Brexit Baroque, No Matter Covid & Bame.
By Fernando Gómez Herrero.
The Baroque is one category that has not fully gone native in 2020 Britain. What follows is a critical account of a failure of the institutional imagination in relation to one such encounter made possible by Tate Britain (https://www.tate.org.uk/visit/tate-britain). This favourite institution failed me this time: I have in mind the exhibit “British Baroque” (4 Feb – 19 April 2020) (https://www.tate.org.uk/whats-on/tate-britain/exhibition/british-baroque) cut short by lockdown. I saw it. I took notes and some photos. This failure remains significant. Herald to the world: I deliver some thoughts on the uneasy relationship between Britain and the Baroque. I welcome “externalities” such as Brexit, Covid and Bame.
“British Baroque” is a restoration of sorts. But it brings no commotion as it should. It appears to obey a kind of a Brexit impulse towards a more nationalist and circumscribed type of return, in the name of sovereignty, now made totem and taboo, to a more localized take, also of ideas of aesthetics and politics. We can perhaps call this “exclusive” disposition by the name of historical-antiquarianism handling, yes, a few examples of a lusty Monarch, a few courtiers and many beauties, wigs and wings, mythological allegories, a period or a style or a genre, or better yet generally speaking a manageable bunch of cultural items inside the small four-decade frame in the British domain. It is done here in such a way that this presentation card of the Baroque (the B-word) is not and never will be central, vital or crucial to the official self-perception of a singular national cultural identity of Great Britain. No fundamental B-word for GB in Boris Johnson’s Britain, this could be the irony of “British Baroque.”
The subtitle, “power and illusion,” is trite. The show is evidence of the postmodern collapse of narratives. Exhibition rooms constitute a banal series: Restoration, the Restoration Court, the Religious Interior, Illusion and Deception, Wren and Baroque Architecture, Courtly Mansions and Courtly Gardens, Painted Interiors, Beauty, Triumph and Glory, and the Age of Politics. We come and go speaking of Michelangelo?, T.S. Eliot’s “dissociation of sensibility” too! And, what about “our” Michelangelo? In the “Century of Revolution”(Christopher Hill), where are the dynamos? The social agents? Their reasons and passions? Where are we going? Whither? Instead, “British Baroque” withers and this withering speaks volumes to our global predicaments.
Dirk Stoop’s painting commemorates Charles II’s cavalcade through London (1662). Bird’s eye view of the parade: is this “illusion” of other “realities” that are less visible? The Baroque undergoes personification in the lusty Monarch: how is he granted a special relationship with the Baroque compared, say, with his executed brother? Honoré Pelle’s marble bust of a moustachioed Charles II (1664) under a dramatic wig and behind a dynamic cravat is one of my favourite pieces. Consider this Monarch, whose virtues appear conventional cardboard classicism with no furious life. These works are enjoyable, yet unmemorable. They appear quite secondary to their European partners, “Championship” level to Premier League, if you will. John Bushnell’s terracotta bust, Peter Lely’s official state portraits. What is new here? Does this Monarch speak at all? Some “attack,” as in music, of the illusions of monarchical power in these convulsive times must take place.
A print after Francis Barlow includes a solemn mock procession of figures in the guise of the anti-Catholic anti-Christ train, the Pope, Cardinals, Jesuits, Friars, etc. through the City of London the 17th of November 1679. The original text speaks of Catholic “trumpery” of “a dead body riding a horse representing “Edmundbury” Godfrey, magistrate whose death caused an uproar among Protestant groups. We must exercise our eyes over the display to see the train with someone acting as the Pope and around him the Heresy’s Privy Council, the Devil, six Jesuits with “bloody daggers,” etc. Bewildering theatricality passing through central London in some kind of collective exorcism of the enemy of a diverse political theology. 200,000 spectators: who needs a small stage with this city-wide display? So, this “extreme anti-Catholicism” ending in Pope-effigy-burning ceremonies makes some of these tensions clear. This political theology begs for an explanation. I was more than curious.
