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Kitsch Cupid: Rococo and Romance

There are numerous historical sources attached to St Valentine ​— ​the Catholic.

Church recognizes at least three different saints named Valentine or Valentinus, all of whom were martyred. The most apt source is the consideration that St Valentine was a priest in third century Rome. When Emperor Claudius ll (better known as Claudius Gothicus) decreed that single men make better warriors and outlawed marriage, Valentine defied his Emperor and performed secret marriages for young lovers. When he was caught, Claudius promptly ordered for his beheading. I’d like to keep that story in mind while considering the tone of this article.

All over the internet, second-rate content delivery sites are proposing a return to the ancient Greek values of love ​—​ particularly, the seven words for love the Greek had, ranging from ​eros​ for erotic love, ​philia​ for friendship love, ​storge ​for familial love, and so on. If we attempt to extract the modern notion of ‘romance’ from our knowledge of the Greek and Roman world, we’re kidding ourselves. If you’ve ever opened a single page of Robert Graves’s ​Mythology​ you’ll know the absolute opposite is true. Graves’s compendium of mythology doesn’t sugar-coat the narratives like other authors; relationships between Gods and mortals, or gods and gods, or mortals and mortals, are seldom positive or consensual. Consider one of the most famous love stories ​—​ Cupid and Psyche, sculpted so beautifully by Canova, a story which for Psyche begins with her being sacrificed to an unknown creature, and features the death of all her sisters and torture-trials from the goddess Venus. Or Hyacinthus, lover of Apollo, murdered by the momentarily jealous god Zephyrus. Helen and Paris’s affair hardly needs explaining, nor does the heart-rending story Orpheus and Eurydice. The list goes on. The historical reference of Greek mythology seems hardly an apt source of Valentine iconography ​— ​and yet of course, it is ubiquitous. I blame the 18th century kitsch-ification of antique mythology. Tracing reception, while the renaissance had a hand in the transformation of mythological love from moral warning to saccharine kitsch, the eighteenth-century neoclassical movement firmly shoved it over the edge. Consider such works as Coypel’s ‘The Rape of Europa’.

Fig. 1, Noël-Nicolas Coypel, The Rape of Europa, 1722, oil on canvas, 90.17 × 102.24 cm, Virginia Museum of Fine Arts (Photo: Virginia Museum of Fine Arts)

I don’t think there's one story of ancient ‘love’ more nightmarish than Europa and the Bull. Romanticising of a horror story aside, it’s the cow flower crown that really gets to me on this one.

And so, a tumult of sugar-coated, flowery, pink rococo romance myths were poured into our collective art consciousness: consider all the failing, drapery-swirling statuettes that have come to be the dominant representation of Greek mythologies in many of our minds ​— Bernini’s elysian ​Apollo and Daphne,​ continuing the trend of making chase-rape scenes beautiful, or Boucher’s​ ‘Leda and the Swan’,​ or Augustin Cayot’s​ ‘The Death of Dido’.​Our modern conceptions of mythologies are so intrinsically entwined with these kitsch, exaggerated renditions. Searching for valentine’s gifts now finds us swamped in these apocalyptic post-modern perversions of antique iconography.

Fig. 2. Unknown artist, vintage valentine’s card, 1950’s (Photo: Etsy) Fig. 3. Rose O’Neill, ‘Kewpie’, vintage valentine’s card, 1930’s (Photo: Ladies Home Journal) Fig. 4. Unknown artist, vintage valentine’s card, 1909 (Photo: Wikipedia)

It’s not surprising that the consumerism that drives valentine’s day has churned up ancient love stories and spit out these sweet-and-empty cupids: eighteenth-century rococo neoclassicism was equally defined by excess, exorbitance, and populism - all values inseparable with valentine’s day. The staying power of ancient icons of love has lasted since the quattrocento, and it's doubtful we’ll ever stop relying on the dark and twisted love mythologies to fuel our idea of romance.

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