Saturday 29 February 2020

British Baroque

I was curious to see the Tate Britain exhibition British Baroque: Power and Illusion, but I can't say my expectations were very high. (I'm always a little wary of exhibitions with a colon and subtitle after the name.)
  My heart sank when I saw a prominent 'trigger warning' notice outside one room, and found the offending picture adorned with an ultralong caption (the longest in the whole exhibition) expressing moral outrage at 'this shocking and dehumanising image'. The painting in question was a playful composition by Benedetto Gennari, showing the spirited Hortense Mancini, Duchess Mazarin [one of Charles II's lovers] dressed up (or down) as Diana. She is clearly enjoying the fun, as are the four black pageboys (one of them her long-time friend and confidant) who surround her. Shocking? Dehumanising? Really? The Tate has no image of this picture available, but you can have a look at it (in rather murky reproduction) here, and read a more level-headed account of it.
  Anyway, after recovering from this shock in the nearest safe space, I managed to totter around the rest of the exhibition, and my overall impression was very favourable. This is a grand, wide-ranging survey of the High Baroque in Britain, from the Restoration to Queen Anne, taking in not only painting but sculpture, architecture, garden design, interior furnishings, warfare and even the beginnings of party politics. At ten rooms, it's near blockbuster size, but nothing like as crowded or exhausting as most.
  The paintings typically delight in rich colour, sumptuous textures, inviting female flesh, dazzling display, and sometimes ludicrous self-aggrandisement. As we English are not naturally given to the last of these qualities in particular, we had to bring in foreigners – especially Italians – to do it for us, as in Antonio Verrio's preposterous Sea Triumph of Charles II
A more realistic and revealing image of Charles II is provided by a portrait bust by the imperfectly earthed John Bushnell, a sculptor whose name will be familiar to readers of this blog and this book.
Among the numerous swagger portraits of gorgeous, often underdressed ladies and pompous, overdressed men some stand out as something more – especially the portraits by Willem Wissing, a Dutchman who worked with Peter Lely and died sadly young. Here is one of his grander works, a quietly beautiful portrait of Queen Anne, when Princess of Denmark –
There are also a couple of portraits by the brilliant, still underrated John Michael Wright, but the revelation, for me, was Godfrey Kneller – not that I didn't know his work, which is everywhere, but because I didn't appreciate his range, and what a powerful portraitist he could be when he got away from the conventional grand style and painted in a more pared-down way, as in his portrait of Matthew Prior –
That is an image that could be from the turn of the twentieth century, and others of his portraits on display here show him learning a lesson in cool simplicity from Moroni, or painting with the sparkle and brio of Reynolds or Gainsborough.
  British Baroque would be worth seeing for the paintings alone, but it has a good deal more to offer, and I'd recommend a visit – it's running until mid-April, so there's plenty of time.

No comments:

Post a Comment