Click here for a slide show of seductive spaces throughout history.
You’d think it would be indignity enough for the Met’s French period rooms to have been plucked decades ago from the Parisian mansions in which they’d been ensconced for 200-odd years and reassembled inside a museum in the new world. But no; the Met has to go and mount an exhibit like “Dangerous Liaisons: Fashion and Furniture in the 18th Century”—a showcase of the couture and décor of the decadent decades before the French Revolution—in which life-sized costumed mannequins have been placed amidst (and astride) the furniture in a variety of risqué tableaux. With their stiff-backed chairs, imperious portraits, ornate double doors, and high ceilings, these rooms had previously seemed to me like they could have been settings for only the most proper and upstanding interactions. I have since revised my opinion.
With a few new pieces of furniture—a daybed here, a silk-and-velvet dog kennel there—and with the mannequins intricately posed, the rooms now crackle with vibrancy, movement, and erotic tension. A room that pre-exhibtition had looked like a formal parlor has been transformed into a boudoir by the addition of a dressing table, at which a woman sits performing her toilette. In another salon, a bewigged traveling salesman brazenly embraces the woman of the house as her husband bends to inspect some merchandise; in a smaller, oval-shaped room, a woman places her hand on her friend’s husband’s thigh in the midst of a card game; in a music room, a harp teacher puts the moves on his student as her chaperone stands by the window, engrossed in a book (Les Liaisons Dangereuses, if you had to ask).
The exhibition is meant to show that the clothing and furnishings of the period played an integral part in encouraging such seductions. Apparently the small oval room, a style popular in Europe in the late 18th century, was designed expressly to foster closeness and informality. The carved wood paneling on the walls of many of the rooms is sinuous and sexualized. The table de voyage in the boudoir can be used as readily for an intimate activity, such as dressing, as for writing or eating. The card room’s furniture includes a voyeuse, a T-shaped chair that a man straddles backward, splaying his legs and wrapping his arms around the back; this enables him to position himself closer to a woman he desires. These suggestive elements inject the possibility of transgression and titillation into the otherwise stiff and formal surroundings.
The rooms now on view at the Met date from Dangerous Liaisons-era France, but they bring to mind other seductive spaces throughout history—from Greek mythology’s Island of the Sirens to the rose-strewn mansion on The Bachelor. Some of these spaces let nature take their course (the Garden of Eden) while others don’t leave anything to chance (a 1950s bachelor pad specially wired to set just the right mood for romance). But all share an attention to detail; an indulgence of multiple senses; and a transporting, fantastical quality. And of course all have the result of getting people to behave in a way other than they had originally intended. (The word “seduce” comes, after all, from the Latin for “lead astray.”)
Click here to see the slide show.