Friday, 20 January 2012

Acting the King: Illusions of Baroque Power

 The Apollo Grotto at Versailles, by Girardon, representing Lous XIV as Apollo attended by nymphs of the court. Photo source: Web Gallery of Art

The risk that the absolutist and would-be absolutist princes of 17th Europe took in seizing the theatrical, passionate style of Baroque Art for their propaganda purposes was that, for all the flattering idealization, the classical allusions and type-casting, it was more personal, far, far more personal, than court portraiture had ever been before, the skill of artists giving deeper psychological insight into their private characters and inviting as much scrutiny as admiration. Elizabeth I was being as wise as she was vain when she insisted on being painted without shadows. 

The king or queen's portrait was no longer merely an emblem or memento, a mask of power, frozen without emotion. Through tricks of light and paint, their images were rendered like modern film stars', with that ambivalent appearance of being humanly real even though unnaturally beautiful. This art transcended flattery: it was state-organized celebrity advertizing to perpetuate an illusion, with the personal appearance and personality of the king and queen rather than their icon at the centre.

Artists rose to the occasion. Early Baroque liberated their imaginations. Rubens gave the shambolic figure of James I a biblical dignity and the bold gestures of a classical actor in his apotheosis on the Banqueting House ceiling. The downside of Van Dyck's bewitching portraits of Henrietta Maria was the shock her real appearance gave observers.

The urgent need of Church and States riven by religious and political wars to find new, instantly accessible, thoroughly modern means of communicating and explaining itself to the world found its answer in a dramatic and exciting style of art, in which stories were told through emotion and movement, and in which perspective was used to achieve dazzling illusory effects. Baroque supplied authoritarian, often precarious governments, with saturated advertizing to charm and awe their subjects and foreign ambassadors into accepting their right to rule.

The aesthetic of absolutism produced art works of superb quality, but it could not keep a king's head on. Louis XIV managed to co-exist with his image of the Sun-King, but sometimes a ruler's choice of alter-ego was as revealing of weaknesses they were trying to hide as strengths they wished to magnify. In the new heightened realism of portraiture, their individual physiognomy was examined for tell-tale signs from every angle. Van Dyck's Christ-like head studies of Charles I in Three Positions elicited the famous response from Bernini that there was something unfortunate in the countenance.

The metaphorical possibilities of theatre to promote political prestige by enchanting and as well as simply impressing the spectator were fully assimiliated into political and cultural ideas, long before the scientific and artistic innovations of late Renaissance 16th century Italy enabled artists to put their designs into more dimensions and materials, the application of perspective in different media creating sensational illusions of space.

The convention of representing royalty in their portraits as theatre, complete with regal props and a fixed palatial or heavenly set was already established. In the Ditchley portrait of 1592 (National Portrait Gallery), Elizabeth I is insouciantly standing on a map of Southern England, apparently on a globe, floating through the sky - but, in the style of presentation the queen preferred, the painting is flat, shadowless, a static emblem, rich in symbols and imagery without any depth of field.
 Elizabeth by Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger, National Portrait Gallery. 
Photo source: Wikipedia

Forty years later, Van Dyck's painting of Charles 1 on horseback (National Gallery), shows the king riding under a triumphal arch that could be from a stage set, with painted backdrop beyond, straight towards the spectator, who has to look up in awe at all the approaching majesty of man and animal, an image which the mastery of perspective and movement gives a breathtaking immediacy. It is as different from Elizabethan iconography as a still photograph from a movie. It is the most consciously theatrical of Van Dyck's court portraits: by showing the King coming through the arched frame within the picture, he is effectively breaking down the fourth wall.

Charles I with M. de St Antoine by Van Dyck, 1633, Royal Collection. 
Image source: Wikimedia Commons

Royalty was used to playing out their lives in public, from birth to death, every day, rising, retiring, eating and dressing under observation but now it was done in a theatrical setting aswell. The stage of Palladio’s Teatro Olimpico, built in the early 1580s as the first permanent public theatre since antiquity, was designed to look like a palace; now palaces were being designed to look like theatres. Imagination and realities of power blurred.

