Rococo - like pebbles on a beach
You will have heard the term “Rococo”, often used for something in an elaborate style. The word originates from the French “roquailles”: rocky terrain or a pebble beach.
In the Middle Ages and up to the 17th Century, religion was central to the way we thought. Western art was meant to be the expression of the perfection of God, and therefore there were clear rules about symmetry and composition. God would not simply throw things together; the world was seen as perfectly organised by His hand.
In the 18th Century, with the rise of rationalism, people started to see this differently. As we started to have think independently from the Church, we became aware of Nature in its own right: not ordered by God’s hand, but having its own power and rules. If you look around in Nature, things are ordered in a sort of very disorderly way: rocks are thrown all over the place, pebbles never stay in the same place, leaves grow wherever the light is, not where God (or the artist’s hand) placed them.
A new style developed. I have a strange little vase made by Chelsea in about 1765 that expresses this style beautifully: nothing is straight, everything looks like it’s grown there rather than placed, and the whole item is asymmetrical. I love this little vase for its natural feel: everything about it is unexpected and it never bores me.
As rationalism became more mainstream and people rediscovered the Classical Greek and Roman cultures, Rococo was replaced by neo-Classicism with its sharp angles, rational style and rather sparse ornaments. Which was just as well, as Europe struggled to pay for the various wars it was involved in - so there wasn’t a lot of money for ornaments and things became more functional.
But around the 1830s, money started rolling again with the explosion of the Industrial Revolution. New money was flowing everywhere, a rising Middle Class of industrialists wanted to spend it, and the Rococo style went through a revival. I have many different beautiful Rococo Revival dinner plates and tea sets that show exactly what the Rococo style was about: no two ornaments meet each other in a “perfect” place; everything is asymmetrical, things flow in strange places, like a plant having leaves that grow towards the light. But as a whole, each of these items is perfectly graceful and beautiful.
When I look at these, I feel the peace of nature. Nothing is imposed, the artist let his or her hand flow the way a river flows through its river bed. Thought does not interfere. Can you feel it?