Wednesday, 1 April 2009

Baroque: Serious Global Ideals

The V&A’s spring exhibition, Baroque: Style in the Age of Magnificence, opens this Saturday (April 4th). The curators, Michael Snodin and Nigel Llewellyn, stress the international nature of the Baroque, arguing that it was the first truly global style. The Baroque ideal, described by Snodin as ‘seriously serious’ as opposed to the ‘seriously unserious’ age of the Rococo that followed, was spread around the world by two great powers: the Roman Catholic Church of the Counter-Reformation and Absolute Monarchy, most notably, Louis XIV whose Palace of Versailles is emblematic of the age and whose inner sanctum, his closet, is recreated in the final rooms of the exhibition.

The international nature of the Baroque is made explicit in the first room where stands a screen made by Chinese craftsmen working in what is now Indonesia (and was then Batavia) for the headquarters of the Dutch East India Company. The Baroque lends itself to display and this becomes apparent in the section devoted to the theatre, more specifically the then-new medium of opera. It’s a cloying, dark room, a little like stepping into a velvet glove, with a stage and videos of performances of operas by Caldara and Carissimi, as well as the ripe, perfumed, often overbearing sound of Louis XIV’s court composer, Lully.

Though the argument of the curators points to Italy and then France as the originators of the Baroque, there are beautiful religious objects, including one spectacular gilded shrine, from as far afield as Mexico and Brazil. It is in Latin America that the Baroque attained its final flowering in the late 18th century. The central ritual of the Catholic Church, the High Mass, gets a room all to itself with a fascinating display of interior fittings on loan from the Chapel of St John the Baptist in the Church of Sao Roque in Lisbon, including crosses, candelabra and vestments. Intriguingly, a High Mass, performed at the London Oratory church, is relayed on video, as if it were an anthropological study of exotica. Perhaps it is now.

One of the most striking things about this remarkable exhibition, and there are many, is the relative absence of the English Baroque. It seems odd, for instance, that the only acknowledgement towards the finest collection of Baroque churches outside Rome, is a model of St Mary le Bow. But, from May, the V&A makes amends with its smaller exhibition, Europe and the English Baroque: Architecture in England 1660-1715, which pays especial attention to the work of architects such as Christopher Wren, Nicholas Hawksmoor and John Vanbrugh.

A small baptism chamber from Norway demonstrates that the Baroque spread beyond the Catholic world into Protestant northern Europe, where in music it arguably surpassed the south, not least with Bach’s settings of the Passion. This year sees the 350th anniversary of the birth of Purcell and the 250th anniversary of the death of Handel, both of whose work is performed in abundance throughout the year. If ever there was a time to get to grips with the Baroque aesthetic, it is now. The new V&A exhibition is an excellent place to begin.

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