Wednesday, September 21, 2011

The Other Fragonard

Honoré Fragonard's "Horseman", circa 1768

One thing leads to another. While rummaging around the internet in search of information on Jean-Honoré Fragonard (see previous post), I inadvertently came across a three-part documentary on youtube concerning his younger cousin, Honoré Fragonard. Initially, I took the younger Fragonard to be an artist as well, only he seemed to devote his creative talents toward sculpture. But, I quickly discovered that he was a sculptor of the strangest sort. He sculpted cadavers in the 18th-century.

Apparently, this is a little-known part of intellectual France at that time. Many educated persons of medicine and of certain prestige desired to own a sculpted cadaver for their personal art collection. While Fragonard was certainly not the only anatomist/artist to cater to such demand, he was one of the most sought after and most prolific, with more than 3,000 specimens to his credit. Most of these were various animals and parts of humans created of purposes of scientific study but many other pieces were composed for pure artistic reasons.

Fragonard used a method which left the various tissues of the skinned body essentially mummified. He never revealed how he preserved his cadavers. The result was an almost bronzing effect. Many of these “works” appear to be layered pieces of leather, treated and formed as a kind of collage or mache in human form. But, this appearance is merely the human mind trying to deny what it is beholding. These are all real people, mostly criminals, who died for various reasons, whose bodies were chosen to be preserved in order to accommodate various aesthetic tastes of the period.

At first it seems ghastly and macabre, yet, you can see many of Fragonard’s efforts today in a special Parisian museum. The French, obviously, had a rather twisted, if somewhat progressive, fringe taste for art. Officially, Parisian society frowned upon the apparently lively cadaver trade of the time. They also considered anatomists to be a base sort of scientist. So, while Fragonard made a decent living for many years with his mummified works thanks to his robust patronage, everything had to be kept quiet and out of the public eye.

Honoré Fragonard got his start in equine and animal practice at the world’s first veterinary school at Lyon in 1762. He was hired by and worked closely with the renowned Claude Bourgelat. Soon, Fragonard was producing anatomical specimens for academic study. These preserved not just the flesh and bone of the given animal but the organs and other tissues as well. Essentially, everything Fragonard did preserved the subject in its natural complexity in order to assist the scientific community in better understanding the workings of any given body.

Eventually, Fragonard came to preserve entire human bodies, going so far as to place them in various poses for presentation. There is one of a man offered as Samson, holding the jawbone of an ass. More infamous, however, was his preservation of another human figure atop an entire horse; an immortal rider.

This led to Fragonard’s temporary downfall. It seems that Bourgelat was less than impressed with Fragonard’s artistic pursuits and his catering to the tastes of certain French intellectuals with interests in the cadaver trade. The rumor circulated that Fragonard’s “horseman” was, in fact, a woman (something that seems rather obviously false to use today but remember little was known of human anatomy at the time) who Honoré had once loved but had died.

In his grief, so the rumor went, he had the body exhumed so that he could preserve his loved one forever. Whether through rivalry or morality or some personal dispute (we do not know) Bourgelat despised Fragonard’s so-called art and had him dismissed from the school on concerns regarding his sanity – or lack thereof.

For about a dozen years little is known about the whereabouts and doings of Honoré. He resurfaces in the public record indicate that he continued his work with animals and cadavers which were now prepared for displays in private intellectual and aristocratic residences. Apparently, it was through the influence of such contacts that he was able to attain a couple of memberships in lesser assemblies of the arts in France. He died, falling into utter obscurity, in 1799.

Any morbidity about what Honoré Fragonard created in his lifetime is tempered today by Bodies, a wildly successful of the artist/scientific exhibition that has circled through various museums of art for the past several years, and Body Worlds, a preceding exhibit. My personal surprise (a better word than “shock” in this case) was in the fact that, while researching a prominent artist of the frolicsome Rococo period, I came across a somewhat secretive and bizarre artistic world previously unknown to me occurring at precisely the same time as a well-known movement of lightness and sensuality.

This might be called the “dark art” of the time. It was certainly not widely accepted but it, nevertheless, offers a glimpse of what can be considered postmodern art – some 300 years ago. Often, it is the obscure that heralds the innovative form of the human imagination. For me, Honoré Fragonard, like his cousin, has proven to be a pioneer of certain aspects of artistic expression. And he indicates how vast the scope of Art, that highest expression of our humanity, can be; a terrific contrast to the work and sentimentalities of his cousin, the more famous, other Fragonard.

Was Honoré actually insane? It is doubtful. Perhaps he was just "weird." He gravitated toward a niche of artistic expression in his time that many people would still find objectionable today. But, provocation is certainly no excuse to impinge upon the freedom of artistic endeavor. It is all a matter of taste, is it not?

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