Rococo Abstraction Blooms at The Wallace Collection

Rococo Abstraction Blooms at The Wallace Collection

His bucolic pastoral landscapes.
Her otherworldly swirling forms.

One painter was a pioneer of the Rococo art movement, and the other, is his admirer and renowned for her contemporary interpretation of French Rococo. Together, their artworks paint a melodic tableaux of florals, pastels and bucolic beauty, and query how we can connect to Rococo almost three centuries after its demise. So goes The Wallace Collection’s display: The Language of the Rococo, which pairs the works of 18th century master François Boucher (1703 - 1770) alongside the contemporary artist Flora Yukhnovich.

The latter takes inspiration from Rococo's leading exponents Jean-Antoine Watteau (1684 - 1721), Jean-Honoré Fragonard (1732 - 1806), and, of course, Boucher to build the foundations of her oeuvre. Charmingly, it flits between representation and abstraction in large-scale oil paintings that have been exhibited across the globe. It is with great enthusiasm that one of Britain’s preeminent cultural institutions has not only commissioned the artist to create two paintings for the occasion, but will also temporarily use them to replace two of Boucher's own works at the top of the grand staircase on the landing of Hertford House.

François Boucher, Pastoral with a Couple near a Fountain, 1749 © The Trustees of the Wallace Collection

A celebration of 18th century ostentation versus modern pastoral scenes, of old and new romanticism, the gallery invites us to review Rococo's timelessness in a conceptual light- even removing two of Boucher's cherished works, Pastoral with a Bagpipe Player (1749) and Pastoral with a Couple near a Fountain (1749), and hanging them unframed on a white wall in a contemporary fashion. Running till November 3rd, this immersive display is not one to miss.

The Wallace Collection is home to one of the most significant ensembles of fine and decorative arts in the world. Along with mediaeval and Renaissance objects, and oil paintings from the 14th to the late 19th centuries by artists such as Titian, Velázquez, Rubens and Van Dyck, it holds the most prominent collection of François Boucher's paintings worldwide.

While some may know Boucher from Vivienne Westwood's iconic 1990 corsets printed with his Daphnis and Chloe (1743) painting, he was the most fashionable artist in France during his lifetime. First garnering public interest through his mythological paintings and pastoral works, he rose to become First Painter to King Louis XV, director of The Royal Academy, and then became popular through royal commissions, notably the chief mistress of King Louis XV, Madame de Pompadour, whose refined tastes would influence French art for two decades. His celebrated and influential paintings have had an enduring influence on Yukhnovich’s work, which have been enjoyed in galleries across the Czech Republic, Washington, Montreal, Australia and Italy, among others.

François Boucher, Pastoral with a Bagpipe Player, 1749 © The Trustees of the Wallace Collection

Almost three centuries after Boucher's death, Yukhnovich emulates his uncanny alacrity for nature and vibrant pastels (most notably blues and pinks reflecting Rococo interiors). The artist completed her MA in 2017 as a Fine Art student at City & Guilds of London Art School, and has since cultivated an attractive oeuvre that splices artistic historical styles with references drawn from contemporary films, music, literary sources and consumer culture. Yukhnovich has described her process as "searching for a language which sits between figuration and abstraction. I like the idea of combining these two art historical moments which have become highly gendered: the pretty Rococo imagery and the machismo of abstraction."

Her grip on current zeitgeist and modern perspective juxtaposes the traditional male gaze pervading Rococo masterpieces, such as one of the Wallace’s most famous paintings, Fragonard’s The Swing (1767). She uses colour and form to challenge this trope by playing with the received notions of femininity and gender. All the while simultaneously adopting and subverting the ‘language’ of the Rococo with a filter of contemporary cultural references and dynamic and rhythmic brushwork.

