Wednesday, 12 February 2014

The tyranny of fantasy

Part One

You climbed the stairs to see the interior of an opulent palace, where you half expected to find Sleeping Beauty, reminding you of the toy theatre you played with when you were a child, its painted flats arranged layer behind layer giving you the illusion of depth and space, over which you had dominion, one of your first tastes of the enchantment of power.

Giuseppi Valeriani: Set of designs for a stage set, 17th Century. 
The Samuel Courtauld Trust, The Courtauld Gallery, London 

This pretty and delicate model was designed in the early eighteenth century as a seven piece set by the Italian Russian artist Giuseppe Valeriani with pen and brown ink, watercolour and judicious use of gold leaf on paper.

It was the starting point of the exhibition Stages and Scenes: Creating Architectural Illusion at the Courtauld Gallery in 2008. The eight students on the Curating the Art Museum MA programme chose the piece before they had decided on a theme for their exhibition. Like a true fairy tale talisman, the object had powers of suggestion to open a door....
to the larger world. 

It was a modest exhibition of only 29 items, few of great artistic merit but all illustrating the young curators' grand thesis that "Through skilled rendering of architecture and perspective, the smallest stage can be converted into the most expansive of settings". 

By making the connection between artistic experiments with perspective and the political propaganda of absolutism, Stages and Scenes gave a reflection of the illusions at the heart of state power in Baroque Europe. 

The inherently theatrical gestures and imagery of Baroque art and architecture were adapted to meet the urgent need of European states, destabilized from decades of ideological conflict and political division, to restore order and redefine faith through a coherent public image that could be felt, not just seen and heard.

 Rubens, Solomon Receiving the Queen of Sheba, 1620, oil on panel 
© The Samuel Courtauld Trust, The Courtauld Gallery, London

The Roman Catholic Church reignited enthusiasm for the Counter-Reformation by offering an emotionally exciting religious experience in the new church buildings and biblical paintings. Secular regimes, hell-bent on centralization and legitimization of their often dubious right to rule, wooed their subjects with a glamorous, quasi-religious vision of their policies, disarming rational opposition with soaring vistas and dazzling tricks of the eye.

Architectural illusion was one of the most potent weapons in this charm offensive, and was used in the scenery of state opera and playhouses and in huge outdoor entertainments to promulgate and consolidate dynastic power, until the revolutions and Napoleonic conquests of the late 18th century swept away the old structure of patronage.

 Ballet at Versailles, 1745, engraving by Charles Nicolas Cochin, of the performance of La princesse de Navarre, music by Rameau and words by Voltaire, in the Grande Écurie (the covered riding arena) of the palace. The first purpose-built theatre at Versailles, l'Opéra Royal, was opened in 1763.
Image © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

There were aesthetic adjustments to suit changing tastes, but baroque continued to be the preferred style of visual communication long after the passionate drama of Rubens and Bernini was sedated, and the subtle sensuality of Van Dyck coarsened by later 17th century artists, until it was superseded in the 18th century by the decorous elegance of Tiepolo and the light-hearted scepticism of the Rococo, embarrassed by the religious fervour and overt emotion of the past. Baroque reappeared in Romanticism, as the emotional, personal and rebellious counterpoint to neoclassicism.

Rubens' oil sketch on panel, Esther before Ahasuerus, designed in 1620 for the ceiling of the Jesuit Church of Antwerp (the decoration all destroyed by fire in 1718), one of the few paintings in the exhibition, united the themes of architectural illusion and public display with dramatic figure-painting in glowing, sumptuous colours and bold composition.

 Rubens, Esther before Ahasuerus, oil on panel, 1620
 Copyright: © The Samuel Courtauld Trust, The Courtauld Gallery, London

Here and in the accompanying scene Solomon Receiving the Queen of Sheba, featuring a show-stealing parrot, he used the equivalent of a telephoto lens effect of leading our eyes upward at a vertiginous perspective, to catch a glimpse of dramatic interaction of characters standing between palatial columns and staircases under looming arches.

Rubens' bravura technique is easy to dismiss as vulgar and commercially superficial, his fleshly obsession verging on the pornographic, distracting attention from the thoughtfulness of his compositions and the expressiveness of his figures. Their gestures and faces are caught with operatic intensity in the very moment of emotion, not in tranquillity before or afterwards, involving us all in a human story of love and passion, rather than political and economic self-interest.
coming soon

© Pippa Rathborne  2014
Adapted from an article published as Exhibition Review | STAGES AND SCENES on Rogues and Vagabonds Theatre Website in 2008, with permission of Sarah Vernon and with many thanks to The Samuel Courtauld Trust, The Courtauld Gallery, London for permission to use images from their collection.