Significant Form I: Swing High

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‘Significant Form’ was a regular feature I contributed to the Erotic Review in its earlier incarnation, that ran in the end to a series of some 45 articles. By the introduction of a modicum of art appreciation and serious critical comment, its honourable purpose was to try to raise the general moral tone of the magazine above the low schoolboy level then prevailing, in which endeavour, so I like to think, I to some extent succeeded. And now, persuaded rather against my better judgement (but duty calls) I find myself at it again, that general tone having sunk in the meantime even lower than before. Moral uplift, in short, and the more uplift the better.

The underlying premise or principle of the series, which was constructed around manifestly sexy pictures that were on open view, came to me on seeing a cartoon in Punch, or perhaps it was Playboy. It showed a crocodile of children being led briskly through a gallery by its tweed-suited and sensibly-shod schoolmistress of a certain age, they all looking as undeviatingly straight ahead as she: except, that is to say, for the two dishevelled urchins at the back, ties loose and caps askew. And as I remember it, as they looked about them with a wild surmise at the naked, heaving, writhing, baroquely groping figures that occupied the paintings on the walls, one was saying to the other: “Why do they never tell us about places like this?”

Why not indeed: for, as I wrote then, it is still dinned into us by the interpretative professions, that those pretty girls crowding the walls of any art gallery worthy of the name are not at all what High and Serious Art is really all about. Oh dear me no. No no no. Art, they say, is surely meant to elevate the mind and set our thoughts on higher things and the meaning of life. Those dear creatures, half in or indeed entirely out of their clothes though they may be, and so often are, and up to all sorts of no good into the bargain, and with goodness knows whom, and now I’ve quite lost my train of thought. Where was I? Oh yes. Attractive they may be, and to the point of distraction – pay attention at the back there – but of course that’s all entirely beside the point. Formal structure is by far the more important consideration, and the quality of the drawing, don’t you know, the modelling, the composition, those tonal values. Significant Form, can’t you see: that’s what Art is all about.

But of course it’s not true. And significance does rather attach itself to the form in question, the human form especially. We’re flesh and blood after all, and sex somehow will always come into it. Artists have never needed more than the flimsiest, most muslin-like of excuses to ask if the muse of the moment might care to show herself off to better advantage, if only as a personal, I mean professional favour. Just a hitch of the skirt perhaps might do the trick, and if you’d just undo that button of your blouse, and the next, perhaps? And so one thing leads to another, as it always does. If you would lift your knee just a little more, and lean back just a fraction… perhaps put that hand just there… what if… and are you quite comfortable now? And where and who is the girl to resist such earnest, disinterested attention, and naked flattery? “They do say I have good legs, you know, and quite a nice figure.” “Well, how can I tell unless you show me properly….?”

And, having said all that, what was to be the subject of my very first piece but a painting in which the fair creature at the centre of events could hardly have had more clothes on. Billow upon billow of gorgeous silks, in fact, like waves crashing on the coral strand. But then Fragonard knew what all true painters also know, that you don’t always have to show everything (even though he quite often did). Indeed, you can sometimes heighten considerably the desired effect, in other words uplift morale no end, by showing hardly anything at all, just so long as there is just a bit to see, and the right bit at that.

So here we are again with Fragonard and The Swing, painted in 1767 or so for an unknown gentleman of the Court of Louis XV, and without a long and serious study of which no visit to the Wallace Collection is quite complete. The setting is a glade in some princely park, set about with assorted romantic statuary and monuments. The heroine of the piece is indeed the most delicious confection in the world, good enough to eat, as she swings high above the bushes in what appears at first to be perfectly innocent girlish fun, flouncing her skirts and flirting her ankles in pure high spirits, so much so as to kick off her little pink shoe. Up into the air it goes. Ah, les hasards heureux de l’escarpolette, as the French rather sweetly put it.

But wait a minute – who is the young man in the rose bush below her, waiting to catch that delectable trophy? By the state of his breeches, and the pinkness of her cheeks, there is clearly rather more to all this than mere playfulness. Certainly the stone cupids on the wall below would seem to think so, as they look on in some alarm, not to say disapproval. And who is the neatly-dressed older man in the shadows behind among the trees, who pulls the rope to send the swing ever higher, and to such exhilarating effect on both the younger parties? Her father? Surely not. An uncle? Well, we all know there are uncles and uncles. Her guardian? Some guardian. Her pander? Hmmm. An elderly, rival admirer? Quite likely, for the stone Cupid, perched high on the tomb above the younger man, has a warning finger to its lips, so there is some secret to be kept, or care taken. It is said a bishop, no less, was concerned peripherally in the original commissioning of the painting, so perhaps here indeed is the Bishop himself, deceived, poor soul, but still pulling in vain hope on his rope.

Caught in a bright shaft of sunlight, and quite undaunted, the minx kicks her legs high and wide, and, as her shoe flies off, in and among the billowing petticoats we catch a glimpse of a grey stocking rolled just above the knee, and above it still, a shaded hint of the soft pink flesh of her upper, inner thigh. And above that? Does the entranced swain see what we cannot, in promise as it were of forbidden, probably expensive, future pleasure and delight? The question hangs forever unanswered in the air. It is the picture’s chief and eternal charm.

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