"Really, abstraction and figuration don’t feel separate to me," she says. "They are two different points in the same process, part of a spectrum which ranges from very loose, abstracted marks through to tightly articulated figuration. I do want the resulting paintings to remain open and ambiguous despite their figuration. The viewer has to fill in the looser areas in their mind and I hope that leads to a multiplicity of different readings."

Announcing the collaboration with Flora Yukhnovich, Dr Xavier Bray, Director of The Wallace Collection, says: “Flora Yukhnovich creates mesmerising, painterly works which remind us of the influence that the 18th century still exerts on our visual taste. I hope that her work will open up the Collection to a new generation of art lovers, who have yet to discover the joys of François Boucher, and will also give those who know the Collection well an opportunity to see it with fresh eyes.”

Flora Yukhnovich in her London studio, February 2022. Photo: Eva Herzog © Flora Yukhnovich. Courtesy the artist and Victoria Miro

In the past, Yukhnovich has expressed a fascination with the fête galante – a type of painting depicting the wealthy at amorous play in parkland settings that came to prominence with Watteau. Fittingly, Boucher’s first commission as a humble printmaker at the beginning of his career was with Watteau and later funded his trip to Rome, Italy in 1728, where he took inspiration from the Rococo artists of the Italian art world. He returned to Paris in 1731, where he soon embarked upon a varied, prolific, and enormously successful career, punctuated by many accolades and honours.

Following in his footsteps, Yukhnovich has embarked on her own influential tour through Italy. She was one of the first artists to undertake a residency with Victoria Miro gallery in Venice and, during a two-month stay in 2019, used the opportunity to engage with Venetian culture. Like Boucher, she adored and studied Rococo works by Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, including ceiling frescoes in the Ca’ Rezzonico museum and the Chiesa Santa Maria della Visitazione. Today, she modernises tangents of Baroque and Rococo through notions of femininity and gender. It’s a graceful balance that retains the visceral tentativeness of her inspirations.

When traversing through the display, we can observe how both Yukhnovich and Boucher share a knack for rhythmic storytelling. The latter mesmerised his audience with tales of mythology, religious anecdotes, literature, allegory, love, friendship and fidelity; from a sensual lovers tryst in Daphnis and Chloe, to a strikingly verdant portrait (1759) of Madame de Pompadour beside her pet spaniel, Inès. Yukhnovich seems to have honed in on this, and two of the display’s exhibited titles—Warm Wet N’ Wild (2020) and Maybe She’s Born With It (2022)— appear like loving close-ups of the foliage coursing through his work. Leaves and florals are daubed into bushels of fuchsia, lime and apricot hues, as if fashioned from the vivid clothing belonging to Boucher's aristocratic patrons and sitters.

lora Yukhnovich, A World of Pure Imagination, 2024 © Flora Yukhnovich. Courtesy the artist and Victoria Miro

When it comes to the overall mood of the display, each room glows with enthusiasm for vivid colour and verdant nature. For her part, Yukhnovich paints her blooms with a confident theatricality that Boucher would surely have approved of. His reinvention of the pastoral by way of conjuring scenes of erotic and sentimental love, and idealising shepherds and shepherdesses in silk dress, was closely tied to contemporary comic operas. A genre for which he occasionally produced stage and costume designs. While often showcasing the court's exuberant flounces and fashions, it's Boucher's expert brushwork, exaltation of nature, and perfect representation of French taste in the Rococo period, that endows each piece with their melodic charm, and, perhaps, is why Yukhnovich finds his pieces so compelling.

From her studio in Bermondsey, Yukhnovich comments: “I couldn’t be more excited to work on this project with Xavier and the Wallace Collection! I have been visiting since I was a student to immerse myself in the 18th century and to study the Boucher paintings. They have been incredibly important to me, finding their way into many of my paintings over the years. It will be such a privilege to see my work in dialogue with the paintings that have inspired them for so long.”

The Landing © Trustees of the Wallace Collection

Title image.  Flora Yukhnovich in her studio. Courtesy of The Wallace Collection