Art history provides a rich source of subject matter for Shonibare, who since the late 1990s has transformed well-known European paintings into three-dimensional tableaux vivants with a twist. Shonibare cites the French Rococo artist Jean-Honoré Fragonard as particularly influential. Fragonard’s paintings and sculptures are characterized by their lavish depictions of the upper class at play, pursuing love and enjoying the material comforts of their wealth.
The Swing (after Fragonard) is one of Shonibare’s best-known sculptural works. Inspired by Fragonard’s 1767 painting The Swing, it depicts the sensual abandon of a privileged young woman at her leisure. The woman’s airborne slipper, kicked high like an exclamation point as she swings back and forth before her lover, underlines the decadence of the original painting. A garter is exposed beneath her billowing dress and, scandalously, she is assisted in her tryst by a priest who obligingly pushes the swing.
Shonibare’s mannequins are characteristically presented without their heads—a playful reference to the beheading of the aristocracy during the French Revolution and the redistribution of power and land. He says: “It amused me to explore the possibility of bringing back the guillotine in the late 1990s … for use on the historical icons of power and deference.” He has also noted that the absence of heads in his sculptures removes direct connotations of race or individual identity.