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(re)Touching ‘The Swing’

by Catherine Yass • June 2024 • Artist commission

As a teenager standing in front of The Swing (1767; Wallace Collection, London) by Jean-Honoré Fragonard, I felt utterly diminished and humiliated by the painting. I did not want men looking up my skirts, cupids firing arrows at me or little dogs yapping around my ankles. I did not want to wear clothes that got in the way of moving freely, or to become a play object whose purpose in life was to please unfaithful husbands. The experience of seeing The Swing discouraged me from painting; this was not a legacy that I wanted to be part of.

Over the course of many rich conversations with Yuriko Jackall, who was until recently the Head of Curatorial and Curator of French Paintings at the Wallace Collection, I have begun to understand why I felt so undermined by The Swing. Yuriko and her team gave me access to the painting while it was being restored, so that I could photograph and film it from multiple angles – out of its frame, working with light and time to affect the colour and pace – until I felt an affinity with the image that had so troubled me. This access was supported by the Wallace Collection Director, Xavier Bray, and supervised by the veteran painting conservator Martin Wyld, who was carrying out the treatment of the painting.

Observing the edges of the painting alongside the backs and surfaces of other paintings transformed the corners of The Swing into unlikely abstract colour fields. Seeing the edges where they meet the world simultaneously brought the painting into juxtaposition with the present and set it in its historical context.

It also drew out the themes of Yuriko’s historical research and writing. She is a determined detective who is still uncovering the mysteries behind The Swing.1

Fragonard was commissioned to paint The Swing in 1767 after the subject was turned down by Gabriel-François Doyen on the grounds that it was immoral. Fragonard was at a point in his career when he was struggling to survive as a grand history painter and so was having to take up small genre subjects to make a living. No one knows who commissioned the painting and it disappeared for many years. It was found in the possessions of the financier François-Marie Ménage de Pressigny when he was guillotined in the French Revolution, so it is possible – although not proven – that he commissioned the painting.

What we do know about Ménage de Pressigny, however, is that in around 1768 a young woman named Marie-Françoise Anne Innocenty filed a formal police complaint about his treatment of her. He pursued her relentlessly with bribes and promises of security, setting her up in a room in his household, but as soon as he got her pregnant she was removed to a discrete location. When her child was born he was sent to an orphanage, where he probably died, as no record of him exists after that.

Whether or not the woman in the painting is Marie-Françoise Anne Innocenty, her story is the story of many lovers and courtesans of that time, who swung on swings for their lovers in the pleasure gardens of Paris.

At first glance she looks happy enough, in her silks and laces. Her dress is actually a copy of a famous one worn by Marie-Antoinette, which many courtesans of the time liked, or were asked, to wear. This opens up questions: Does the woman have her own style? Are her expressions and gestures genuine? How much she is acting for the client? Is she putting on a show? Is she controlling the men around her or are they controlling her? Nonetheless, whoever is in control at that moment, she is always under their regime, as long as she is a kept woman.

Perhaps Fragonard felt the same.

Once you start looking, there are clues that point towards his anger, and anomalies in the painting begin to appear.

The fraying rope that could snap at any moment,
the orifice folds in the dress that could swallow their prey,

the oversized cupid that might let out a secret,
the terrified dog,

the grinning cuckold,
the toppling lover’s frantic hand,

and his hat.

The shadows and strange crevices in the trees seem to hold dark secrets.

Especially when compared to the more exaggerated shadows and stormy cloud formations in other Fragonard works, such as The Progress of Love (1771–73; Frick Collection, New York). In this series of four paintings, the weather is too stormy, the wind too hectic, the trees too overhanging and the woman’s face and body language too passionately emotional and full of foreboding. Everything is exaggerated, deviating from convention to the point of being camp. Tellingly, these paintings, like The Swing, were never shown in public. During the restoration of the painting, it became more evident that the woman is raising the smallest finger on her right hand, making the sign of a cuckold.

 

The restoration of The Swing revealed much more.

When the varnish was cleaned off, the yellowish tinge was cleared away to reveal more blue in the background, adding depth and revealing further details. The foliage is clearer, and entwined lovers – possibly the sculptural element of a fountain – can now be seen in the distance, as though showing the future consummation of the central flirtation. The couple also indicates that this may be a public pleasure park, as much as a private garden, adding to the sense of daring and risk of scandal.

The restoration revealed that Fragonard used blue dots to touch up the painting where the greens had faded, adding contrast and more emphasis. The materiality of these additional layers of pigment give the painting a historical and temporal fluidity.

When I photographed The Swing, I added a layer of blue to emphasise this depth and to give a new perspective on the ways that it can be viewed.

