Magazine article The Spectator

Style and Opulence

Magazine article The Spectator

Style and Opulence

Article excerpt

Baroque 1620-1800: Style in the Age of Magnificence V&A, until 19 July

The Baroque is a style of drama, movement and opulence. Until the 19th century it was a term for the grotesque or absurd; then it was taken over by those who sought to categorise the mainstream developments of European culture. As an adjective, Baroque still means florid or overblown, but if the age it adorned was devoted to spectacle, it was also dedicated to unity and balance, unlike the sensationalism of today.

I had misgivings about this exhibition.

As the V&A's director, Mark Jones, proudly points out in the foreword to the catalogue (a vast and lavish doorstop at £40 in hardback), 'this show rejects the orthodox principle that the art of painting should be privileged in historical accounts of visual culture'. He reminds us of the crucial importance of the applied and decorative arts. Fair enough, provided you can get the exhibits. All too often in the past painting has been made to stand in for other things - like architecture - more difficult to bring to the feast. I'm happy to report that the V&A's selection exceeds expectations.

In the antechamber are two exhibits only:

on the right a large canvas entitled 'Carousel for Queen Christina of Sweden held in the Courtyard of Palazzo Barberini Rome', and on the left a small glass case containing a rather ridiculous decoration of Baroque pearls in the form of a camel with 'blackamoors'. This opening could be interpreted as a warning against pomp, but the main body of the exhibition is so interesting that the caution goes unheeded. The Baroque is the first global style, swiftly permeating Europe and penetrating on to Africa, Asia and the Americas. One of the strengths of this show is the range of objects from all over the Baroque world. For instance, consider the very fine 'Screen from the Council Room of Batavia Fort', from Jakarta in Indonesia. It was carved by Chinese craftsmen and depicts Perseus carrying the shield of Medusa: a complex statement indeed.

Also in this first section are a slightly disappointing Gobelins tapestry, a wonderful Rubens 'Descent from the Cross' (note the swooping diagonal), and a copy after Rigaud of the famous portrait of Louis XIV. More impressive is the ringletted bust of Charles II in heroic pose by Honore Pelle. …

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