The Progress of Love (1771-1774) is a series of four panels painted for Madame du Barry by Jean-Honaré Fragonard. The series depicts four different stages of the courting between Madame Du Barry and King Louis XV. Yinka Shonibare reinvents The Progress of Love into a postmodern parody titled Jardin d’Amore or Garden of Love to connect two different multicultural worlds. This installation highlights the juxtaposition of rich and powerful aristocracy of France and poor African slaves. Fragonard applies the genre of Rococo painting to explore aristocratic love while Shonibare uses a life size installation to explore themes of culture, class and identity. The objective of this essay is to outline the associations between Love Letters and The Confession and to demonstrate ways in which Shonibare disrupts Fragonard’s painting. This essay begins with a discussion of the the socio-cultural and political contexts. It will explore two historical events, French Revolution and the “Scramble for Africa” and demonstrate a link between European history and African colonialisation. The focus art pieces of this essay are Jean-Honaré Fragonard’s Progress of Love: Love Letters (1772) (See Figure 1) and Yinka Shonibare’s parody titled Garden of Love: The Confession (2007) (See Figure 2). This essay will conclude with a synthesis of the socio-cultural and history background woven into a formal analysis of each artwork.
In this first section, the socio-cultural and political contexts of each work will be discussed. At the time of Fragonard, French society was under absolute monarchy (King Louis XIV and XV) and divided into the rich and the poor. McCrory and Moulder (1983, 12-13) suggest it is possible to distinguish four main groups within French society.
The Nobility: was comprised of only 1.5% of the total population. Bourgeoisie: wealthy landowners …, highly-placed civil servants and financiers. Petit bourgeoisie: members of the professions, artisans and tradesmen, all ranked according to their prosperity. Peasantry: If labourers were considered a low form of life, the rural peasantry were regarded as little short of inhumane.
Traditionally, the church was a major patron of art, thus the art produced, such as altarpieces, were highly religious in nature. The well-to-do bourgeoisie reformed this tradition. Art was now driven by the aristocracy. The artworks decorated private places of residence, rather than public churches. The Baroque movement (1700 – 1750) heralded a shift from the dominant religious artworks. The themes of Baroque art were gruesome and graphic in nature. Rococo art reacted to the Baroque period, whereby the artwork made was humourous, light and airy. The aristocrats (Nobility and Bourgeoisie) became important patrons of art changing centuries of tradition of patronage. The aristocrats were commissioning art with money earned from the working peasants while the peasants could barely afford to survive.
While Baroque art features murder and death, Rococo art went in a playful direction. The visual language in Fragonard’s commissioned works employ the use of sexual overtones. It was a time of excess for the rich and powerful classes. In the Progress of Love series, the scenes are painted within a controlled, manicured garden. Fragonard employs this private space for a private moment. The paintings were conducted at the chateau gardens at Louveciennes. The rich aristocracy could afford such gardens to conduct private liaisons with their mistresses. At this time, it was common knowledge for kings to have official mistresses like Madame Pompadour and Madame du Barry in King Louis XV’s court.
A.N. Hodge (2015, 74) describes Fragonard’s career as
Jean-Honaré Fragonard was a pupil of Chardin and also Boucher. From 1756 to 1761, he lived in Italy where he became familiar with the work of Tiepolo. … Fragonard painted in the genres that were important at the time: portraits, history and pastoral scenes set in the landscape. However he achieved notoriety by specializing in painting love affairs conducted furtively in garden settings.
What role does the political context play within Fragonard’s work? While the painting does not directly influence politics of the day, the painting does reflect the self-indulgent aristocracy while the lower classes worked hard in poor conditions. This raised societal issues of stratification, inequality and class struggle against King Louis XV. Max Weber (cited in Haralambos and Holborn, 2013, 33)
… believed that social stratification results from a struggle for scarce resources in society. Although he saw this struggle as being primarily concerned with economic resources, it can also involve struggles for prestige and political power.
The factors that lead to The French Revolution were economic, financial and institutional crises according to McCrory and Moulder (1983, 14-16).
