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A Wanton Kind of Chase

by Helen Clifford .

Metaphors of sex within decorative design, become overt, if not pervert, patterns of fantasy. Verhoeven is at once extending and connecting those eighteenth century secret worlds of desire and imagination with our own expectations.

When Julie Verhoeven's chinoiserie extravaganza unfurled on my screen like a bolt of fabric or wallpaper, I remembered those mid-eighteenth century critics of Rococo taste who lambasted its frivolity, its incendiary lasciviousness, its threat to classical order and good taste. The architect Isaac Ware grumbled in 1756 'It is our misfortune to see at this time unmeaning scrawl of 'C's' inverted, turned and hooked together, take the place of Greek and Roman elegance, even in our most expensive decorations'. In mid-eighteenth century Britain design theorists chastised the consuming public, and the designers who satisfied their tastes, for adopting with such enthusiasm the 'Chinese taste', also known as 'the Chinese unmeaning Stile'. This exotic 'affectation', was considered as an unruly offspring of the Rococo, the first 'style' in Europe to stem from the decorative arts, rather than architecture. It was therefore not serious, in fact its whimsy, its disregard for any rules: of proportion, and propriety meant that it could be classified as dangerous. It could indeed damage your moral health and threatened good 'straight' classical design.

Verhoeven's designs provide a challenge in a similar way - assaulting stripped down Modernism that is still so much the touchstone of taste. Verhoeven's work takes the assault on classical prudery a stage further. While the little Chinese men, and monkeys in the early eighteenth century prints and drawings merely hinted at sexuality, Verhoeven addresses the theme directly. Metaphors of sex within decorative design, become overt, if not pervert, patterns of fantasy. She is at once extending and connecting those eighteenth century secret worlds of desire and imagination with our own expectations.

In both eighteenth century and twenty-first century examples the outrageous is made to be a form of blanket pattern, almost catching us out, as we first dismiss it and then realise what lies beneath the surface, titillating as we are caught in flagrante delicto recognition. They both have the power that emerges from pattern, the unruly that lies in wait within the normative. It is not surprising that in the eighteenth century pattern books containing these designs flourished, like Pillement's A New Book of Chinese Ornaments. From these carved and gilded mirrors, painted wall panels, silver centrepieces, and silken fabrics were worked, luxurious commodities which in themselves threatened the moral fabric of society.

The trouble was that it pandered to 'the peculiar fondness for novelty which reigns at present', which by its nature, requiring constant variety, consisted 'of mere whim and chimera, without rules or order', where 'it everyday produces, as it does elsewhere, some new monster'. It was its very domesticity that was outrageous, the fact that as pattern it could be applied to so many forms, and corrupt so many spaces. It was fun, it broke the rules. While there were many architects and theorists to assault the Rococo, and its Chinese and Gothic offshoots, only one defender emerged, and that was ironically the anti-Gallican and outspoken painter, William Hogarth.

Much to the annoyance and derision of the new profession of connoisseurs Hogarth presumed to take up pen as well as brush, and published his alternative explanation of aesthetics in his Analysis of Beauty in 1754. He attacked their 'over-born pompous terms of art, hard-names', and in its place used homely analogies, the curve of the corset, the serpentine sweep of a carved chair leg to explain why the wavy line of beauty triumphed over the frigidity of classical straight line. It was no wonder, Hogarth mused that everyone was into the Gothic and Chinese taste, they were bored out of their minds with neo-Palladian rules and regulations. 'There is at present' he wrote 'such a thirst after variety, that even paltry imitations of Chinese building have a kind of vogue, chiefly on account of their novelty'. 'All senses are averse to sameness', the 'active mind is ever bent to be employ'd. Pursuing is the business of our lives', 'intricacy of form' is to be preferred, the waving-line which 'leads the eye a wanton kind of chase'. Verhoeven's designs make full and fore-play with this wantoness, this innate desire for movement and amusement that links the physical and mental, past and present desires.