Recently I went up the the CooperHewitt to see the Rococo show. What I like about that museum is their usually adventurous curatorial take on whatever subject they tackle. In this case it is establishing the Rococo style in its own time period and then interpreting and teasing out Rococo "revivals" and influence in decorative fashion up to the present. While I was interested in Rococo more than, say, Baroque, I was not prepared to be so completely enamored by this stupendous silver Meissonnier covered tureen (top) from about 1735. It may strike you as a a blob of molten swirls in this photograph but I tell you it is one of the most heart-stoppingly peculiar and wonderful things to behold in person. A fantastical whirl of meticulously rendered mushrooms, carrots, shells and leaves, with a lobster peeking over the top and a dead pheasant or quail laid on for good measure. Second row above shows a couple other 18th century favorites including the delicate, almost icy Chinese-style Rococo mirror at right. English-made, in 1755, the mirror is one of several later international interpretations of the original French court style. It's interesting to see the variations. In the English version you can see the Chinese fancies thrown in, and the spindly spidery characterisitics sometimes incorporate Gothic as well.
Often dismissed as highly sophisticated nonsense, the style's whimsies, linear and intricate, are more suited for "mere" decoration rather than transformation into things more substantive like architecture. But at its best, rococo throws together astonishing realism and unsettling surrealism. The representation of nature-- shells, leaves, water–is startlingly realistic, but the manner in which items are swept up together, as if in tumult, puts everything in flux. It's a beautiful representation of disturbance. The style becomes, at times, unhinged from any semblance of underlying framework and all is swirl, asymmetry, accretion, and encrustation.
A surprising notion I took away from the show: some of the characteristically "Victorian" bombast of mid-19th century interior design, like the hilarious Belter settee shown (third row), could be considered Rococo Revival. Hmmm. I'd never heard that one. But its an interesting insight into "what were they thinking."
Fourth row down is the exquisite Belgian "Heatwave" radiator that I've been eyeing from afar since its unveiling in 2003. Below that is a poster by illustrator/designer Marian Bantjes.
Two other small Cooper Hewitt exhibits are not to be missed are the Campagna Brothers curator's choice selections off the main hall (whence the wonderful and spidery chairs) and Multiple Choice, a display of samples and sample books, on the lower level (two delicious porcelain color samples-- if they do not produce a set of these plates, as is, it is criminal) .