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ART / CATHY CURTIS : Peeking Through Neoclassical Window : An Ambitious--but Diffuse and Incomplete--Show in San Juan Capistrano Offers Glimpses of an Era

Chances are you could pick out a New Wave band from the ‘70s, identify a Neo-Geo painting from the ‘80s and recognize beliefs espoused by the New Left or the neoconservatives. But how well-versed are you in neoclassicism?

The impetus for this question is an ambitious--but diffuse and incomplete--show at the Decorative Arts Study Center in San Juan Capistrano (through Jan. 15).

It offers a sampler of ancient Greek and Roman objects, two period rooms--French and Anglo-American--furnished with 18th-Century decorative arts. (There are also a few contemporary furniture pieces of marginal interest, designed more or less in the spirit of their forebears.)

Broadly speaking, neoclassicism is based on qualities 18th-Century tastemakers perceived in the arts of ancient Greek and Rome: harmony, proportion, clarity and simplicity. But these qualities have been interpreted in various ways by artists and craftsmen--from luxurious private indulgences to sternly stylized public monuments, from vast history paintings to dinner forks.

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Part of the problem with the show is that the Greek and Roman objects (including a tiny cork model of Temple of Sigesta in Sicily and a plaster cast of a youth from the Parthenon frieze) constitute a crowded, motley collection that seems to have been assembled more in the spirit of filling the shelves than making specific points about ancient cultural values.

It would have been more useful to see some one-to-one comparisons between ancient and 18th-Century sculpture or furniture, even if the center had to resort to photographs to make its case.

Grounding in the broader cultural background of the neoclassic age and specific information about the people who would have lived in these rooms would give the show a historical foundation it currently lacks.

A wall text does mention the vastly important excavations of antique civilizations in Herculaneum (begun in 1737) and Pompeii, initiated 11 years later, which brought the glories of the ancient world into sharper focus. On a grander scale, these undertakings can be compared to the craze for ancient Egypt kindled by the excavation of King Tut’s tomb in 1922.

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Like most aesthetic movements, neoclassicism was a reaction to the previous artistic wave--in this case, the playfully ornamental Rococo style of the early 18th Century. But the sober new style wasn’t just a fashionable whim.

To the intellectuals of the Enlightenment, ancient Greece and Rome represented a Golden Age, a model of how to run an ideal society.

Neoclassicism was based on a rejection of the old order of lavish amorality, artifice and corrupt rule (as in the “let them eat cake” school of social welfare) and an embrace of temperate behavior based on moral principles and rational thought. Nature was admired for its orderly qualities, and the human race was thought to be moving steadily toward perfection.

In the wry view of art historians Hugh Honour and John Fleming, neoclassic art in England was “created by and for the well-bred and well-read"--gentlemen with the benefits of a classical education.

Noblemen had their wives or mistresses depicted as dewy mythological characters in nature, perhaps posing beside an ancient urn or within hailing distance of the family’s neo-Palladian villa. English banking scion Henry Hoare re-created a pastoral scene worthy of Virgil on the family estate in Wiltshire with groves of trees, temples and a grotto.

In France, where the classic era already had been the inspiration of a golden age of art and literature 100 years earlier, philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau prodded the upper classes to exchange the idle pleasantries of Rococo for the moral austerity of ancient Sparta.

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By the late 18th Century, neoclassic ideals were even being offered to the great unwashed in the form of huge public pageants organized by painter and French Revolutionary activist Jacques-Louis David.

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Painter Etienne Delecluze wrote years later about “the mania for copying the Romans, followed by the craze for imitating the Greeks,” which encompassed “woman’s fashions . . . the decoration of interiors, down to the most ordinary utensils.”

That’s where the Decorative Arts Study Center comes in, offering examples of domestic objects that embody (in varying degrees) some of the lofty ideals of the period.

The cozy, patriotically red, white and blue French provincial bedroom celebrates the virtues of well-regulated country life. The fabric covering the tiny four-poster bed shows a scene of tranquil pastoral activity. The fireplace with Doric columns and the lyre-back fruitwood chair are obvious references to antiquity.

A small receptacle called a semanier (“weekly”) has a drawer for each day of the week. A simple set of shelves (encoignures) was designed to fit modestly into a corner. Even the chamber pot is tucked away discreetly underneath a chaise percee --a simple chair with an openwork cane seat.

Although the center provides specific information on the furniture, it is mum on the social status of the people who would have used it.

Were they gentry? Middle-class tradesmen? How about spinning a tale about such people, or helping set the scene with a quote from a contemporary work of fiction about late-18th-Century life in the French provinces?

The Anglo-American breakfast room seems much snootier, appropriate for an age steeped in decorum and convention, however classically restrained. A sideboard, a household novelty introduced by English architect and designer Robert Adam, serves as a stately centerpiece. (The undulating mahogany piece on view was made in New York state about 1780.)

A garlanded processional scene that could have been lifted from a Classic-period Greek vase wends its way around a Jasperware (porcelain) vase. Elegant simplicity governs the design of an Adam knife box and a tea box in the style of English designer Thomas Sheraton.

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A note says the inspiration for this room was Deer Park in Baltimore. For those of us unfamiliar with particular historic homes--especially one so far afield--a photograph or at least more information might not be amiss.

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Ultimately, this show does serve as a small window into the domestic life of an era. As an institution obliged to rely on the kindness of friends (local decorators and collectors) in lieu of a museum-sized budget, the center performs small miracles with its period rooms.

But it should be remembered that these rooms also serve as showcases for the work of local designers. To lessen the appearance that it is shilling their services and to increase its potential as a serious educational resource, the center would do well to augment furniture and fabric with a better sense of the human fabric--the complex, fallible, personal set of interactions that govern taste and style.

* “18th-Century Inspirations: 20th Century Reflections--Part III: The Neoclassical” continues through Jan. 15 at the Decorative Arts Study Center, 31431 Camino Capistrano, San Juan Capistrano. $3. Hours: 10 a.m. to 3 p.m, Tuesday through Saturday. (714) 496-2132.


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