Baroque pleasures: Dazzling and ornate art

If it's exuberant, dazzling, ornate, theatrical and hysterical, you'll find it at the V&A's latest blockbuster show, says Tom Lubbock

It's one of those words – baroque. It's like "surreal", an art label that came unstuck from its original situation, and acquired a universal usefulness. Anything a bit weird can be surreal. Anything a bit complicated or overblown can be baroque. It's a perfectly handy everyday word. Just leave it there.

Take it any further, and things get... well, a little baroque. The likeness to surreal breaks down. Surrealism was originally a self-defined art movement. It coined its own name. It issued manifestos. It had accredited artists. Contemporaries talked about it.

The Baroque was a 17th-century movement that was unheard of at the time. The word wasn't introduced until the mid-18th century. Its derivation is obscure – possibly from the Portuguese word for an imperfect shell, or from a logical term for contrived reasoning.

As these things do, it started out as a term of abuse. It was deployed by neo-classical critics, a way of rejecting the frivolity and bombast that followed on the Renaissance. Later, it became more neutral, one of art history's big style categories. But with no "control" in contemporary usage, the Baroque can mean almost anything that a critic decides it means. The movement acquired its fixed art stars: the sculpture of Bernini, the painting of Rubens, the architecture of Borromini. But it also applies to music, drama, poetry and all kinds of design and decoration. There's Baroque politics (absolute monarchy) and Baroque religion (counter-reformation Catholicism). There's Baroque science and Baroque psychology.

Baroque can cover anything that was around in the 17th century and strikes you as exuberant, exorbitant, ornate, elaborate, theatrical, hysterical. If it's glittery and curly-wurly, if it's dynamic and dazzling, it qualifies. In her essay, "Baroque and Roll", Brigid Brophy boldly defined it by its embrace of direct contradictions! Whatever it means, it's a large, vague, shorthand name. Frankly, I try to avoid it – not that you always can.

Baroque 1620-1800: Style in the Age of Magnificence is the Victoria & Albert Museum's spring blockbuster. It opens this weekend. And even before going through the door, you can see that it's not going to narrow down the definition. Check that title: a movement generally set in the 17th century is extended through the whole of the following century, too.

What's more, the show takes the Baroque out of Europe and across the world. Colonisation took it to Peru and to Indonesia. It was the first global style. And the exhibits go beyond art and artefacts – there's every sort of luxury object, from an ornamental sled to an ornamental ostrich, an entire and huge Mexican altarpiece, and (on film) an authentic period firework display.

It does everything it can to imitate itself a Baroque spectacle. You proceed through galleries devoted to various places of display – the theatre, the public square, the church, the palace, the garden. Baroque music accompanies you.

The Baroque work, we're told, is focused upon a single effect. It always has its eye on the spectator. It wants to overwhelm you with a total work of art. We should feel at home, then; the Baroque near enough invented "the experience".

So I think you can see what you're in for. I've talked about the phenomenon before. It's a show that has one of these telltale words in its title. Magnificence. Majesty. Splendour. Grandeur. Triumph. Treasure. Golden. Civilisation. Epoch. Age. (In this case, it's got two of those words.) And the point of such exhibitions is that, over and above the value of the individual works, we are to be wowed with what they add up to. It's a power and glory show. A whole culture glares us in the face.

There's an obvious practical problem. The bigger the subject, the harder it is to exhibit it in a museum. But you won't find any churches in the V&A – somehow they couldn't be shifted and shipped. You won't find Tiepolo's great ceiling painting from the Würzburg residence. You won't find the Hall of Mirrors from Versailles, nor any theatres or throne rooms or parks. What you'll find instead are scale models and films and contemporary images recording such things.

As for the work of Bernini, essential to any view of the Baroque, what can you do? It is, where moveable, basically unborrowable. His masterpiece, the sculptural tableau The Ecstasy of St Theresa, is neither. It's represented here by a poor painting of it and a clay fragment of her delirious face, left over from the making process.

Personally, I think they should have got a decent full-size simulation of it constructed. Actually, there would already be one in the V&A's cast room if a taste for the Baroque had got going earlier, during the Victorian age, when these casts were taken. But nowadays conservation won't remotely permit the practice. You'd have to make it new. Film artists could do it.