Teatro Olimpico was the culmination of many years of experiment and innovation on temporary stages. Late Renaissance Italian followed by German artists had played with the decorative possibilities of perspective to create fantastical effects. 

 Detail of Susanna in the Bath and the Stoning of the Elders by the great landscape painter Albrecht Altdorfer, 1526. Oil on wood. Alte Pinakothek, Munich

The enchantment of idealized buildings and natural landscapes receding into the distance were adapted into designs for moveable wing and drop scenery for the princely courts and public entertainments of the City States. The use of newly invented cloud machines that could carry performers dressed as gods through the air, wave, storm and fire machines, and illusionist lighting effects, added to increasingly sophisticated spectaculars that raised government prestige and kept the citizens enthralled.

Catherine de Medici introduced these techniques to the French court during the 1560s - 80s to enhance her famous politically motivated “magnifences” that were an astonishing multi-media experience, incorporating masque, ballet, song, street theatre, traditional tournaments and mock battles, and avant-garde erotic entertainment, all to reassert the power of the Valois dynasty in breaks during the Wars of Religion.

There was a centuries’ old tradition of the monarchy playing a disguised part in court entertainment - Richard II, the first aesthete of English absolutism, joined in mumming when he was still prince of Wales. The practice was developed into a symbolic show of royal prestige by the two rival masters of display, Henry VIII and François I of France. Elizabeth I encouraged masques, but despite being an accomplished dancer and public speaker, she seldom took part in them - perhaps, like Hamlet, she had a greater interest in watching the audience.

Rainbow Portrait of Elizabeth I, attributed to Isaac Oliver, c1600, presents a fantasy of the queen (aged nearly 70) as a virginal goddess of all-seeing wisdom, in a vibrant emblematic costume embroidered with eyes and ears and etherealized in masque-fashion with transparent veil and collar. Image source: Wikipedia

Spoken lines of poetry and allegory were gradually introduced, and more elaborate scenery, until the great literary and visual collaboration of Ben Jonson and Inigo Jones elevated the form into magical fantasies of political theatre, performed behind a majestic proscenium arch with receding scenery beyond, in the Italian style originating in the Medici courts, a cavernous portal from venal court to Olympian grace, a world where unnatural vice and anarchy was defeated by virtuous kings and queens who united the country in a final song and dance.

The rich and powerful fell in love with illusion because it ravished their senses and could manipulate the emotions of others, just as architects, stage designers and actors had fallen in love with the aesthetics of Teatro Olimpico. Optical illusion was demanded for their official portraits, their walls and ceilings and the vistas of their gardens, so geometrically perfect as to be indistinguishable from a stage-set. The resulting art was better than the cause.

Jones’ Palladian Banqueting House in Whitehall was used by the first two Stuart Kings for state occasions, and until the installation of Rubens' ceiling in 1635, for the staging of masques; it was still used as a theatrical setting for daytime political events when damaging lighting effects were not required. It was deliberately chosen by the Parliamentarian regicides as the most appropriate backdrop to Charles I’s execution so he physically stepped out of the theatre of his kingship through a window of his palace on to the scaffold.

Five years later, in Animal Farm style, Cromwell as head of the new republic moved in to the palace of Whitehall, even once reviving the court masque tradition in honour of his daughter’s wedding, and using the Banqueting House as the venue for giving audiences noted by foreigners for their pomp and ceremony, while above them the first Stuart advocate of divine right sat in the clouds bringing peace to England.

Louis XIV turned the ceremonial rituals of kingship into ballet, every gesture studied to be as graceful and as pregnant with meaning as possible; even his bodily functions had to be treated as if they were an entertaining performance, but nobody laughed. Toughened individuals like Louis XIV and Elizabeth were skilled performance artists able to bring off the parts of pseudo-deities they created and costumed and choreographed to hedge themselves with divinity, which worked its charm only for as long as the supporting cast was persuaded it had a vested interest in suspending disbelief.   
Louis XIV's association with the sun-god was cultivated after he danced, aged fifteen, the part of Roi-Soleil in 1653, following the example of his father Louis XIII who had appeared in court ballets. The identification of the French monarchy with the sun has been traced by Roy Strong back to Henri III's costume for a mock battle in 1581. [Roy Strong: Art and Power]. For an absolute monarch, continuity through using inherited allegorical motifs or building on existing chateaux was an essential element to perpetuating dynastic myth, conveniently glossing over interregnums of parliamentary and aristocratic rule.

