Baroque Bling Glistens in Ornate London Show: Martin Gayford

«Style in the Age of Magnificence» exhibition at the Victoria and Albert museum in London

The Victoria and Albert Museum’s extravaganza of an exhibition, “Baroque 1620-1800: Art in the Age of Magnificence” seems almost avant-garde.

Just about every cutting-edge idea of the past 40 years is present, albeit in an ornately decorative manner. The London show features performance art, fashion, design, multimedia installations, even — three centuries before Damien Hirst and Tracey Emin — art as bling and the bed as art.

In fact, there’s more than one kind of baroque bed in the show. On display is a grand one presented by Louis XIV of France to the ambassador of Sweden, a place for regal slumber amid exuberantly patterned drapery. There’s also a comfier item, a day-bed ideal for erotic dalliance, with nearby a painting of one of Louis’s mistresses reclining with breasts exposed on just such a piece of furniture: a suitable setting for baroque sex.

This exhibition presents the baroque, though not necessarily as it is described in art-history books. It’s full of remarkable objects — jewels like miniature sculpture, the costume in which the King of Sweden once danced the part of a god in a court ballet, the garden carriage of a little 17th- century prince. A complete set of altar vessels from a church in Lisbon served as props for a spectacular celebration of Mass. The sum of the show is intended to be more than the parts.

Lecherous Charles

There’s painting, sculpture and architecture — in the form of models — on display (a picture by Rubens, a bust of the lecherous Charles II of England, looking majestically seedy). But the show is really about the way in which diverse art forms, including those we usually think of as “decorative” can work together to move and impress. The thesis is that baroque was a way of life: all enveloping and ubiquitous.

Many people find baroque not so much overwhelming as revolting. Those who are allergic to the style tend to hate its teeming ornament, which seems the opposite of that modernist rule that form should follow function. In reality — hate it or love it — the intricacy of the baroque is functional.

You might think that nothing could be less so than, say, highly wrought silver furniture of which Louis XIV had huge quantities (some examples from Knole House, Kent, are on show).

Even tables and chairs in precious metal have a purpose: They are evidence of wealth and power. Much baroque art is like that, and for the rulers and churches it was a useful tool.

Global Brand

It was also a successful brand. Baroque may have been the first world style, though its origin was in Europe and especially in Rome. The V&A show includes exhibits from Mexico, Peru, Indonesia, the Philippines and India. The baroque lasted for almost two centuries, and in some ways, never went away.

Opera, still thriving, was a quintessential baroque invention. It’s a blend of all the arts — dramatic, musical, visual, literary — to create a single powerful experience. On display is scenery from the amazingly preserved 18th-century theater at Cesky Krumlov in the Czech Republic, and a film of performance there. Another baroque enthusiasm was fireworks, even harder to exhibit though a painting is included.

Then there was baroque horticulture, and the ritual of baroque dining. Often more than one of these came together — an opera performed after dinner in a formal garden with fireworks to follow. While no exhibition could reconstruct all that, the V&A does its best and the result is richly sumptuous.

“Baroque 1620-1800: Art in the Age of Magnificence” is at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, through July 19.

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Published in: on April 6, 2009 at 9:33 am  Leave a Comment  
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