A new exhibition at the V&A seeks to rehabilitate a style that sought to inspire wonder and awe
For about 200 years, the Baroque was the style that dared not speak its name. From its 17th-century apogee, it descended ever further from the realms of acceptable taste until it found itself not only out of fashion but also beyond the aesthetic pale. Even by the late 1970s, it was barely respectable: one leading art historical handbook claiming that “it is still possible to use the term as one of simple abuse, but this is now confined to the very old or the very unsophisticated”.
It is easy to see just what the very old and very unsophisticated objected to. The origins of the Baroque lay in the Counter Reformation Catholic Church and with, largely, the Catholic monarchies. It was the house style of absolutism, celebrating a worldview that had long gone. So to a forward-thinking European of the post-First World War generation, for example, it was anathema. What was Rubens when you had Picasso or Charles Lebrun when you had Le Corbusier? What were the foibles of princes and prelates when the new world was ruled by the merchant class? And what was the point of a style where form so determinedly refused not just to follow function but to ignore it altogether?
While later generations may have disparaged the Baroque and loathed its curves and ornamentation, its drama, light and shade, there was no doubting its artistry, however misplaced it was felt to be. The Baroque was not an intellectual style but a sensory one, designed to impress upon its viewers the God-ordained authority of monarchy and Church. To do this, artists and architects were encouraged to give free rein to their imaginations: what they sought to inspire were wonder and awe. It is this inventiveness that is the key element of the narrative of the style’s birth, spread and influence told in Baroque 1620-1800: Style in the Age of Magnificence at the Victoria & Albert Museum. It is an exhibition that is a major acknowledgement of the rehabilitation of the Baroque.
The greatest examples of the style exemplify the “total work of art” or gesamtkunstwerk, combining sculpture, architecture, painting (and sometimes music, too) and are thus immovable. But while the curators cannot transport the Palace of Versailles to South Kensington or Bernini’s Cornaro Chapel, with his ecstatic St Teresa, or Borromini’s church of San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane, they can do so by proxy. Versailles, the ultimate Baroque palace, is present in numerous vistas and designs for its gardens, there is a Gobelins tapestry and a cabinet made for Louis XIV, the quintessential Baroque monarch, and a breathtaking state bed given by the Sun King to the Swedish ambassador. Rome, the birthplace of the Baroque, is present in architectural drawings by both Bernini and Borromini, and so on.
This, though, is the familiar side to the style. Some of the most interesting of the 200 exhibits lurk on its wider shores, literally so in the case of the items from South America and the Far East where the Baroque was spread by Portuguese and Spanish colonists. A bizarre, free-standing sculpture from Goa c.1675 showing the child Jesus as the Good Shepherd among a riot of foliage and a 17th-century Mexican “Bucchero” vase with serpentine Florentine mounts are proof that colonial artists were just as uninhibited as their European peers.
But there are objects of delight, too, proof that the Baroque was not solely concerned with pomp. Take, for instance, the bow and arrow made from gilded papier-mâché that were theatrical props as opera itself underwent an unprecedented flowering, or the extraordinary sleigh carved in the workshop of Gabriel Grupello in Germany around 1710. This confection is a chariot mounted on runners with six mythological figures draped about it from prow to stern. It is wildly impractical and may never have seen the snow but beneath the bombast it nevertheless displays a sense of joyousness in both its creator and his patron.
Although the Baroque is too big and too amorphous a subject to encompass in a single exhibition (the curators’ chosen end date of 1800 is also 50 years or more later than many would put it) this is nevertheless a rich show in every sense. It also shoots down a particularly venerable canard: that one of the reasons the Baroque never gained much more than a foothold on these shores was that it was simply uncongenial to our phlegmatic northern tastes. We might be ready to like it at last.
Coincidentally, something of the Baroque spirit is evident in the work of Utagawa Kuniyoshi (1797-1861) at the Royal Academy. Alongside his better-known contemporaries Hokusai and Hiroshige, Kuniyoshi was one of the great Japanese printmakers-the “artists of the floating world” – who not only took their own art form to new technical and imaginative levels but who inspired the taste for Japonisme in the West and influenced a generation of artists, including Monet, Whistler and Van Gogh.
Kuniyoshi was the son of a silk dyer and this heritage is discernible in the rich, throbbing colours and complicated designs of his prints. His favoured subjects were characters from legend, warrior heroes, actors and cats. When taking his motifs from fables he made them all the more fantastical – and sometimes terrifying (see his celebrated image of Mitsukuni Defying the Skeleton) with eye-skewing distortions of scale and a liberal smattering of ghosts and demons. Even his less supernatural subjects reek of otherworldliness: his cats, for example, positively smirk and look as if they are on the verge of talking.
The images brought forth by Kuniyoshi’s extraordinarily fecund imagination – part William Blake, part Richard Strauss – also help to explain a cultural oddity: where the current Japanese mania for manga comics comes from.