There is something unsettling about looking at the treatment of matter in the arts of the Rococo. Unsettling, precisely because it fails to satisfy the viewer with any conclusive or coherent sense of what it is. The treatment of stone (which I will focus on here) appears to be simultaneously weighty and light. In this strange contradictory, and
unresolved state, Rococo stonework demonstrates both the limits of stone’s materiality (its weight, matter, particular properties) while at the same time extending that materiality into something other to it: so the heaviness of stone appears to be also something light and unsubstantial, while the craftsmen’s treatment of stone is also designed to point out to the spectator that it is still heavy stone. This is the essence of virtuosity, it seems to me, namely something which provokes both recognition and incomprehension of the medium and its treatment at the same time. In looking at Rococo stone work, we are compelled to think that we know that we are looking at stone, but that stone also appears like weightless clouds. In being both stony and non-stony, the Rococo conception of matter seems on the edge, falling neither one way nor the other, but incorporating a third, or ‘other’ material state. This makes looking at the supposed ‘frivolity’ of Rococo decoration slightly disconcerting.
In a conference paper I wrote with Emma, I had discussed this idea in relation to the Rococo artist, Jacques de la Joue (1687-1761). The manner in which de la Joue treated matter in his paintings seemed to me to couple the Pygmalion and Medusa myth at the same time: things turning to stone, and stone turning to flesh. The turning point at which this metamorphosis happens is suspended, so that it seems that the form might go – contradictorily – both ways simultaneously. In all de la Joue’s paintings, these forms (dogs, serpents, even decoration) appear poised between weightiness and lightness, decomposition and springing into life. Ultimately, each side of these apparent binaries isn’t intractably divided from the other, but ambivalently intertwined with their opposite. With the Rococo, you seem to get both lightness and weight, as opposed to either lightness or weight. As such, trying to resolve the contradictions embedded in the experience of looking at the Rococo is a fruitless enterprise.
This ambivalent state between lightness and heaviness made me think it is important to rethink the idea that the Rococo is only about ‘lightness’ and frivolity, or if we do think of it in those terms, to think about lightness as being inextricably linked to its opposite. The palace of Sans Souci demonstrates this clearly, the name of which couldn’t be anything lighter – sans souci means without care. If suffering is banished then so are the exigencies of having to bear with all concerns and worries; suffering, after all, etymologically means to support or bear. The palace itself is about not needing to support or suffer anything. Originally intended as a place to drink wine, it is also concerned with turning that particular tensile weightiness peculiar to the grape into an inebriating liquid; something rich and dark, perhaps, but also something that makes you lightheaded. Bacchus, who appears in a gold frieze in the entrance, is round and tumbles heavily about, but he is wrought in gilt stucco so that his curving belly fat becomes little calligraphic marks of shifting light, as if he were a firm grape and its liquid simultaneously. Again, lightness and weight, body and light are tangled up, each side of the binary folded into one another.
Nothing could sum up this condition of suffer-free lightness better than the caryatids and atlases that ‘bear’ the architrave of the palace. They all stand there, laughing, rather than grimacing, holding up the structure with garlands of flowers, a tapered finger, or folds of drapery. One lady arches back, turning her head to the spectator with a smile. Her arching body is almost violently twisted (that strange violence of the Rococo), but then (again simultaneously) the lightness of her touch suggests an absence of suffering, an un-bodily body where the tensions of bones and tendons mean nothing.
These figures do not actually fulfil any structural function – like so many caryatids and atlases, they only perform and designate structural tension in order to better articulate it, much like the way in which the Greeks introduced entasis (the bulging of pillars) to make the weight of the architrave on the columns all the more obvious. But with Sans Souci, firstly there are too many atlases and caryatids than is necessary, and secondly, their performance is a witty and ironic one – they do not actually hold up anything at all, and even if they appear as if they are, they do so as if by magic, with a lightness of touch. In this sense, they point out the performative nature of their architectural function. They are heavy, massive things performing lightness, and, conversely, figures which lightly perform the role of bearing something heavy. As such, these caryatids and atlases articulate the lightness of weight and, in their massive forms, the weightiness of lightness.
