I wish I knew why some artists are in fashion and others are not. If there were any pattern to it, my job would feel less like micturating in the wind. But there is no pattern. For unfathomable reasons, certain artists pull our iron filings in certain directions at certain times, and others do not.
Right now, Watteau is not pulling our filings. Neither is his epoch, the rococo age. Why the rococo is unfavoured on our catwalk is perhaps easier to understand. Societies looking into the fairground mirror of time do not wish to have their own likenesses reflected back at them. They want the opposite. Watteau’s age, the early 18th century, is known to have been frilly, slight and superficial. So we prefer the baroque age, which seems deeper, darker, more intense. When a Milky Bar looks into a fairground mirror, it wants to see a bar of Green & Black’s reflected back.
The irony is that Watteau, one of the stand-out geniuses of art, was never a proper rococo artist. Yes, he painted canoodling couples parading and flirting across picturesque stretches of woody French countryside, and his dates, 1684-1721, are rococo enough. But he was such a deep and individual talent, no epoch has a hope of containing him fully. He died early, too, aged 37, leaving behind no explanations. So we have on our hands a short-lived, enigmatic genius whose art is particularly difficult to net.
Fortunately, two fine London shows have skipped into the meadow to have a go. Both are must-see events for lovers of the precious. The Wallace Collection’s effort offers a more complete picture, as it features a gallery of Watteau paintings surrounded by the furniture of his times, but the Royal Academy’s show is more adventurous because it looks exclusively at his drawings.
Watteau was an exquisite draughtsman. One of the finest there has been. His drawings do not have the heft and thunder of Michelangelo’s, perhaps, but they are as fluent as Degas’s, as note-perfect as Toulouse-Lautrec’s, as exciting as Picasso’s. On top of his superior touch — that great racing driver’s ability he had to take the perfect line through every corner — there is the added ingredient of his preferred materials. Watteau worked exclusively in coloured chalks, first, in red chalk alone, then in three colours at once: red, black and white.
Technically, the results might be drawings, but what is actually going on here seems closer to fencing, or juggling, or even magic. A perfect example is the enticing sheet sent over by the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, in which Watteau presents a rococo beauty in three positions. In all three, she twists this way and that, as Watteau’s sitters generally do. The rococo age has gone cubist and is harbouring an ambition to show us all the angles at once.
Look, too, at how Watteau uses red chalk to evoke her black hair. And how the delicious plumpnesses of the woman’s breasts, poking out of one of those irresistible rococo dresses that do to bosoms what cones do to ice creams, are achieved with no more than a small whitening of the paper. This is drawing with an alchemical dimension. In these hands, red, white and black can become any colour they fancy. And what should be a set of limitations — the same colours, the same medium, in drawing after drawing — has become a whole new means of expression.