Fragonard at the Getty Center: Allegories of Love

I said earlier that I would report on the Fragonard exhibition when I returned to Los Angeles. Well, I am a woman of my word.

Not that going to the Getty required too much of an effort. The weather here is balmy, as though to make me me feel how foolish I am to spend so much of my time in Paris and London, where, I am sorry to report, grey skies, rain and cold are the order of the day.

The Getty Center has such an outdoorsy feel that I could enjoy not only the permanent collections and Fragonard exhibition inside the pavilions, but also the sweeping vistas of the Pacific Ocean and the city from the museum’s gorgeous garden and plazas.

The exhibition is titled Consuming Passion: Fragonard’s Allegories of Love. Its focus, very narrow as is often the case with Getty exhibitions, is on the work of the artist during the 1780s, on the eve of the French Revolution. These paintings and drawings are indeed allegories of love. But consuming passion? I would rather call it consummated passion. Love as Fragonard shows it is physical, sensual, erotic, beautiful, tender. Often there remains an ironic distance between the painter and his subject.

The exhibition highlights Fragonard’s unique ability to capture a fleeting moment, his virtuosity as a draftsman and colorist, his mastery of light and shadows. The Getty’s own Fountain of Love was chosen for the poster of the exhibition, but I kept coming back to Le Serment d’Amour, The Pledge of Love. A man and woman, hands extended, exchange vows of eternal love in a secluded spot in the woods, and the man also takes advantage of the occasion to seize the lady by the waist with his free arm. And then… Fragonard is a storyteller.

Next to the main exhibition was the smaller Fragonard in Southern California Collections show. You only have to cross the hallway to admire the portrait of Fanfan, Fragonard’s young son, and an allegory of winter, represented by a skating young woman falling flat on her stomach. Please do not trust the pale reproduction of the painting on the Getty’s website. The reds of her skirts are a wonder.

Fragonard will always be remembered as the painter of la douceur de vivre, the sweetness of living. A time that came to an abrupt end only a very few years later with the Revolution.

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