Friday, April 03, 2009

Baroque 1620-1800: The Age of Magnificence

As a child I was enchanted by the theatrical Roman Catholic churches in my home town of Preston, which echoed Belfast in its religious rivalry. I loved the gloomy incense-heavy spaces and hyper-real statues. One church, called English Martyrs, had a giant wooden Christ on a cross in the foyer whose feet, dripping with painted blood, could be kissed by the pious as they entered.

The ostentatious churches of Italy, France and Spain were lavishly funded by the state, as well as the poor. The theory was that sensory appeal would induce a mood of spirituality. C of E churches relied more on sermons and hymns, although as my local, Emanuel, was quite ‘high’ there was a fair amount of stained glass and embroidered hassocks.

This huge exhibition shows how the Baroque style spread out from Italy and France in the mid-seventeenth century, to the rest of the world. There's a thin dividing line between the flamboyant and the downright grotesque and it’s often overstepped.

So-called ‘sun king’ Louis X1V is at the secular centre of the show at the V&A. There's a big portrait of him in his finery, and a film of the Palace of Versailles.

The exhibition divides into genres: furniture and decorative artefacts, including some weirdly fantastic cabinets inlaid with pietra dura, marble and gilt decoration; architecture on projected slides ; paintings and models of opera, theatre and public celebrations; church decoration and ritual artefacts. Overhearing the video soundtrack of a mass being celebrated at the London Oratory, R mistook the mass bell for the signal to vacate the museum. I reminded him it was a Friday late session.

Paintings include a fine Rubens, with curly drapery trailing from plump angels, but my favourite is Tiepolo’s 'The Triumph of the Immaculate Conception’ which depicts the Virgin Mary in the clouds, surrounded by cherubs, her foot on a globe and a serpent with an apple in its mouth. The colours are ethereal - a rosy beige for the sky, blue and white for the virgin's cloak contrasting with the dark scaly dragon.The smoothly blended brushwork recalls John Singer Sargent, who has a couple of portraits in the Van Dyck exhibition at the Tate Britain.

There are some fascinating small 'curios' made from rare materials: an amber coffee-pot, a pair of ivory-handled pistols, and a cup made from an octrich egg. Among the bigger items are a massive silver chandelier and a font enclosed in carved screens.

It all made me want to rush off to Italy – or to Preston.

Baroque Exhibition at the V&A:

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