London Baroque

The V&A’s Baroque exhibition shows that the Baroque style is founded on a paradox; sensuous and illusory, mystical and carnal, sacred and secular. It’s something I feel ambivalent about, repelled by the sentimental putti, corpulent flesh and religious fever as much as I’m attracted to its paganism and love of surface and artifice alike. As Sontag put it, it’s the most camp form of style.

On the one hand, it follows empiricist scepticism and its criticism of the notion that reality can be perceived directly through the senses. To Descartes, the intellect is required as well, hence the role of allegory in Baroque painting. To Descartes and Berkeley the idea of god was required to underpin this perception of reality, further stressing the mystical aspect of Baroque art. Newton’s work on optics led to a focus on illusion and perspective, most obviously so in Velasquez’s paintings or in the painted ceilings common with Baroque architecture. Buildings like Versailles used mirrors to create illusory effects with space. Baroque art tends towards the dramatic, showing allegorical scenes with the figures in motion, frozen in time and commonly depicted through vertiginous perspectives. Mirror glass is built into the frame of a painting of the Holy family from Cuzco. Theatre and drama, fireworks and spectacle, were also important aspects of Baroque, and the exhibition records costumes and paintings of various pageants, as well as the influence of theatre sets and their faking of perspective on architecture. The mechanical advances that made it possible to devise elaborate stage machinery for court theatres created a vogue for ‘machine plays’, in which, as if by magic, stage sets were miraculously changed and perspectives receded into distant space, creating an illusion of reality that was enhanced by the skilful use of lighting. As the gods descended on clouds from the skies, the distinction between heaven and earth was blurred and dissolved, as it would similarly be blurred to the point of dissolution in the ceiling paintings of chapels and churches. As Foucault might have argued the centre of these pageants was the individual; the equestrian statue and heroic bust were both invented at this time. If the counter-reformation church proclaimed the power of religion, the princely courts of the 17th century proclaimed the religion of power. Absolute monarchs sought to use the Baroque to reinforce their status and authority, showing themselves as masters over nature. Philip IV of Spain, as the ‘Planet King’, had done just this, but his nephew and son-in-law, Louis XIV, developed the imagery in a much more systematic form as he sought to reimpose order.

Conversely, science had overturned ideas that scorned the phenomenal in favour of the ideal, leading to an increased focus on nature in decoration, as with the acanthus leaves and dolphins characteristic of Baroque art. Copernicus’s heliocentric theory had shaken the foundations of traditional cosmology; Galileo with his telescope had revealed the immensity of space; scientific experiment and inquiry were making startling revelations about the workings of the human body and the natural world. It also led to a stress on the sensuous and material, in keeping with the counter-reformation use of lavish materials to impress the masses, either to win them back from Protestantism or to convert them in the new colonies. Gold and silver mined from South America are common enough in the exhibition, but Icelandic obsidian, ostrich eggs, rhinoceros horn, nautilus shell, ivory, amber, ruby glass also feature. The wunderkammer had become an exercise in artifice. Much of the exhibition focusses on Baroque’s development as the first international style, from paintings of the Virgin of Guadaloupe to the Portuguese churches of Goa. Baroque was exported internationally, as with a sketch of a Baroque mansion designed for the Chinese Emperor by Jesuits, but it was also imported back in the form of Chinoiserie. Meissen and Delftware both form an important part of the exhibition, as do lacquerware and silk. A wooden screen from Dutch Batavia incorporates native designs as do Mexican depictions of the Virgin and Indian ivories of Jesus.

Afterwards, I briefly visit the Whitechapel Art Gallery. A tapestry of Guernica and a Cubist bust of Colin Powell are on display, but I’m more interested in a small exhibition covering Epstein’s Rock Drill, Jacob Kramer’s Day of Atonement, Gertler’s Rabbi and the Ribbintzin, and Bomberg’s Racehorses. The following day is taken up with a visit to Kew Gardens. A few things have changed since my last visit, such as the new Alpine conservatory and gardens or the Princess of Wales conservatory’s British woodlands exhibition, including replica charcoal kilns. A bridge across one of the lakes allows you to see a coot diving to the bottom to bring up weeds for its chick. The Titan Arum and the Strelitzia are out in flower, and the grounds everywhere are carpeted with bluebells.

Mephisto by Klaus Mann makes an odd contrast to his father’s works. Where Death in Venice places its sexual themes at the centre of the narrative while still leaving them unstated and implicit, Mephisto is quite explicit, dealing with sadomasochism and homosexuality alike (in doing so he also identifies some of the sexual aspects of Nazism that Sontag was to discuss in Fascinating Fascism). Where Doctor Faustus is equally indirect in its discussion of Nazism, Mephisto is an explicit attack. Mann’s approach is to take the Faust mythos and re-purpose it. What is striking in this version is that Hofgen is both Faust and Mephistopheles, repeatedly described as a ruthless, if not evil, careerist unconcerned with others on the one hand but on the other, passive and at the mercy of events. Hofgen accordingly flits between the archetypes of Mephistopheles and Hamlet, an empty personality who only gains being through acting out the lives of others, while going from communism to fascism when it suits his career.