Short of that, there's nothing to be done about it. It's impressive the amount they've managed to gather, yes. But what an exhibition sometimes gains in being able to show the real thing, it too often loses in not being able to show the real thing. It would be awful for the V&A to admit that a sumptuous coffee-table book would do as good or better a job, but it seems to me that it would. Or a sumptuous coffee-table TV series.

There's another problem – a problem of belief. In this show, you're witnessing a grand exercise in personification. The Baroque (we learn) invented opera. The Baroque also invented the dinner service and the easy chair. It gave us – how generously – many things that now seem fixtures of normal life. But it didn't. The Baroque was not a person to invent anything. These things got invented during the period in question – a period, remember, that lasted almost 200 years. Lots of things happened during that time.

Baroque: Style in the Age of Magnificence puts its faith in that old historical-philosophical fiction, the Spirit of the Age. It doesn't actually come out with it explicitly, but that is the desired effect. Everything it displays – from a filigree bellows to a bellying-out church façade – is, somehow or other, an expression of this movement of the world's mind.

Yes, of course there are fashions. There is always common ground to be found among contemporary products. But there are distinctions, too. With a group of works even by a single decent artist – by Bernini, say, or Rubens – you'd immediately start noticing differences as well as similarity. It's only with the mediocre that likeness dominates our view.

And there will also be flagrant exceptions to the broadest groupings. Vermeer's piercingly discrete paintings – are they Baroque? Or Racine's rigidly structured tragedies? Or Newton's laws of motion? They all fall bang in the middle of the age of the Baroque. How could they possibly have escaped its influence?

These age-style labels are blinkers on our vision. They exclude what doesn't fit. They impose sameness upon variety. They give us a little understanding, stressing the existence of connections, and restrict our understanding, by insisting that connection is the only important thing. Yet we love to be presented with a unified vision of culture. It makes things simpler.

We love power, too. And the deep moral of a show like this is a mystical power-worship. It suggests that the makers of art and history are not humans but mighty trans-human agencies – gods called Gothic, Baroque, Romanticism – that rule great stretches of time and hold the whole world in their hands.

You may find this sense of power empowering, just as (in a small way) you may find a show like this one empowering. You're presented with one big thing to admire and be amazed by. Fine – go along to the show and get moderately blasted. But then settle down and go back to using the word to mean a bit complicated and over-blown. It's all that it deserves.



Baroque 1620-1800: Style in the Age of Magnificence is at the V&A, London SW7, 4 April–19 July, every day, admission £11, with concessions (020-7942 2000; www.vam.ac.uk)

Arts and Entertainment
Carrie Hope Fletcher
booksFirst video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books
Arts and Entertainment
Damien Hirst
artCoalition's anti-culture policy and cuts in local authority spending to blame, says academic
Arts and Entertainment
A comedy show alumni who has gone on to be a big star, Jon Stewart
tvRival television sketch shows vie for influential alumni
Arts and Entertainment
Jason goes on a special mission for the queen
tvReview: Everyone loves a CGI Cyclops and the BBC's Saturday night charmer is getting epic
Arts and Entertainment
Image has been released by the BBC
tv
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Henry Marsh said he was rather 'pleased' at the nomination
booksHenry Marsh's 'Do No Harm' takes doctors off their pedestal
Arts and Entertainment
All in a day's work: the players in the forthcoming 'Posh People: Inside Tatler'

tv
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne plays Stephen Hawking in new biopic The Imitation Game

'At times I thought he was me'

film
Arts and Entertainment

books
Arts and Entertainment
One Direction go Fourth: The boys pose on the cover of their new album Four

Review: One Direction, Four

music
Arts and Entertainment
'Game of Thrones' writer George RR Martin

Review: The World of Ice and Fire

books
Arts and Entertainment
Sean Bean will play 'extraordinary hero' Inspector John Marlott in The Frankenstein Chronicles
tvHow long before he gets killed off?
Arts and Entertainment
Some like it hot: Blaise Bellville

music
Arts and Entertainment
A costume worn by model Kate Moss for the 2013 photograph

art
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Len Goodman appeared to mutter the F-word after Simon Webbe's Strictly performance

