Monday, April 06, 2009

How does the Baroque grab you?

Above: Ewer depicting the Triumph of Neptune. Vase, Massimiliano Soldani Benzi (1656-1740), Florence, About 1721, Bronze, Museum no. A.18-1959 The vase was a typically Baroque form of decoration. This example is one of a pair of ornamental bronze ewers on a marine theme. It borrows elements from earlier printed designs, but combines form and ornament so that the figural decoration seems to form the structure of the ewer itself.

Above: View of the interior of a shop selling export wares. Possibly the Netherlands, 1680-1700, Gouache on paper, mounted on a wooden panel, Museum no. P.35-1926. Intended as fan leaf, this shows a shop dealing in export wares. More fantasy than fact, it combines objects from all over Asia, including Japanese lacquer furniture, Chinese porcelain and red wares, small ivory devotional sculptures, Indian chintzes and Turkish or Persian paintings. Europeans were clearly fascinated by these exotic goods.

Above: Red stoneware coffee pot Meissen porcelain factory, Meissen, 1710-13, Red stoneware ('Böttger' stoneware), Inscribed '132 R' (an inventory number for the 'Brown Saxon' wares at the 'Japanese Palace'), Museum no. C.261&2-2006. Rulers all over Europe established special manufactories with the aim of discovering the secret of true porcelain. Johann Friedrich Böttger, working in Dresden for Augustus the Strong, first managed to produce this red stoneware in 1707, but it took him another two years to create porcelain. His stoneware is similar to Chinese redwares.

V&A London UK - A NEW exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum celebrates the baroque, the word itself stemming from the French for a pearl of irregular shape. Nigel Llewellyn notes in the V&A catalogue, the baroque church – with music, paint, sculpture, architecture, vestments, metalwork, sacred lighting and incense – was, the spiritual and temporal setting for what was a multimedia performance, intended to appeal through all the senses to the intellect, the heart and the very soul. Even secular baroque was endowed by the hand of God through papal, royal and noble patronage.

Joanna Norman, the curator, concentrates on trade, technique, theatre and materials, at the expense of passion, patronage and art. Considering the amount of baroque art in the V&A and throughout Britain the exhibition is, I felt, a bit sparse on the exhibit front. I was expecting to be knocked out by heaps and heaps of bling. Baroque means overwhelming bling. Decoration which does not merely passively ooze ostentation, but reaches out, grabs you by both ears and rubs your senses in it. Does this exhibiton do that? Not really. Perhaps it is too tasteful, too intellectual, too restrained - not enough of a visual feast. Baroque is the most sensual of all art styles, but I did not feel blown away by baroque sensuality when I visited.

Here is what the V&A web site notes:

The First Global Style
Baroque was the first style to have a significant worldwide impact. It spread from Italy and France to the rest of Europe. Then it travelled to Africa, Asia, and South and Central America via the colonies, missions and trading posts of the Portuguese, Spanish, Dutch and other Europeans. The style was disseminated through the worldwide trade in fashionable goods, through prints, and also by travelling craftsmen, artists and architects.
Chinese carvers worked in Indonesia, French silversmiths in Sweden, Italian furniture makers in France. Sculpture was sent from the Philippines to Mexico as well as Spain. London-made chairs went all over Europe and across the Atlantic. The French royal workshops turned out luxury products in the official French style that were both desired and imitated by fashionable society across Europe. But Baroque also changed as it crossed the world, adapting to new needs and local tastes.

Art & Performance
Baroque art did not stand shyly by, hoping to be noticed. Paintings, sculpture and decorative arts swirled with vigorous action and strong feelings. Figures have a sense of realistic immediacy, as if they had been stopped in mid- action. Facial expression, pose, gesture and drapery all played a part in the drama. Human figures played a leading role in all the various art forms, from painting and architecture through to sledges and tableware. Allegorical, sacred and mythological figures took over the whole work, turning it into a drama in which the actors strove to convey particular messages and to engage the emotions of the viewer. These figures were put into the service of both faith and dynastic ambition - in emotionally wrought religious paintings, and in heroic portraits of rulers, their heads held high above a mass of billowing drapery.

Architecture & Performance
Baroque buildings were dynamic and dramatic. They used the language of ancient Greek and Roman architecture but broke its strict rules. Facades were full of movement, columns were twisted, and ground plans were composed of curves and ovals. Inside, painted ceilings seem to open to the sky, and hidden windows illumined domes and altars.
All these devices were meant to convey particular meanings and emotions. The great curved colonnades outside St Peter's in Rome made actual the church's embrace; the repeated elements on the endless facades of Baroque palaces signalled absolute power. Baroque architecture was pioneered in papal Rome by Pietro da Cortona, Gianlorenzo Bernini and Francesco Borromini. The new style was vigorous and imaginative but never out of control. Borromini's oval ground plans were based on a dynamic geometry of triangles and circles. The same geometry lay behind the city plans of Baroque Rome.

Marvellous Materials
A fascination with physical materials played a central role in the Baroque style.
Virtuoso art objects made of rare and precious substances had long been valued. They were often kept in special rooms or cabinets, alongside natural history specimens, scientific instruments, books, documents and works of art. But in the Baroque period - with the birth of modern science and the opening up of the world beyond Europe - there was an increasingly serious interest in the nature and meaning of these exotic materials. Rarities such as East Asian porcelain and lacquer became fashionable in interior decoration and were imitated in Europe. Some of the rarest materials were believed to have the very useful capacity to detect poison. Among them were the newly invented ruby glass (which contained real gold) and rhinoceros horn, which also had the sexual connotations it still carries in some cultures today.

From 4 April to 19 July 2009

V&A Baroque exhibition

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