Review: Baroque: Style in the Age of Magnificence (1620-1800)

Image from The Independent

By Alan Kirwan


I must admit from the off, that if I had to chose my favourite period in art history, it would be the Baroque. This may be due to an abiding memory of a school trip to see the then newly discovered painting of the ‘Taking of Christ’ (1602) by Caravaggio at the National Gallery of Ireland, Dublin in 1994. I can still remember how my classmates and I stood fascinated before this large canvas, completely drawn into the scene that the artist had created. This one painting, summed up the Baroque – dramatic lighting, heightened emotionalism and devastating realism. This memory was still etched in my mind as I went to check out how the V&A would approach this enormous topic – would they have a Caravaggio (or several)? How would they re-create the mystique of this style in a museum setting for visitors? The curators of this show throw down the gauntlet in the very first room entitled ‘The First Global Style’. Rather than being confronted with a dramatic Italian (religious) painting as you might expect, the first point of contact for the visitor is a richly decorated cabinet from Versailles, once owned by Louis XIV. This is accompanied by various other applied art objects such as a gilded ivory statue of  the ‘Virgin and Child’ (1700-25) made in the Philippines for a Spanish patron,  and an elaborately carved wooden ‘Screen from the Council Room of Batavia Fort’ (1700-20) in Indonesia, created by Chinese craftsmen for the Dutch overlords. A projection onto a wall highlights the trade movements of art objects around the world in this period. All well and good and in keeping with the designated title of the room – however, the recurring question of ‘why?’ keeps coming to mind. Why did the Baroque go global? What made it so special? In order to explain this, the show would have to discuss how the Baroque was born in the first place. This is something completely absent from the exhibition. There is no mention of the Reformation, no mention of the Counter-Reformation.  More importantly, there is not one mention of the Council of Trent. In omitting the role of this hugely influential ecclesiastical body and the series of strict guidelines that it issued to artists throughout the latter half of the 16th century, the exhibition removes a central plank of what the Baroque was all about – religious propaganda.  In essence, the Baroque signified a Catholic religion desperate to claw back ground and converts lost to the new Protestant faith.  The arts, particularly the visual arts, became a promotional weapon in the Vatican’s damage limitation endeavours. In not addressing this historical fact, the exhibition struggles to find a focus. Room after room of applied arts pieces, many from the V&A’s own extensive holdings, touch on subjects such as outdoor public performances and spectacles (‘The Square’), life in palatial buildings (‘Secular Spaces’). It is only several rooms in that religion gets a worthwhile mention (‘Sacred Spaces’). It was puzzling to be standing in front of a large painting entitled ‘Interior of St Peters Basilica, Rome (1730) by Giovanni Panini wondering why such an image with such relevance to the Baroque (offering views of Bernini’s Baldacchino) was buried this far into the exhibition while a not very interesting (or relevant) wooden ‘Sleigh with a Figure of Diana (1710) from Dusseldorf dominated the first room! My confusion was only slightly explained later in the abundantly stocked shop while browsing the Director’s foreword to the exhibition catalogue. As the catalogue states: ‘This show rejects the orthodox principle that the art of painting should be privileged in historical accounts of visual culture. Of course, the fine arts play a decisive key part in the development of the Baroque style, but as visitors will find, equal roles importance must be attached to the applied and decorative arts’.

These two sentences sum up the approach taken by the V&A to this exhibition. As the nation’s primary museum of decorative arts, it is no surprise that the curators have attempted to highlight the place of the applied arts to this historical period. Such recognition is probably overdue. However, in the case of the Baroque, it is difficult to deny that the fine arts were the chosen category used by the Catholic hierarchy for their Counter-Reformatory message. Oil and canvas could animate those narrative scenes of religious orthodoxy and more importantly reach audiences (via the churches) that mediums such as silver, ceramic and wood could only hope to emulate.  In specifically promoting the case of the applied arts in this exhibition over the fine arts, some displays are misjudged, and even perhaps, a little petty. For instance, the Courtauld Institute has lent Peter Paul Rubens design sketch of ‘The Descent from the Cross’ (1611) done for the central altarpiece in Antwerp cathedral. Even though a sketch, this artefact more than anything else in the opening rooms hints at the essence, the raw power of Baroque. It’s a shame therefore, that it’s hidden away on a side wall, with no real attempt at prominence. In choosing an ‘either-or’ approach, the organisers have also missed an opportunity to highlight the subtle nuances of the style and its impact in Protestant Northern Europe. For instance, the silent, meditative quality of a Vermeer is every bit as Baroque as a frenetic Caravaggio. This exhibition unfortunately, captures none of this. While my musings may be a bit harsh, the exhibition is certainly packed with wonderfully crafted objects. Connecting the style to the Far East and the Americas is also a nice touch but this aspect deserved an exhibition in its own right. Perhaps the title of the exhibition should have been ‘Baroque and the Decorative Arts’. For those going along to the V&A with the intention to get a grip on what Baroque was and why it emerged, there may be some disappointment in store. To get a true sense of this dynamic artform, my recommendation would be to walk merely 500 yards beyond the grand entrance to the V&A on Cromwell Road and go through the doors of the nineteenth century Brompton Oratory. There is no better example or experience of the High Baroque in all of the UK.

Baroque: Style in the Age of Magnificence is on until 19 July 2009.


Anna said…
Thanks Alan - I've often walked past the Oratory but never been in, next time!
Amy said…
Thanks for this great review Alan! You've highlighted one of my principal criticisms of the V&A - the lack of socio-political contextualisation. Okay, I get that it is predominantly a museum of art and design, but it is not an art gallery, and this determination to cling onto a purely aesthetic interpretive approach is really limiting, for the objects, as much as the audience. And I can't help thinking it's a little elitist too. Like, one needs that prior knowledge, the insider information to get the most out of the exhibition. That just doesn't seem fair to me. It's interesting that after 'Cold War Modern', which really felt to me like a break with the past - there was so much more engagement with the ideology and political and social context - that the V&A has reverted to type with the Baroque exhibition. A little disappointing frankly. I firmly believe it is perfectly feasible to present a much more rounded discussion without privileging aesthetic qualities over social history value, and vice versa. In this respect the British Museum is just so much 'better'.
J said…
Amy: The Baroque show seems more of a descendant of the Italian Renaissance show of a few years back, which was similarly criticized (much to the chagrin of the curators, IIRC). Whereas the curators of Cold War Modern are a different bunch with different backgrounds. It also has to do with art historical tradition... Burckhart is hard to escape.
Alan said…
Amy - your point on the socio-political contextualisation is spot on. The sad thing is that the V&A are not the only guilty ones!! Don't know if you saw the recent 'Byzantium' exhibition at the Royal Academy? It was almost as if the curators of that show had just decided to put as much gold and silver 'bling' in as many rooms as possible and put any attempts at interpretation to the side. Tragic really, as such approaches leave down the historical periods in question and do nothing for the general public.

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