Baroque in 1620-1800: Style in the Age of Magnificence

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The Victoria and Albert Museum, April 4 - July 19, 2009

The exhibition’s subtitle reads: “Style in the Age of Magnificence”. There are various ways of understanding this assertion. It could mean decadence (bordering on frivolity); superiority (indicating power); and/or accomplishment (as the desired outcome of the Counter-Reformation).

It was neither decadence nor superiority and certainly not accomplishment that drew me to this blockbuster exhibition. Rather, I wanted an immersive context in which to experience the baroque as an expression of complexity.

Had I relied only on the interpretive panels, I would have been disappointed. These proffered uninspired information on the exhibition’s eight themes (the first global style, art and performance, architecture and performance, marvelous materials, the theatre, the square, sacred spaces and secular spaces).

Videos, interspersed throughout the multi-room extravaganza, were more effective. They showed rather than told what the baroque was like for the court culture of Europe and beyond by picturing manicured gardens and sumptuous interiors. There was some attempt to consider the internationalization of this style, it’s melding with local traditions; but the exhibition lacked commentary (critical or otherwise) on concurrent cultures. There was no mention, for example, of lower-class experience, how the vast majority lived under this regime/style. Nor was there any consideration of the sacrifices they made to keep the courts in silks, satins and other luxuries. In this way, the exhibition was a powerful reminder that the victors write (out) history. "Style in the Age of Magnificence" was a missed opportunity for the V&A to critically engage with the historical representation of the baroque and its impact on contemporary design (witness all the Louis trends exemplified by Kartell’s ghost chair). But then again, the V&A isn’t known for this kind of engagement. The self-nominated arbiters of (English) taste, the institution has a long history of celebrating art and design as objects, with some exhibitions working harder to contextualize these expressions than others.

Returning to the idea of complexity: One of the things I missed most in this exhibition was commentary of baroque space, specifically the space of illusion in Baroque paintings. More discussion of ceilings, for example, might have explored the mechanics of what the exhibition nicely terms “the aesthetics of conversion”. How did this space operate psychically? Socially? Spiritually? Said differently: what were the semiotics of this space and how do they compare with contemporary perceptions of baroque space?

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Bernini, Ecstasy of St. Theresa, Santa Mariadella Vittoria, Rome, 1652


Louis Ghost Chair, Kartell