Strictly
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie T makes his long-awaited return to the London stage
musicReview: Alexandra Palace, London
Arts and Entertainment
S Club 7 back in 2001 when they also supported 'Children in Need'
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Sir Bruce Forsyth rejoins Tess Daly to host the Strictly Come Dancing Children in Need special
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Dornan plays Christian Grey getting ready for work

Film More romcom than S&M

Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch star in the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game

Review: The Imitation Game

film
Arts and Entertainment
The comedian Daniel O'Reilly appeared contrite on BBC Newsnight last night

comedy
Arts and Entertainment
The American stand-up Tig Notaro, who performed topless this week

Comedy...to show her mastectomy scars

Arts and Entertainment

TVNetflix gets cryptic

Arts and Entertainment
Claudia Winkleman is having another week off Strictly to care for her daughter
TV
Arts and Entertainment
BBC Children in Need is the BBC's UK charity. Since 1980 it has raised over £600 million to change the lives of disabled children and young people in the UK

TV review A moving film showing kids too busy to enjoy their youth

Arts and Entertainment
Richard Flanagan with his winning novel

Books Not even a Man Booker prize could save Richard Flanagan from a nomination

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Mau Mau uprising: Kenyans still waiting for justice join class action over Britain's role in the emergency

    Kenyans still waiting for justice over Mau Mau uprising

    Thousands join class action over Britain's role in the emergency
    Isis in Iraq: The trauma of the last six months has overwhelmed the remaining Christians in the country

    The last Christians in Iraq

    After 2,000 years, a community will try anything – including pretending to convert to Islam – to avoid losing everything, says Patrick Cockburn
    Black Friday: Helpful discounts for Christmas shoppers, or cynical marketing by desperate retailers?

    Helpful discounts for Christmas shoppers, or cynical marketing by desperate retailers?

    Britain braced for Black Friday
    Bill Cosby's persona goes from America's dad to date-rape drugs

    From America's dad to date-rape drugs

    Stories of Bill Cosby's alleged sexual assaults may have circulated widely in Hollywood, but they came as a shock to fans, says Rupert Cornwell
    Clare Balding: 'Women's sport is kicking off at last'

    Clare Balding: 'Women's sport is kicking off at last'

    As fans flock to see England women's Wembley debut against Germany, the TV presenter on an exciting 'sea change'
    Oh come, all ye multi-faithful: The Christmas jumper is in fashion, but should you wear your religion on your sleeve?

    Oh come, all ye multi-faithful

    The Christmas jumper is in fashion, but should you wear your religion on your sleeve?
    Dr Charles Heatley: The GP off to do battle in the war against Ebola

    The GP off to do battle in the war against Ebola

    Dr Charles Heatley on joining the NHS volunteers' team bound for Sierra Leone
    Flogging vlogging: First video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books

    Flogging vlogging

    First video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books
    Saturday Night Live vs The Daily Show: US channels wage comedy star wars

    Saturday Night Live vs The Daily Show

    US channels wage comedy star wars
    When is a wine made in Piedmont not a Piemonte wine? When EU rules make Italian vineyards invisible

    When is a wine made in Piedmont not a Piemonte wine?

    When EU rules make Italian vineyards invisible
    Look what's mushrooming now! Meat-free recipes and food scandals help one growing sector

    Look what's mushrooming now!

    Meat-free recipes and food scandals help one growing sector
    Neil Findlay is more a pink shrimp than a red firebrand

    More a pink shrimp than a red firebrand

    The vilification of the potential Scottish Labour leader Neil Findlay shows how one-note politics is today, says DJ Taylor
    Bill Granger recipes: Tenderstem broccoli omelette; Fried eggs with Mexican-style tomato and chilli sauce; Pan-fried cavolo nero with soft-boiled egg

    Oeuf quake

    Bill Granger's cracking egg recipes
    Terry Venables: Wayne Rooney is roaring again and the world knows that England are back

    Terry Venables column

    Wayne Rooney is roaring again and the world knows that England are back
    Michael Calvin: Abject leadership is allowing football’s age-old sores to fester

    Abject leadership is allowing football’s age-old sores to fester

    Those at the top are allowing the same issues to go unchallenged, says Michael Calvin