The Fantasy Figure
A European Phenomenon
Here are some short extracts from the fascinating and erudite essay by Melissa Percival, a specialist in 18th century French painting, Associate Professor at the University of Exeter in England. It was she who had the formidable honour of presenting and defining the object of study « the Fantasy figure ».
« This exhibition explores the fascination with the human face and form across more than two centuries of European art. Its focus is an enduring type of work, the fantasy figure, where the human subject is presented up close to the viewer. […] C Some figures are inviting or alluring, others scornful or wary. By artful persuasion or apparent disregard, they elicit the viewer's curiosity, complicity or desire. For artists, often constrained by the specificity of a commission ‒ capturing a resemblance, faithfully recording a biblical or mythological scene ‒ these informal studies provide a liberating outlet. Experiments with the human form, they are also a pretext for painterly brio, extravagance and humour. What originated in the studio found favour with buyers, who appreciated the beauty and mystery of these ‘heads' as well as their close connection with the artistic process.
[…] In this exhibition, the fantasy figure is for the first time considered as a distinct entity with a pan-European evolution and spread. […]
A European History
This exhibition presents an anthology of the fantasy figure. […] Secular figure-painting for private collections emerged in conjunction with easel painting in the late fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Among the earliest examples of fantasy figures are Giorgione's mysterious half-length shepherds and musicians. […] Caravaggio gave new impetus to the half-length figure at the turn of the seventeenth century. […] In eighteenth-century France, the fantasy figures of Jean-Baptiste Santerre, Jean Raoux, Alexis Grimou and Jacques Courtin, were self-conscious pastiches, produced for a new upwardly-mobile clientele eager to hone their skills of connoisseurship. […]This exhibition ends with the close of the eighteenth century, but this is not supposed to be a neat ending for interest in the human figure is a constant in western art.
The Face in All its States
At stake is the fragility of the early modern self. […]The artists in this exhibition were driven to render the human face in all its complexity, often producing several versions of the same face to capture all its nuances, or working on a variety of faces to reflect the diversity of humankind (eg. Chardin's pastels). […]
Diderot wrote in his Salon de 1767: "Quelle difference y-a-t-il entre une tête de fantaisie et une tête réelle? ". His observation has been interpreted by other scholars as signalling a clear difference between a work done from the imagination (‘de fantaisie') and one done from life (a portrait).
Fantasy and Imagination
[…] Fantaisie is the antithesis of rules, order, sequence, exactitude, seriousness, didacticism, academicism. In short, the fantasy figure comprises what the modern critic Giuseppe Pavanello has called a ‘spazio de evasione' (space of escape).
Numerous accounts allude to artists' feelings of liberation or distraction, often in terms of freedom from the rigours of portraiture.
[…] The artist is free to depict unorthodox body positions and facial expressions: hunched over; lying down; back turned to the viewer; in profile; grinning.
[…] Freed from the obligation to make the subject beautiful, the artist constructs a sort of laboratory of the face, fixing on the detail of an eyebrow, of a cheekbone, a flyaway beard, a plethora of wrinkles. […]
The sheer variety of fantasy figures, and what might initially be seen as their contradictions, are encompassed by the term fantaisie. A fascination with the trivial and inconsequential can be seen in the innocence of a child, the blush of a young woman's cheek, the angle of a feather, a servant's progress momentarily arrested. An unexplained yearning is found in the ‘otherness' of an arcadian shepherd boy or an exotic turban. That yearning turns to erotic desire when confronted by a beckoning or sleeping woman. These are paintings about not very much, where not a lot happens. Yet the attraction and the charm of fantasy figures lie in their capacity to articulate hidden desires and unspoken longing, to valorize the mundane, the bizarre and the overlooked. […]
And so it is that these works lend themselves readily to poetry or fiction. […] »