Met owns, including candelabra, furniture, books, clocks, china and automata. The connections help us see underappreciated qualities in Met treasures. It helps that Burchard found a missing link in the gouache paintings of gifted Disney artists like Mary Blair (1911-1978) and Eyvind Earle (1916-2000). The intriguing quirks of their colors and compositions have barely survived the teamwork required to produce feature-length animated films. After seeing a ca. 1750–60 ottoman night light by Jean Baptiste Tilliard after The Sofa novel and conceptual art for The beauty and the Beast, we will never again be able to look at a rococo sofa without seeing the arabesques of its frame dancing in our minds.
The Met should retain some display tactics from this temporary spectacle. For example, the museum has never exhibited its delightfully luminous and dynamically swirling Sèvres porcelain vases and dining sets with as much brilliance as on this occasion. One shouldn’t need Disney to justify the theatrical flair, especially if it accurately evokes the uses for which these objects were intended. Bring digital animation?
Behind the cheerful tone of the entire exhibition hover presentiments. Showcases of miniature furniture and fairy tales show that it was too easy for Disney to infantilize 18th century art. Walt Disney and his studio preferred Fragonard to David, and charming early 20th-century children’s book illustrations to Fragonard. History has taught us to sense the impending doom of old regime in every Meissonnier candlestick and Sèvres cup. The Met reinforced this lesson by layering its exhibits of Disney and David. The contrasts could hardly be more accentuated: Against the sensual arts of aristocratic everyday life, the intellectual art of drawing; against the childhood association with Disney, the maturation of David’s individual style; against the indulgences of entertainment, the ferocity of personal sacrifice to a revolutionary cause.
Perrin Stein, curator of the David exhibit, has collected virtually every significant painted drawing or sketch related to David’s large sequence of pre-revolutionary and revolutionary history paintings. This is a unique opportunity to witness the momentum that led David to each of his political masterpieces and from one painting project to another: the Annunciatory 1784 Oath of the Horatiithe declamatory 1789 Brutusthe unifier 1790 Tennis court oaththe martyr of 1793 Maratconciliation 1799 sabinesthe magnificent imperial of 1807 Coronationthe elegiac Leonidascompleted in 1814. A whole history of the French Revolution is on the walls.
David worked his way, drawing by drawing, from the cumulus of the baroque to the sharp lines of the classic. He relentlessly extracts increasingly rigorous principles from his compositions. The exhibition shows how consistently he maintained a high tone of didactic ardor. Don’t worry about the exact implications of David’s chosen abstruse classic topics. It suffices to know that each of them was associated with a phase of the Revolution. These phases did not unfold in a straight line. In the space of twenty years, a whole mentality collapsed with the royal government, a constitutional government devolved to arbitrary Terror, on the ruins of democracy Napoleon rose to imperial autocracy, then the monarchy been restored.
To clarify the degree of David’s political commitment whatever the vagaries of the Revolution, the Met and Stein made difficult choices. “Radical Draftsman” forgoes color and scale of David’s paintings (with the notable exception of the Met’s paintings Death of Socrates, 1787). David’s large painted portraits were also renounced, even as destinations for his drawing practice.
However, the most striking wall of the entire exhibition is devoted to six drawn portraits. Stein herself calls them “her most singular and haunting achievement as a cartoonist.” David drew the six men in 1795 while they – and he – were in prison for their leading roles in the Terror. They were men who had arbitrarily condemned to the guillotine any perceived opposition to their rising standards of revolutionary virtue. Nevertheless, the portraits register subtle nuances between doubt, defiance, fear and pride. Their attention to mental and physical individuality transcends ideology. When it came to portraying real people who had perpetrated the same violence as him, David suddenly expressed how complicated and contradictory we all can be.
These portraits shake up just enough our polarized expectations about the relationship between the two Met exhibits. No doubt a radical draftsman had to correct the abusive privileges of the old regime. But from the luxurious utilitarian arts of the 18th century shines a joy that reaches the general public, generation after generation. And in the righteous exhortations of David’s art, shines empathy with what all human beings have in common.
“Inspiring Walt Disney: The Animation of French Decorative Arts” is on view until March 6 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. “Jacques Louis David: Radical Draftsman” is on view there until May 15.
Anne Higonnet is professor of art history at Barnard College, Columbia University and author of several books and numerous essays on art since 1650, on childhood and on collecting.