Monday, February 18, 2008

the Housewife and the Cult of Bibelot

Lisa Tiersten


..Just as high modernism defined itself in opposition to neoclassical forms and to the notion of absolute beauty associated with nobility, bourgeois wifes were instructed to dismiss of the traditional authorities on decorating , and to assiduously avoid the neoclassical values of symmetry and uniformity. Rather than discard the aristocratic heritage entirely, however , bourgeois women were to reinterpret the past in personal terms by pillaging, appropriating, and merging a variety of noble styles. Far from elaborating a new unitary aesthetic code, then, modernist –inspired bourgeois decoration privileged the expression of individual sensibility over conformity to a particular style. Eclecticism, or the ability to absorb and recontextualize elements of the past, stood as the signifier of individual sensibility and, at the same time, of bourgeois modernity.

..In contrast to the noble conception of home as a public theatre for the display of the family’s caste status, bourgeois housewives were taught to consider home decorating as a mode of personal expression and a means of creating as aesthetically –pleasing, but also a comfortable and intimate space for the family’s domestic life. The public character of the aristocratic hotel had demanded the skills of the professional decorator; but as the private arena of family life , the bourgeois home could only be properly decorated by the lady of the house.

..Attitudes toward the bourgeois housewife’s new aesthetic authority varied tremendously. For critics of bourgeois philistinism, both modernists like Baudelaire and |Flaubert and antimodernists like Maurice barres, the conflation of art and decorating in the women,s press an advice literature of the late nineteenth century meant that , as decor was elevated ,art was proportionately diminished in status. These critics objected strenuously to the cult of bibelot as symptomatic of the middle class debasement of art to the level of mere ornament ; for them, the bibelot’s vulgarity derived form a combination of shoddy craftsmanship, cloying sentiment , uninspired imitation, and , in spite of all this, the presumption of artistic value.

..By contrast, proponents of the aesthetisation of the home, whether from the camp of the decorative arts movement or that of the marketplace , promoted the blurring of the borders between art and decor and the creation of the modern domestic aesthetic....similarly , the critic Jules Claretie likened the modern Parisienne to the bibelot, as opposed to the “marble statuette” evoked by other (perhaps aristocratic) genres of womanhood, and insisted that the bibelot was more beautiful than the conventional artwork.

..A publicity piece for the Grands Magasins Dufayel celebrated the trend toward homespun, cozy interiors not only as an aesthetic development but as the moral triumph of bourgeois domesticity over aristocratic values..
..exalting hospitality and coziness over “absolute authenticity” – a code word for the hand –crafted expensive objet d’art- the advertisement suggested the tasteful consumption and decorating were a means of constructing a bourgeois style of livng available to the humblest housewife. The quality of the objects themselves did not mater so much as their disposition and arrangement , the aesthetic composition which revealed the originality and artistic vision of the lady of the house.

"The Chic Interior and the Feminine Modern: Home decorating as High Art in Turn-of-the Century Paris”