Might we then consider the Rococo’s approach to matter as metaphorical? Richard Coyne pointed out in an article on the subject of metaphor that metaphor contains two words: meta, meaning ‘“change, transformation, permutation, or substitution”’ and “phor” which ‘comes from the Greek ϕορά (phorá) a form of the word ϕέρειν (phérein) meaning to carry or to bear.’ If these caryatids and atlases are ‘metaphorical’, then while they ‘bear’ the architrave, they also incorporate the “substitution” or “transformation” (i.e. meta) of the act of bearing: this is the substitution of weight for lightness, suffering for pleasure. Thus, if on the one hand they are metaphors of ‘bearing’, on the other hand they also enact a substitution of bearing with its negation, not bearing. So the substitution occurs ‘within’ the very idea of metaphor itself, the ‘meta’ (substitution) slyly, wittily substituting the ‘phor’ (bearing) with its opposite, not bearing. But this isn’t quite the whole story. Because the caryatids and atlases still perform the act of bearing and as such cannot categorically said to be not bearing, so the substitution is not a complete one. They are bearing and not-bearing simultaneously. The caryatids and atlases are, in this sense un-bearing, where the negation is affirms the non-predicate rather than denies it, i.e. ‘They are non-bearing’ as opposed to ‘They do not bear’. This type of negation is one which Slavoj Zizek glosses in a way which I find important for understanding the nature of Rococo materiality more broadly. Zizek writes of the former type of negation, which Kant called an indefinite judgement, in the following way:
‘The indefinite judgement opens up a third meaning that undermines the distinction between dead [denying the predicate – he is not alive] and non-dead (alive) [affirming the non-predicate, ‘he is undead] ….And the same goes for ‘inhuman’: He is not human’ means simply that he is external to humanity, animal or divine, while ‘he is inhuman’ means something thoroughly different, namely the fact that he is neither human nor inhuman, but marked by a terrifying excess which, although it negates what we understand as humanity, is inherent to being human….’ (How to Read Lacan, pp.46-47).
In the same way, I think this can be applied to Rococo’s undecidedness when it comes to matter. Rococo matter involves this ‘third term’ that appears between the binaries of light and weight, bearing and not bearing, suffering (supporting) and pleasure (not supporting). This is because the Rococo collapses a tradition of thinking in terms of opposed binaries and, in the case of materiality, suggests that the metamorphosis of matter, from hard to soft, stone to cloud, and so on, is neither linear nor unidirectional, but folds one state into the other. But these folds are not the soft, voluminous ones of the Baroque. Rather the fold of one material state into another seems more precarious and fragile, so that the ambivalence is a ‘nervous’ one. The interiors decoration throughout Sans Souci is a testament to this, where little aleatory folds of birds wings appear to be also like dead leaves on the forest floor or fleshy lobes wrought with holes: the decoration flickers with both movement and decay, flight and fleshy weight, something which candle-light would only have accentuated. There is thus a precarity about this Rococo fold: here suffering might quickly fall into pleasure, and vice-a-versa, though which way is undecided and ultimately never resolved – suffering and pleasure, without care and with care co-exist. If there is a sans to souci, it doesn’t actually eradicate the presence of souci. When I took a picture of the caryatids for this text, I accidentally only incorporated this latter word; it remains there as an indelible reminder.
In this sense, the lightness of Sans Souci is also its peculiar heaviness, in the same way that the idea of inebriation (the very ‘purpose’ of Sans Souci’) incorporates the heavy and cumbersome, but also the lightheaded and uninhibited. There is – to use the title of a famous book – something unbearable about this lightness, it is everywhere and overwhelming, as well as completely pleasurable and stimulating.
In one of the Rococo rooms in the nearby Neuen Palais, where I was showed around in the freezing cold with damp, heavy shoes and cold toes after I foolishly tried to take a short cut through some marshes, my audio guide told me that beyond one of the rooms which I could not enter because the floor was too delicate and fragile to support my feet, was the room in which Kaiser Wilhelm II signed the official declaration that Germany was at war in 1914. The incongruity of such violence and the shimmering scrolls of the room in which the violence was declared no longer seemed so absurd after I had seen Sans Souci’s caryatids and atlases in their unbear-able state. It seemed disturbingly ‘appropriate’ that a war which killed so many people and left so many in a state described as being ‘undead’ with shell shock and trauma should be declared by the relics of a European aristocracy who saw war as a game in a room which was undecided in its weightiness and lightness. I returned to atlases and caryatids the next day and wondered, once again, whether they were laughing or grimacing, or both. Behind them (a view they could not see) was a ruin Frederik the Great also had built – a playful game for the amusement of courtiers, but also a memento mori of the precarity of such amusement. One column leans against the other, although, in actual fact it is securely cemented in. I later found out that the ruin was itself ruined in the war.