Sunday, 19 April 2009

Baroque Magnificence at the V&A

The first multi-national art movement was the baroque. It linked Holland to Japan, Spain to South America. With access to the new worlds, European culture burst out of its relative provincialism, embracing infinite new possibilities.

That's why baroque matters today, when modern technology connects us all. Baroque style is the exact opposite of insularity. The rationale behind the glorious excess was a celebration of glory, not just of God and wealth but the very exuberance of life. There's a major exhibition now on at the V&A in London, "Baroque : Style in the Age of Magnificence 1600-1800". It runs til June.

When Europeans ventured into Asia, Africa, South America, suddenly they were confronted by an overload of new experiences. Together with spices, tea and tomatoes came tales of strange, new worlds. This period was fundamentally different to 19th century imperialism. Although the conquistadors destroyed American society, the fact that other civilizations existed was not lost on them. Moreover, Europeans were by no means dominant. In India and South East Asia, there were powerful kingdoms and networks of Chinese and Arab traders who kept the Portuguese on their toes. And of course, China, the biggest empire on earth, which Europeans could not penetrate. Because the balance of power didn't solely favour the west, Europeans could not impose themselves in the way they did later.

So the baroque was a flow of trade and influence going several ways at once. It's intriguing to compare baroque style to Inca pyramids, or to Angkor or Borobodur. On a more basic level, without spices, tea and exotic vegetables,what would European food be like? Of the cuisine of South China, which uses peanuts, brought from Brazil via Africa and Macau. Without high-fired porcelain from Jingdezhen, would we have Delft and Meissen? Would the splendid palaces and churches of Europe have been possible without the wealth of trade (and looted gold)? Even in Beijing, the Qing emporers built an exotic "European" palace, the Yuan mingyuen, burned and pillaged by the British in 1860. One of the most interesting galleries for me was the one showing how Latin American cultures adapted European influence to local needs. There's a reredos with dark panels, which looks distinctly non Iberian, and sculpture by a Brazilian of African origin. In the background, the music playing is 17th century South American, conventional liturgy music enlivened by jaunty local rhythms.

It's this sense of adventure that's the rationale behind the extreme elaboration, the wildly effusive ornamentation. They can't even make cupboards that don't writhe with excitement: each little detail opens out a new vista, each use of alien materials like ivory and coral opens out references to the splendour of an exotic world beyond the confines of what has gone before. The style may seem shocking to minimalist modern eyes, but until this time, Europeans led fairly drab, constrained lives other than when they went to church. Suddenly, all life is glory. Dutch still life painting show things like shells and exotic fruit, which may seem commonplace, to us, but to people of the time, these were objects of wonder. There's a metre high vase with holes for only 24 tulips. To modern eyes, it's hideous, but tulip bulbs then were more expensive than houses. Whoever wanted this piece made wanted something striking that would show the precious blooms as strikingly as possible.

Baroque is Gesammstkunstwerk avant la lettre, where every sense is indulged to intensify emotional impact. A gallery at the V&A is devoted to church art, for in many ways this is echt Baroque, where nothing is spared to celebrate the glory of God. The picture above shows the church of Sao Domingo in Oaxaca, Mexico, writhing and heaving with golden detail. Imagine the impact, particularly on the locals whose ancestors knew Moctezuma. There's a film of a procession in Seville, where religious icons are carried through the streets by men in medieval hoods. As evening falls into night, candles light the way, making the statues glow as if alive. Imagine the singing, the slow penitential walking pace, the smell of incense : religion as theatre!

Baroque is "life as theatre". Everything moves, everything tells a story. Human figures busily abound. Even when they are standing still, they "emote" plaintively. That, too, explains the baroque fascination with foliage. Nature itself unfolds in abundance, vines intertwining, plants growing and bursting with fruit. Allegory abounds. There's a huge painting of a town in Mexico, so detailed and full of incident that you can spend ages looking at it, following what's happening. It's opera in paint, on a flat one-dimensional plane, but comes to vivid life if you use your imagination.

The constant references to bible and classical literature would have enriched meaning for those who understood them. To us the idea of figures representing moral concepts like Virtue or Prudence may seem odd, since we're accustomed to a higher level of realism. To people in those times, it wasn't so strange to see concepts depicted as symbols.

The gallery on baroque theatre is wonderful. Cesky Krumlov (see the labels on right for more) is represented in a film, showing the backstage operating mechanism which made the elaborate scene changes possible. Because technology shaped what could be done, baroque operas were naturally constrained to non vérité. They embraced the idea that theatre was illusion, that gods could pop up from holes in the ceiling, that actors wore exaggerated makeup toxic with white lead. People were fascinated by castrati precisely because they weren't "real". Because we have electricity and film, we're conditioned to a different way of thinking about art. Baroque opera needs to be taken on its own terms. Even the instruments are theatre - there's a bassoon with the head of a sea monster which was used in open air entertainments.

Then, as now, shrewd rulers knew the political advantages of illusion. Displays of wealth and power were used like weapons. Versailles and Sans Souci, the Zwinger and the Vatican, are uncoded messages of domination. Even in a poor country like Norway, a baptism font is painted with Danish words, showing the locals who is boss. The images are so pervasive rulers themselves get fooled. Trianon is built for queens to play shepherdess. We know what happened next.

Because the V&A is primarily a place for consumer design, it's good at showing flashy objects like a silver ice bucket the size of a bath. But ultimately this last gallery isn't remotely as interesting as the others. It's like looking at WAGs' handbags. Impressive, expensive but so what? Conspicuous consumption for its own sake is vulgar. That's what gives baroque a bad reputation.

The really intriguing thing about the baroque is that it was creative and inventive, inspired by ideas and exotic experiences. Those golden monstrances and chalices celebrated a higher purpose in life than surface glamour. Ultimately the baroque isn't about excess for its own sake, but about greater ideals. Part of the problem I suspect lies in the fact that there were many different baroque styles. By fixing on the arbitrary starting point of 1600, the V&A is missing out on a whole hundred years of exciting developments. By 1800 the style had fossilized, becoming little different from the extremes of modern excess.

This is a big exhibition, but no exhibition can comprehensively cover a period as complex as the baroque. There are weaknesses, probably due to the emphasis on "style" rather than the reasons behind it. Curiously, there's little evaluation of other cultures and their impact on the baroque. Beijing, for example, could outdo Versailles at any time. The Qing Emperors used art as a political tool. They used the Jesuits to learn about western science and culture but didn't buy the religion. The Jesuits were so overwhelmed they accommodated to Chinese culture, even writing masses for performance in Chinese. The Royal Academy ran a wonderful exhibition on this very subject in 2006.

So please look at my other posts on the baroque in Japan and in China. Both China and Japan were hugely important in the development of the style so it really does need serious attention, more than I alone can give. I'll also write about Macau, of course, where European baroque meets Asia. St Paul's in Macau was built by Japaneese craftsmen exiled when the Tokugawa kicked Christians out of Japan. So the facade shows the Virgin Mary and angels, but also palm trees, chrysanthemums, a dragon and a 17th century ship. Please keep following this blog, I'll do a more detailed description later. One of my big things is the way cultures overlap and interact, so of course Macau is a special subject. Follow the labels list on right for much more.

The golden altar in the photo is the church of Sao Domingo in Oaxaca, Mexico. That's only a small part of its treasures. The ceiling shows a massive Tree of Life with many statues, and the walls, crypts, etc are wonderfully ornamented too. People attending Mass would have been able to "read" the symbolism and take in a lot more than the decoration.

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