Overlaying a blue negative onto positive film is another reminder of time and materiality. The photographs are taken on 5 by 4” plate film, where each sheet is loaded and taken one at a time. Some of the sheets were loaded the wrong way round and processed as a negative, which were then overlayed onto the positive images taken a few moments earlier. The combination gives the image an underlying blue, evoking a temporality built from the layers over time. The photograph becomes less a document, and more a material form that engages with the sensuality of Fragonard’s paint surface.

The richness of colour in the painting is not only in the blue, but also in the salmon, pink, rose, green, brown and ochre, taking in the trees, undergrowth, ribbons, dress, flesh and hair. The blue negative adds a complexity to the colours, almost bruising the flesh and dress tones. It ushers in an undertone of something more disruptive.

 

 

 



In some places, the negative undoes the positive, cancelling out highlights and filling them with colour.

The blue gives way to a new space of colour that seduces and disorientates, pulling you in and pushing you out. The background and foreground cannot always be differentiated. Space is warped, opening up caveats, spaces of aporia, doubt and uncertainty.

Here, external light enters the pictorial space as a blue smudge that covers the woman’s face, obliterating – or protecting – her identity. Other parts of her and the image fall out of focus as the painting is laid flat for the restoration and photographed from the side, making a nonsense of spatial illusion.

As the scopic regime of logic and perspective falters in the pigment, another kind of sensuality and experience emerges through darkness, holes, orifices, materiality, colour and touch.

 

The hand of the picture restorer brings an intimate connection from the outside, but also gets absorbed into the colour space.

 

In these images, under Martin Wyld’s watchful supervision, I asked Yuriko to place her hand near the painting with a dry brush, as though re-touching, revealing and reinterpreting the painting in the manner of a conservator.

 

 

 

 



Prior to this I had photographed Martin, who is one of the most expert in his field. Quite unlike my experience of watching him in the studio, his photographed hands seemed to echo the dynamics in the painting. His hand seems intrusive, penetrating the painting with his brush, and clumsy against the woman’s delicacy, despite his delicate conservation skills in actuality.

In Yuriko’s hand, by contrast, the brush seems to tickle the flesh in the fold of the woman’s hand, on the tip of her toe, in the crease of her elbow and fold in her neck. She appears more playful; her expression even seems to change from the slight wariness she shows for Martin’s brush into one of flirtatious pleasure.

Another kind of restoration is suggested here: of sensuality to itself, for itself, including and between women.

The intimacy between the re-toucher and the re-touched becomes more apparent in the short film. The re-touching suggests that the two women have touched before or that they have always been in touch, in a playful exchange across generations and throughout history.

The film slows down the act of looking, leaving space to roam around each frame and inhabit the painting. There is time to feel the tickle of the brush and the weave of the canvas.

Each edit is a tightly framed detail of the painting. New compositions are made, re-framing the original narrative into small, intimate gestures.

The 16mm film has been over-scanned, meaning the edges of the film frame are visible, as well as the tops and bottoms of the preceding and subsequent frames. Every frame is accompanied by its past and future, placing it in a continuum of temporality and transformation. The image is always emerging from one to become another, so there is never a point where meaning is fixed or the women can be pinned down.

Dancing around them are abstract colours that are caused by the introduction of light during filming. The colours mix in unpredictable ways with the pigment of the painting, producing unexpected combinations of hue and tone. These leaking colours modulate the woman on the swing, as she slips from yellow into orange into red, her flesh moving with the colour.

The Swing is usually so protected – by its frame, a red striped curtain, ornate furniture, gallery attendants, by its history and reputation. The abstract colours in the film swing through these barriers, opening up the painting to temporality, touch, sensuality and intimacy.

 

Acknowledgments


Thank you to Yuriko Jackall and Martin Wyld. 

Photographs
Scanning: EWA
Colourist: Greg Jones

Film 
Camera: Nick Gordon Smith
Colourist: Sebastian Buerkner

 

About the author

Catherine Yass

is an artist based in London, who is best known for her distinctive photographic and film-based work. She typically manipulates her subject-matter by overlaying a cross processed negative and a positive transparency, exhibiting them as light-box prints to emphasise the colours and as a reference to photography’s contingency upon light. In much of her practice, Yass concentrates on buildings and interiors as states of mind, such as Corridors (1994), a series made in a psychiatric hospital, and Royal London (stairwell) 2013. Major recent commissions include Flood Barrier (2023), commissioned by Create London, and a permanent public work of art in Paddington Square (2021–24), commissioned by Sellar and Lacuna for St Mary’s Hospital. Yass trained at the Slade School of Art, London; the Hochschüle der Künst, Berlin; and Goldsmiths College, London. She is a lecturer at the Royal College of Art, London.


Footnotes

See also

Horse Opera
Horse Opera

Horse Opera

by Moyra Davey • Artist commission

The smoking mother
The smoking mother

The smoking mother

by Laure Prouvost • Artist commission