Thursday 30 April 2009

A style that sings and dances

Baroque 1620 -1800: Style in the Age of Magnificence, Victoria and Albert Museum, London

This year sees the 350th anniversary of Purcell’s birth and the 250th anniversary of Handel’s death. Both were composers of Baroque music, so the V&A has chosen a good time to hold an exhibition about Baroque art. But isn’t it a rather dated topic, a piece of camp art history that should remain confined to scholars and arty coffee-table books?

The curators emphasise that the Baroque - the word was originally derived from the Italian term barocca for irregular, highly-prized pearls - was about grandeur in the service of religious and political power, and that it became the first international style, spreading far beyond its roots in Catholic Europe. But style in the service of religious belief and secular authority was hardly a new concept: the humblest Gothic church was a theological theatre, designed to help its largely-unlettered users to both understand and practice Catholicism, while pre-Baroque medieval monarchs were hardly backwards when it came to emphasising their status. The Baroque - arguably - built on this past, taking the body of Classical architecture and pumping it up with the steroids of late Gothic exuberance.

And that exuberance is impressive. Tieplo’s ‘Virgin of the Immaculate Conception’ (c 1767-69) shows her as an almost glamorously imperious figure about to stamp on the head of the Garden of Eden’s ferociously-fanged serpent with an apple - symbol of original sin – in its mouth. The ‘Drawing of the Throne of St. Peter’ (1666), by François Spiene after Giacinto Gimignaniand Lazzaro Morelli, renders this symbol of papal authority all the more impressive by its greyness, emphasising its almost explosive effect. The ‘Funerary Chapel of Louis de Bourbon, Prince de Conde in the Church of St. Louis, Paris’ (1687), by Pierre-Paul Sevin, includes banks of allegorical figures, flames, and a theophany. From popular religion we have the ‘Processional Figure of Judas Iscariot, from Valladolid’, (1629-1630), used in religious processions, showing the figure once described by the crime writer Derek Raymond as the first grass with a sneering face as he enacts his treachery. At first glance the ‘Portrait of LouisXIV’ after Hyacinthe Rigaud (c.1701) shows the Sun King weighed down in regal robes - as a comic figure, almost prancing: until we catch his sad yet sharp-eyed alertness. Staying with a royal theme - combined with the theatre - is the ‘Design for a Stage Set of a Hall of a Palace opening into a Garden’ by Antoni Galli Bibiena (1728). A riot of staircases, arches and columns, it demonstrates a new feature of stage-sets - the angled scene - which the Baroque helped to facilitate.

But what about the ‘international style’ argument? Where’s the proof which would satisfy the determined devotee of Modernism that his or her beloved style was not the first form of architectural design entitled to receive that accolade? There’s the ‘Altarpiece of the Virgin of Sorrows, Mexico’, (c.1690),where the Virgin (clad in purple, the Catholic liturgical colour for penance) is at the centre of the cherub-framed altar backdrop. It can be argued that this doesn’t count, being a sort of colonial offshoot from Spanish Catholicism: but further exhibits show that the Baroque was adopted by Protestants, and within non-Christian cultures. We see the ‘Design for a Monument to Dorothy, Lody Brownlow in St. Nicholas, Sutton’, by William Stanton (1700), with its curtains and cherubs, and a ‘Model of St. Mary-Le-Strand’, by James Gibbs (after 1717). Built for Anglican use, it has a Gothic-inspired spire but the body, including its shallow sanctuary where the communion table would be, is Baroque, as are the external decorations. From Lutheranism there is the small, pretty turquoise and gold ‘Font House and Font from Ringsaker Church Norway’ (1704) for use in baptism. Baroque influence among Protestant Germans is seen a painting of 1713 by Samuel Theodor Gericke, showing us ‘Frederick I of Prussia’ sitting on a throne like that of Louis XIV. From Asia, there is the ‘Screen from the Council Room of Batavia Fort at Batavia at Jakarta, Indonesia’ (1700-20). It’s multiculturalism in the best sense with its European floral ornamentation and curly Asiatic dragons forming a complementary whole.

The exhibition takes us up to 1800 and no further. This is a pity, for it gives the impression that Baroque went out of use, and some might think that it also conveys - unintentionally or otherwise - the puritanical subtext that it was a soft, Southern thing, essentially a product of Catholicism and absolute monarchy, its decadence dooming it to decay and demise. This is wrong. Baroque continued to be a living style. And we don’t have far to look for examples of its luxurious longevity. Aubrey Beardsley used it his later works. Art Nouveau and Art Deco were, arguably, offshoots of the Baroque. British Edwardian offices and public buildings were sometimes built in a style known as Bankers’ Baroque, reflecting civic and financial self-confidence. The designs for the Ballets Russes - which first appeared in the West in 1909 - displayed a Baroque extravagance, as did the work of Parisian couturier Paul Poiret. Two decades and one war later, the Bright Young Things of the 1920s adopted for home interiors what cartoonist and architectural observer Osbert Lancaster called Curzon Street Baroque (known in some circles as Decorators’ Baroque or, less kindly, Buggers’ Baroque).

More seriously, Sacheverell Sitwell’s book Southern Baroque Art (1924) would open the eyes of the young to a style which had been dismissed as vulgar by the guardians of good taste. The work of Sitwell’s contemporary, the painter Rex Whistler, was sometimes frivolous, sometimes glacial, but almost always had a decorative Baroque style. The pre-war architect Clough Williams-Ellis would adopt Baroque as the style for his Welsh fantasy village Portmeirion (later used as the setting for cult TV series The Prisoner). The work of the photographers Angus McBean and Cecil Beaton was infused with Baroque playfulness (even the latter’s disturbing wartime photo of a mannequin’s severed head in a bombed-out dress shop has a certain stylish black humour). In recent years a simplified Baroque style has been used by the designers David Hicks and David Linley. And a Baroque spirit infused the practitioners and devotees of 1970s Glam Rock and its New Romantic progeny of the following decade: both adopted a Baroque exuberance in performance and costume styles, and the dress requirements for entering a New Romantic club could be as intimidating as the etiquette of Versailles. French designers Christian Lacroix and Pierre et Gilles drew inspiration from Mediterranean Baroque.

But of this modern use, the exhibition gives few indications. We see film clips of candle-lit Holy Week processions in Seville (2008). But Postmodernism has encouraged the development of a modernistic Baroque style in architecture. And the recent reintroduction within the Catholic Church of the traditional Latin liturgy as an optional form of worship could encourage a Baroque sensibility to re-emerge in ecclesiastical architecture and music.

Some might consider the Baroque spirit to be inappropriate in today’s austere economic climate, but during the last Depression, film director Busby Berkeley – whose musicals wallowed in stylish extravagance – didn’t think so, and nor did his audiences. Exuberance and playfulness lifted people out of themselves. And both are qualities which designers and architects should experiment-with in whichever style they use or field they adopt (design, architecture, fashion). Despite its limitations design students, as well as casual visitors, could do far worse than spending a few hours at this exhibition rediscovering – and drinking-in – the perennial pleasures ofthe Baroque. For it’s a style that sings and dances: it expresses the sheer pleasure of being alive.

Till 19 July 2009

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