The need for new revenue could only be met by increased taxation; but the French tax system was already overly-complicated and unjust. A steady rise in population combined with bad harvests to produce severe unemployment. … France’s industrial growth developed too slowly to take up the slack. The rapid industrial growth of England provided serious competition to traditional areas of French commerce (e.g., the cloth industry). France’s outward appearance as a powerful and centralised state concealed a confused and mismanaged administrative system which was rapidly approaching the point of collapse.
The French Revolution commenced a ten year change in French society. Many key events occurred such as the Fall of the Bastille, The Reign of Terror (guillotine), the death of King Louis XVI and finally, Napoleon seizes power and the monarchy which oppressed the lower classes is ousted from power. Viva La France!
According to Vernon Minor (1999, 198),
After the French Revolution, the Rococo style became identified with the “old regime,” the world of the “corrupt” values and self-indulgent and privileged class. This was a tragedy, because Rococo, especially in the art of the great pastoral painters Watteau, Boucher, and Fragonard, stands as one of the highest moments in European painting.
What did the Revolution mean to Fragonard? Gina Pischel (1975, 558) explains that Fragonard’s work “… coincided with the last years of the French monarchy” as a consequence Fragonard became financially ruined and died a poor man in Paris, 1806.
While Africa transitioned into post-colonialism during the 1960’s, Yinka Shonibare MBE was born in England in 1962 and grew up in Lagos, Nigeria. He returned to London to commence his art training and never left. This upbringing gave a unique perspective of African colonisation. In a sense, Shonibare possessed an “east/west” perspective because of his duel citizenship.
Postmodernism “resists and obscures the sense of modernism” and “implies a complete knowledge of the modern which as has been surpassed by a new age.” (Appignanesi and Garratt 2013, 4). Shonibare uses appropriation from European aristocratic culture and art history. Shonibare’s motivation for this installation was “… because it was a way for him to challenge the historical and stereotyped denials about African modernism that prevail in Western (art) historical discourses.” (Dixon 2014) A well-known work of this appropriation is Shonibare’s Nelson’s Ship in a Bottle (2010), where the sails of the ship are tailored with Dutch Wax fabric. It was displayed on the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square. Shonibare was awarded a Member of the British Empire (MBE) by the British aristocracy, very ironic.
Before the colonisation of Africa, the people possessed their own traditions, values and customs. Africa was a land full of natural resources, such as gold, diamonds and oil. The African peoples spoke a diverse range of languages. The maps below illustrate the distribution of African and European languages throughout Africa.
The colonisers imposed their western, colonial ideologies which viewed Africans as uncivilized, third world and exotic. Patrick Brantlinger (1985, 175) states
the British tended to see Africa as a center of evil, a part of the world possessed by a demonic "darkness" or barbarism, represented above all by slavery and cannibalism, which it was their duty to exorcise. The writers most responsible for promoting this point of view-and for maintaining the crusade against the slave trade even after both Britain and the United States were well out of it-were the explorers and missionaries, with Buxton's disciple David Livingstone in the lead.
The purpose of these ideologies was to divide people into distinct groups, the powerful and the powerless. African people were Othered through a process of dehumanisation and marginalisation. The European colonisers shifted the African people to the periphery and seized power. This created a class of people with alterity and nil agency. Dutch Wax fabric is an example of how the Africans were subjected to assimilation and mimicry. This application of the fabric will be discussed in formal analysis.
What history is Shonibare referring to in The Confession? If The Love Letters is considered sexual in nature, then the colonisation of Africa is a metaphoric rape. Yinka Shonibare’s reference to the “Africanness” through his iconic use of Dutch Wax fabric raises the topic of the African colonial past. The “Scramble for Africa” commenced with the Berlin Conference (1884-1885) where the Act of Berlin was written and signed. The leaders of European countries came together in Berlin to carve up the continent and agree on trade in Africa. Shonibare explores this exact topic in an installation titled “Scramble for Africa” (see Figure 3). The European leaders are sitting around a dinner table carving Africa. Shonibare depicts these leaders as headless and therefore mindless and inconsiderate about their actions, considering these leaders had not travelled to Africa. The act led to the colonisation of Africa. The Africans had no idea of the plan but observed its severe consequences. This is supported by Thomas Pakenham (1992, xxi) who wrote The Scramble for Africa.
