The rehabilitation of Fran,cois Boucher. Paris show tries to redeem 18th-century artist's reputation

``Our exhibition proposes to be a true rehabilitation,'' write the organizers of the large Boucher show seen this past year in New York and Detroit, and now come to rest at the Grand Palais in the artist's own city. Alastair Laing in his catalog essay points to the problem: After adulation in his own 18th-century France, Fran,cois Boucher's reputation sank abysmally in the Romantic and realist periods, despite his being the favorite of 19th-century collectors of French 18th-century art. Today he manages to be ``mostly the object of grudging or apologetic admiration.''

The strongest arguments used in this attempt to reinstate his reputation are that he was richly inventive over a long, hard-working career and that his decorative, pleasure-loving subject matter cannot in itself be taken to mean that he was a shallow libertine or even that the quality of his works is simply ephemeral. It is also argued that he should be seen within the context of his time and place, as court painter to Louis XV and his mistress Marquise de Pompadour, and on his own terms. The very characteristics most scorned by later artists - his unnaturalness, his decorative, theatrical taste - might be seen as the creative essence of his art. But the trouble with that criterion is that it does not extend beyond the boundaries and successes of his own lifetime - or the preferences of his patrons.

In the end we are thrown back on his ``endlessly fertile imagination'' and his astounding facility with the brush on which to base an assessment. Facility is a two-sided coin, and again Boucher has often been accused of having had a surfeit of it. But one thing to emerge in this exhibition is that his manual ease was continually refreshed and re-energized and was, moreover, often surprisingly robust. He was a virtuoso, and if he can hardly ever be said to have scratched below the surface of human feeling, his delight in cherubic charm, gentleness of action, sweet pastoralism, and the ascendency of femininity, was still remarkably unsentimental. He only has to be compared with Greuze for that to be plain. And Watteau's earlier theater-of-sadness - his dreamy and musical gallantries under the park trees - give way in Boucher's art to a bolder and more frankly erotic art. He seems closer to the fructiferous re-creation of classicism seen in the baroque paintings of Rubens than to Watteau.

Even the degree of Boucher's eroticism has been criticized, pro and con. The paintings in this show suggest that a veil of tastefulness was nearly always present - that the pink, cloud-floating female nudes that feature in his decorations are scarcely less innocent than the little pink children fluttering all round them: They are all caught up in a triumphant concoction of twist-and-turn, a ballet in the sky. It is a problem for Boucher's reputation that such allegorical fantasies have degenerated so entirely since his day to the level of the beauty salon and the wedding cake. To him they were a form of grandiose theater, and the legitimate language for a serious, if fashionable, artist. Only one picture in the exhibition, ``Hercules and Omphale,'' can be accused of what Mr. Laing calls ``overt sensuality.'' But this was a comparatively early painting, made before Boucher had settled into his mature style with its restraints and atmosphere.

There are more than a few glimpses of other potentialities in the young Boucher. Though his religious pictures tend to be unconvincingly religiose, and portraiture seems to have held little interest for him, he was no mean painter of landscape, however fantasized and Italianate. Also, a certain rustic realism looked for a while as though it might have been possible (giving way later to his entirely artificial pastorals). And he wasn't lacking when it came to the exigencies of a ``Leopard Hunt'' and a ``Crocodile Hunt,'' exotic in setting, and vigorous enough, surely, to have appealed to that later critic of his art, Delacroix. (Delacroix actually said that for all his ``bad taste,'' Boucher did have ``real knowledge'' as compared with the ``pigmies'' of his own day, whose highest aim was only a ``stupid manual dexterity.'')

More important, Boucher showed himself capable of a Dutch intimacy and a still-life painter's love of closely observed domestic details in his too-few genre subjects - such as ``Le Dejeuner''of 1739 or the slightly later ``Woman Fastening Her Garter, with her Maid.'' While his genre pictures give no sign of piety or poverty, they have a convincing realism seen nowhere else in his work.

But it still takes a tremendous stretch of the 20th-century imagination to come to serious terms with Boucher. It is genuinely difficult to tell whether his tastes were any different from his patrons'. It seems that he came to cater rather too eagerly for their purely decorative demands. His later work come perilously close to thoughtless formula at times, his color too unbelievable. It is true that an artist of even Leonardo's stature took pleasure in his day from designing masques and pageants. But it wasn't his whole vision, as it became for Boucher. On the other hand, Boucher's instant pleasures were painted to last - and they have. Yet it is hardly the mark of a serious artist that he could advise a younger painter against coying Michelangelo and Raphael because they would make his works ``as chilling as ice.''

The exhibition at the Grand Palais ends by looking at Boucher's designs for tapestries - marvellous in their way - and the influence of his work on the decoration of porcelain. He also painted backdrops for the Opera, decorated Easter eggs for the King, and painted little dolls. It is tempting to hold such obliging but trivial activities against him. But Picasso enjoyed similar aesthetic amusements in our time and it does not mean he must be considered insuperably frivolous.

Through Jan. 5, 1987.

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