The challenge of Oiserie is that there are no rules: it is a field for invention. But its starting point is seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Chinoiserie. Compared to Rococo, there are many more components in Chinoiserie. The Rococo relies on a relatively restricted range of forms: c-scrolls, shell forms, basket weave and a few others. Chinoiserie is much more open. But as with all styles, there are clusters of components that recur. By identifying some of these and going from there it is possible to create some kind of analytical order. I want to select one of these: the combination of red and black.
This choice is interesting for a number of reasons. It could be argued that by selecting this colour combination I am inventing ahistorical concepts. Yet the red and black combination is so common that I am sure that the artisans in question, or their patrons or supervising architects, did consciously choose it as a theme. Indeed, I would argue that this choice was as conscious as that between the Doric and Corinthian orders, except that the parameters of the ‘red and black colour order’, if we may so call it, were less rigidly codified than the Classical orders. Indeed it may be worth running with this kind of language, as Batty Langley did with Gothic, and William Chambers with Chinese architecture.
But is ‘red and black’ an order? An order, like the Doric order, is assembled from a system of named components controlled by fractions and ratios. The ‘Red and Black Order has no components, or rather only two: the colours red and black. Or perhaps these colours are associated with particular forms, though I doubt it.
Historically, these colours have their origins in oriental lacquer, which was usually in these colours.
Let me begin with the example of a Chinoiserie room from the Sternberk Palace in Prague, now in the National Gallery, Prague (Fig.1). The walls were decorated by Jan Vojtek Ignaz Kratochvil (1667-1721) (museum label).
The museum label calls the black ‘lacquer’ and the red forms ‘brown pilasters’, though they look red to me (Fig. 2).
Harlequin in Renaissance pictures
These red pilasters are rendered at the top as relatively classical caryatids (Fig. 3), but the body of the pilaster is unclassical in being a free shape. In many ways they are more like balusters than pilasters, and perhaps the designer had this in mind. But more probably the ‘pilaster’ was a means of getting from caryatid head to base, beginning with a columnar form, broad at the top and rounded anthropomorphically to form ‘shoulders’ for the caryatid, and then concave-convex-concave with some steps, done freehand according to the designer’s innate sense of form, and drawing on long experience with such sequences. None of this is Chinese in any way.
One can intuit that the artisan’s thinking ran something like this: (1) the colour theme is to be red on black. (2) The red component needs to be tall and thin to fit the available space. (3) I will make it a caryatid. (4) The pilaster ‘body’ needs to be ‘Chinoiserie’; that is, fantastic and over the top, while being made from a thin flat sheet of wood. (5) I will make the upper part broad to support the caryatid bust, the rest I will let myself go within the limits of the space. (6) I will use the kind of linearity I am familiar with from balustrades and mouldings: that is, curves, steps, short straight sections. (7) I will enrich this with gold shells (there may be an iconographic reason for the shells) (Fig. 4) and ormolu (Fig. 5), with little pictures in the Chinese style to keep it Chinoiserie (Fig. 6). (8) But mostly, as with the base (Fig. 7), I will rely on my classical tradition of mouldings, scrolls and masks.
The museum label follows (Fig. 8).