The Canadian photographer Robert Polidori, a staffer for The New Yorker, has had the Palace of Versailles within sight of the prying eye of his lens for nearly 25 years.
He pokes and prods into every corner of the 18th-century building, taking entire series of often quite glamorous, large-format photographs, registering the pageantry, and then the underside – or perhaps the back side – of the pageantry. What interests him about the place is how it has been mummified by the heritage tourist industry.
No old building can remain old these days. It has to be old within the difficult and constraining trappings of modernity. It has to be constantly made anew. Perspex folds around the bottom of a precious curtain lest small, eagerly greasy fingers should be tempted to twitch at it. Security cameras peep out from the corner of a stretch of gilded molding. Versailles is therefore not so much genuinely old as a constant re-fabrication of the old in order to make the old look as vitally and imaginably alive as it was when it was young and a gaily decorous fantasy of spoilt, overdressed young kings, queens and their hangers on. In order to keep the past alive, you have to work very hard, and spend a great deal of money, because the past is always fading, and often somewhat inelegantly.
So the old has to co-exist with the new, but the new must also be a model of discretion in order not to spoil the fantasy for those who would wish to indulge to the full the historic Versailles experience.
Thus Polidori shows us a Versailles which is continually in the re-making, continually in the business of museum-ification. He does this in two ways. He either shows us vistas which incorporate bits of the old and the new in order for us to see how they co-exist together, side by side, somewhat uneasily. Or he shows us rooms, corridors, etc. which are under refurbishment. In these scenes, all the fantasy and the gilded pageantry have been stripped away to reveal such things as old, ugly, blockish, unstuccoed walls which are like the kinds of things that our cats rub their backs up against day in, day out. A wall without the adornment of a stuccoed skim is a wall is a wall is a wall.
Now, Polidori is a photographer who goes in for the semblance of glamour. These photographs, large in format, are tonally rich and seductive, but it is a richness that is also –and always – undermined by a kind of sly humour. We know – and he knows – that it is all skim-of-stucco deep. Polidori has a good way with of dealing with portraiture. When his photographs show us portraits, they are often cropped, awkwardly. Or, instead of hanging on the walls, they are down on the floor, sideways on. And there is nothing more demeaning for an elegant lower leg than to glimpse it sideways on, as if it is so much lumber.
And yes, that is what all these trappings look like in this show – so much cultural lumber, fabricated, and then carefully positioned, to make a point about influence and the power to intimidate. Nothing here seems to belong to humanity – the seats are too smoothly padded to allow for bums to occupy them; the portraits look preposterously unreal, and especially so when they are not hung on a wall, but stacked – the most humiliating and woe-begone photograph of all is of the Salle d'Afrique, with its stripped bare walls and its un-hung canvases.
And when you do glimpse any evidence of a real human presence, it looks offensive – in a photograph of an ante-chamber, a portrait of Marie-Antoinette by Jean Charpentier is abutted by dirty finger marks on a grey, panelled door. The shock is palpable. What has this building to do with humanity? It is an entire world of unreal spaces.
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