Suddenly, in half a generation, the Scramble gave Europe virtually the whole continent: including thirty new colonies and protectorates, 10 million square miles of new territory and 110 million dazed new subjects, acquired by one method or another. Africa was sliced up like a cake, the pieces swallowed by five rival nations - Germany, Italy, Portugal, France and Britain (with Spain taking some scraps) - and Britain and France were at each other’s throats. At the centre, exploiting the rivalry, stood one enigmatic individual and self-styled philanthropist, controlling the heart the continent: Leopold II, King of the Belgians.
In his seminal text “Orientalism” (1978), American Edward Said, proposes a theory about the process of colonial power whereby the west negates the non-west through regulation and systematic domination. One example of this negation and domination was to bring civilisation and Christianity to the primitive people, negating their own beliefs, traditions and religions. The Africans became Othered and enslaved within their own land. The Europeans had an ulterior agenda besides bringing civilisation and Christianity to the uncivilised by raping Africa of its natural resources such as rubber and oil to feed an ever growing industrial Europe. As a result of this raping, financially, Africa was left in ruins with a huge debt of billions of dollars and the land infertile. This leads to question: Is the Australian Government doing the same to First Peoples of Australia in 2015?
This final section, a formal analysis of each artwork will be discussed. Jean-Honaré Fragonard is regarded as one of the most famous and prolific Rococo style painters. The Progress of Love: Love Letters (see Figure 1), is an oil on canvas painting (317.18cm x 216.85cm). The theme of the Progress of Love is fêtes galantes – feasts of courtship. Fragonard’s series was commissioned by Madame du Barry which depicts a thinly disguised narrative of her relationship with King Louis XV. The purpose of the paintings was for decorating the Chateau de Louveciennes. The scene depicts two young, aristocratic lovers courting in a chateau garden. The clothing that is being worn denotes wealth and class. The active male rests his head on the female’s shoulder, while locating one hand close to a breast. The passive female sits with her legs crossed and her hand resting on the male’s shoulder - not exactly an amorous embrace. The painting employs references to love: the statue of Cupid and Aphrodite, the curvilinear and sinuous roses and the physical closeness of the lovers. Not everything appears as it seems. The Cupid statue is upset reaching towards his mother (Aphrodite) who appears unhappy to nurse him. The female appears distant to her lover’s longing male gaze. Minor (1999, 198) suggests that
In fact, in none of these scenes does she actually look at him. It is as if, she wishes to remain forever the object of desire and beauty, always the focus of the amorous gaze but never a fully committed participant.
Fragonard mirrors the Rococo style of lightness, playfulness and intimacy through the use of pastel colours and loose brushstrokes. The colour palette of soft pinks, yellows and greens reflect the Rococo genre. The multiple letters are a symbol of his confession of love. The male’s loyalty is connoted by the canine, in the same mode, the canine employed in Burial at Ornans by Gustave Courbet (1849-50). The blurring of the edges of the couple and the physical closeness of the main figures connotes intimacy. The dress depicts female genitalia, pale, soft skin, the rosy cheeks and ruffled hair infers sexual interaction. Closer examination of the artwork, the viewer observes a golden tonality suggestive of the sun setting and reinforces a possible end of the relationship. The soft, ambient light bestows a nostalgic aura to the painting, like looking back at a past experience or memory.
Minor (1999, 196) points out that The Progress of Love was Fragonard’s most important commission of the 1770’s and it was his biggest failure. “She rejected the works and replaced them with tamer versions of similar scenes by the painter Joseph-Marie Vien (1716-1809).”
The Confession was associated with the Garden of Love display at the Musée du Quai Branly in Paris, 2007. Shonibare transforms Fragonard’s two dimension painting into a three dimensional installation. Richard Hylton (1999, 101) described Yinka Shonibare’s art
reveals a world in which African and European history can be distilled into a 'beginners guide', where the Victorian era is typified by class division, suppressed libido and missionary zeal, and Africa is characterised as the land of the exotic and the primitive. This binary forms the backbone of Shonibare's project and his first major solo exhibition at the Ikon Gallery.