The royal bed was a sacred place sectioned off by a gilded balustrade, behind which the privileged audience could watch the dramas of levee and couchee. The trompe l'oeil scenery of ceilings and walls of state rooms beguiled onlookers with dynastic achievements and aspirations in three dimensions; the hall of mirrors played with light to create multiple illusions of space. 

 Performance of Lully's Alceste in the Marble Courtyard at Versailles, 1674, engraving by Le Pautre. Image source: Web Gallery of Art

The grandest staircases and courtyards were used as background settings; the gardens were enchanted places of outdoor theatre.  How often these 'spectacles' in performance more closely resembled le Cirque du Soleil rather than la Cour du Roi-Soleil we cannot tell - the propaganda of the ancien régime disarms our scepticism in the surviving prints, engravings and paintings, where ephemeral beauty and elegance reign for ever over stage storms and monsters, the technical disasters and sometimes fatal accidents of performers and workmen forgotten. The surviving visual evidence of buildings, gardens and images distract us from the stench of the court, the corruption, mistakes, terror and genocide of the regime.

The surviving shiny splendour of baroque palaces and the peace of their gardens, every avenue, canal, parterre and statue positioned in perspective to achieve the illusion of order and harmony for eternity, take our minds off the impetus for their construction. The elaborate illusions of absolutism were created out of fear of a return to the civil wars, depositions, executions and chaos that had torn Europe for the first half of the century. In the second half, warfare was concentrated on ravaging other countries.Versailles, behind its magnificence, its functions as government office, and games and entertainments palace to keep the nobility soft, was built outside Paris as a fortress, impregnable for a hundred years. 

Backstage view of the garden theatre at Herrenhausen, Hanover. 
Photo: Martin Huebscher

Every head of state in Europe felt obliged to emulate Louis XIV's presentation of kingship, both in his person and in the architecture of his flagship palace, because man and building embodied successful autocratic government. Princes indulged excesses of taste and appetite in pursuit of appearances. The happily married Elector of Brandenburg took a maitresse en titre purely to show off at court functions so he would look more like an up-to-date absolutist.

Princes temperamentally averse to performance would take the leading part in a ballet to make a political point, like the young William III of Orange in Holland as publicity to alert the world that he was going to be a major power player.

Everybody acts a part to some degree; for politicians and princes it is part of the job description. Halifax in A Character of King Charles II called dissembling a Jewel in the Crown: “Princes dissemble with too many, not to have it discovered.” Charles II, as capable and ambitious as King Louis, and as embittered by early humiliating experiences of civil war, presided over a far more informal court, but it was still his personality that dominated, his real feelings and beliefs, if he had any at all, hidden behind the witty, “debonair and easy of access” [Evelyn}, “scandalous” [Rochester] persona that passed into historical legend, and became a prototypical fictional hero of the cynical rake with a kind heart. Underneath all he wanted was to survive, and had no scruples how he did so.

He is the only known double agent to have been a reigning king: the anointed Head of the Church of England who was subsidised by the French government to return his kingdom to Roman Catholicism but who safeguarded a Protestant succession after his brother's reign, and who died as a Catholic, receiving the last rites of a faith with which he had always had more sympathy than any other. He was a human baroque illusion in himself: selfish pragmatism came first, but performed with immaculate panache. He famously enjoyed the public theatre, which flourished under his patronage and that of the literary members of his court, like Rochester and Buckingham, sensual philosophical nihilists who also understood the power of illusion.

Inigo Jones' masque design for a Star. Image source: Wikipedia

Read also:
article based on a Review of Stages and Scenes Exhibition at the Courtauld, 2008  
© Pippa Rathborne 2012