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Exhibition guide

Sections 5 to 7

Jean-Honoré Fragonard (Grasse 1732- Paris 1806), Knight sitting near a fountain, circa 1769. Barcelone, MNAC, Museu Nacional d'Art de Catalunya de Bellas Artes
© Jean-Honoré Fragonard (Grasse 1732- Paris 1806), Knight sitting near a fountain, circa 1769. Barcelone, MNAC, Museu Nacional d'Art de Catalunya de Bellas Artes

Laughter and sarcasm - The laboratory of the face - The costume studio.

Section 5 - Laughter and sarcasm

Portrait painters tended to represent their model in a polite and neutral manner. History painters, despite depicting human passions, also remained within the bounds of decorum. In contrast, fantasy figures were studio experiments or responded to the taste of the commissioner. They allowed artists to experiment with a wide range of emotions, far from conventions, including ugliness and facial deformations.

The paintings in this section push back the boundaries of expression. Laughter and smiling have always been a problem for painters. They deform the other parts of the face, shrink the eyes and can easily turn into a grimace. But here we see artists who enjoy laughter and grimaces, which sometimes border on madness, and all without the risk of hurting a model.

Beyond technical ability, these paintings can take the form of ironic reflection on the absurdity of the world, like Democritus, or constitute works of self-derision like self-portraits. The representation of animals also often serves to draw the viewer's attention to another subject of reflection of the human condition. It emphasises the animal nature of the subjects. Another theme in this section covers the very free expressions of young people and of those who are on the margins of controlled society. Admirers of this, while perhaps envying their lack of inhibition, probably also wanted to protect themselves from them in real life… ?


Section 6 - The laboratory of the face

Balthasar Denner (Altona, 1685 – Rostock, 1749), Vieille femme

The face wears the marks of time. It is therefore a challenge and source of enjoyment for fantasy painters, who take pleasure in working on the pictorial matter just like time acts on the skin of these beings. Thus, the deep wrinkles on a face with leathery skin offer a striking contrast to the smooth and almost transparent skin of a very young girl. Applying more or less pressure on the brush adds nuances to sparse hair.

But painters are not only seeking realism and anatomic precision. These are not wax masks made directly on the model. For artists, representing a face is the opportunity to show their skill; it is a particularly educational exercise in style which is translated by a certain number of choices. The originality of the framing, often tight, places emphasis on the gaze or on a greying beard.

The effects of lights are varied and make it possible to deepen wrinkles or, inversely, to diminish their depth. These effects give the subjects an intense physical presence. Now we'll leave you to meet them, in a face-to-face encounter which is sometimes disturbingly real.

Illustration : Balthasar Denner (Altona, 1685 – Rostock, 1749), Old woman, Vienne, Gemäldegalerie, Kunsthistorisches Musuem © KHM-Museumsverband.


Section 7 - The costume studio

From Don Quixote to The Marriage of Figaro, European literature and opera are full of role plays, exotic disguises and travesties. Painters also liked isolating beautiful, touching or pathetic figures and decorating them in sumptuous finery, often at odds with their true self. The characters in this section are typified by identities which are difficult to define, as clothes do not always make the man. The sublime woman with a hat by de Bray has something of Semiramis, the beautiful Neapolitan woman by Solimena evokes Cleopatra, but this is not enough to identify them with certainty. Sibylle by Van den Hoecke is also a splendid study of a black woman. Soldiers are not defined as soldiers simply because they are holding a sword; they may also be the portrait of an actor dressed up as a soldier. The examples of "Espagnolettes" show how a costume can lend its name to a genre. Tiepolo's and Fragonard's portraits of old men perfectly sum up the subject of the exhibition because they are exotic fantasies, studies of the matter and skin tone and variations of the gaze. The sumptuous Knight sitting near a fountain closes the visit, combining the most unbridled fantasy with the codes of a formal portrait.

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