Jean-Claude Duplessis designed elephant-themed porcelain vases at the royal Sèvres works near Paris in around 1758, and the Metropolitan Museum acquired this pair of them exactly two centuries later. At Saturday’s TEDx session at the Met, the most interesting talk was by Luke Syson, the Met’s new head of European sculpture and decorative arts, who described his love-hate relationship with Rococo pieces like this. (Most of the other talks and performances were at a painfully lower level of sophistication and complexity than the great Met objects they drew inspiration from. Nobel winner Eric Kandel, who has had so many original thoughts about brains, proved once again how his views on art can’t escape cliché.) Syson talked about how the “traditional” view of vases like these, among right-thinking lefties like him, is that they need to be despised as symbols of everything that was wrong with the Ancien Regime. And then he described how over time he’s learned to love them as delightful expressions of “fancy” – of a fantasy life that modernism has conspired to deny us. That risks sounding an awful lot like a full-bore capitulation to the escapist, Ancien Régime values that Duplessis’s work represents, and that are more than ever in force in our own society. I’m convinced, however, that there must be a way for Syson to read these vases politically, sociologically, while also arguing in their favor. I’m not sure quite how to do it – maybe you could imagine that, by so brilliantly expressing the values of the aristocracy, these vases set the stage for its overthrow. Someone like Alexander Nemorov might say that they are really portraits of bewigged heads about to roll.
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