Yinka Shonibare emphasizes the tragic relationship between two different cultures, the African “slaves” and the European “nobles”. Shonibare employs the postmodern tools of appropriation of aristocratic culture to parody and disturb the meaning of Fragonard’s painting titled “The Garden of Love: The Confession”. This work establishes a link between wealth, desire for enjoyment and freedom of the French aristocracy and the African slave trade which provided the means of this freedom. According to Mackenzie Moon (2007, 45), “Shonibare’s works both revel in and critique conspicuous consumption, simultaneously implicating his viewers in the same dilemma.”
Shonibare mimics the pose of the main figures and the setting of the garden. The life sized headless manikins refer to the beheaded aristocrats during the French Revolution and a lack of identity of the oppressed African people. He subverts the image by using clothing the figures in Dutch Wax fabric (batik) inferring Africanness. Shonibare demonstrates meticulous detail to flow of the cloth in matching the outfits to the paintings. Linell Secomb (2013, 197) states “The history of the 'African' wax-print fabric itself reveals the interconnectedness of cultures.” The Dutch Wax fabric highlights an issue of authenticity; these materials were mass produced and could not be sold back to Indonesia, therefore were sold to the West Africans. Today, these garments are considered as authentic African dress, in fact, a colonial import.
The landscaped garden is replicated as a maze of trellises covered in fake foliage for the viewer to wander through and discover the lovers. It demonstrates a relationship between the desires to control nature, which was expressed in the art of gardening during the eighteenth century and connoted "civilizing the savages", as stated before, was the real reason of colonialisation. Flowers rest against the plinth to reference the roses in the garden. The light used in the installation is dark to contrast to the lightness and elegance employed by Fragonard.
The whimsical, erotic nature of Fragonard’s work is subverted into an installation conveying messages about culture, class, identity and colonialism. The lack of a canine figure connotes no loyalty, which the self-indulgent European leaders were carving up Africa like a cake for their own greed! The colonisers showed no loyalty and cared for the exploitation of the African people and their land.
In conclusion, this essay has demonstrated the associations between Fragonard’s Love Letters and Shonibare’s The Confession. It has acknowledged that Shonibare’s work highlights the serious consequences that European colonisation imposed on Africa. While Fragonard’s work is about aristocratic love, Shonibare disrupts this notion through post-modernist techniques of parody and subversion. This essay has equally demonstrated these works possess powerful socio-cultural and political histories. While Shonibare’s installation work is contemporary, he has utilised the resource of Fragonard’s painting as a vehicle to demonstrate the tragic relationship shared by Europe and Africa. What makes this work interesting is an African artist born in England who modifies a two dimensional “love” painting to a three dimensional “hate” installation to demonstrate that colonialism sowed seeds of hatred.
List of Images
Figure 1 Jean-Honaré Fragonard Progress of Love: Love Letters 1772, oil on canvas, 317.18cm x 216.85cm. Source: The Frick Collection website. Accessed 31 May, 2015. http://collections.frick.org/view/objects/asitem/items$0040:166
Figure 2 Yinka Shonibare Garden of Love: The Confession 2007, Two life-size mannequins, Dutch wax printed cotton, shoes, coir, matting, artificial silk flowers, and mixed media, dimensions variable, 62 1/5 x 70 1/10 x 66 9/10 inches. Source: Museum Geographies website. Accessed 2 June, 2015. https://museumgeographies.wordpress.com/2014/08/25/yinka-shonibare-mbes-jardin-damour-garden-of-love-musee-du-quai-branly-paris-2007/
Figure 3 Yinka Shonibare Scramble for Africa 2003, 14 life-size fibre glass mannequins, 14 chairs, table, Dutch wax printed cotton. Source: Yinka Shonibare MBE website. Accessed 31 May, 2015. http://africa.si.edu/exhibits/shonibare/scramble.html
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