Antonio Verrio’s “The Sea Triumph of Charles II“(c. 1674), about the third Anglo-Dutch War, is one apotheosis. There is nothing exceptionally Baroque about it: Charles II emerges in the guise of Neptune from the inspirational waters of the classical mythology. How unique is this Neptune compared with other Neptunes. This Verrio with others? Caesar Augustus is the mirror of Charles II, flattery. There is a cherub who is holding a shield with the coats of arms of the Union of England and Scotland (the motto is from Virgil’s Aeneid, “imperium oceano famam qui terminet astris;” [Caesar] extended his empire to the oceans, and his fame [reached] the stars”). Any Monarch would say “amen” to this expansive power. What is the imagined community (Benedict Anderson) depicted here in these Hobbesian times? I missed something, handle, text, visual aid, anything, that could help me put life spirit in this restoration of the monarchical institution bringing about a Union in these violent times of less-than-absolute power. Whose illusion of absolute power?
There are, predictably, courtiers in court as there are courtesans and lovers around this lustiest of Kings. Henry Bennett’s portrait (c.1665-70) after Peter Lely is included, also Henry Howard (c.1670-6) by Gilbert Soest. Lely is the most represented (Louise de Kérouale, Mary Bagot, Anne Hude, Elizabeth Hamilton, Barbara Villers, principal mistress of Charles II in the 1660s). There is also Jacob Huysmans’s Catherine of Braganza (c.1662-4), both fellow Catholics at the Court. Does this Catholicism make any difference in the brushstroke or not at all? No rendition of an artistic comparativism among schools of religious thought: the historicism informing “British Baroque” needs no apparent philosophy of history in which to insert the native samples. There is no apparent need for a teleology either and these are challenging matters, understandably, but also important matters that the exhibition should have handled, somewhat. Yet, there is also Henri Gascar’s portrait of Elizabeth Percy (c. 1678) and the lucky visitors will soon be surrounded by an awful lot of women portraits. And the point of it all is what exactly? There is a Stepford Wives feel, perhaps a nod or a wink to the “Me-too” movement. Is this fair? The portraits appear largely naturalistic. So, we are not confused with the allegorical function or any complicated symbolism but still… There is no feminist angle either in this history of Baroque-Britain-within-Western art from above with no distractions, deviations or nuances.
Emotionality needed a push, even irreverence, in the vicinity of Charles II. Take the monkey on his hind legs in the portrait of the court wit, John Wilmot, by an unknown artist (c.1665-70). Such ‘funny animal’ brings about the allegory of relaxation encouraged at the Restoration court. “Immoral and outrageous conduct” is the legend, and we may imagine a severe schoolteacher standing nearby with ginger hair, ruler and a pair of glasses. The monkey is in the act of destruction of a book (“a” book, “the” book of the world?) and the court poet crowns him with laurel. Our complicity is sought: “see what I like? I know you like it too,” John Wilmot appears to be saying. He is directly looking at us. There is something promising here that could have gone in many directions, also towards the shake-up of the Baroque. Add “and how far the monkey business will go?” Here, not far.
It is a racialized universe. How could it not ever be? There are scattered hints and the occasional trigger warning included in the legend: Benedetto Gennari’s beautiful portrait of Hortense Mancini, Duchess of Mazanin as a mythological figure, no other than the goddess Diana (c.1684). A beautiful, intriguing painting. A reclining half-topless “goddess” is surrounded by four black children. She seeks viewers’ complicity. These servants are raising “hell,” figuratively speaking, around her trying to catch her attention, but failing. She is entirely calm with us, as though sharing a secret. One black servant is riding a big horse, another is playing horn, another is twisting and turning, another pouring a drink… These are identified as slaves and they are wearing metal collars around their necks. Was this portrait made for her eyes only or for one admirer in a happy series? Who got this girl? Who didn’t? The levity of the mischievous slave children reverberates in the enormity of the institution of slavery finding contemporary connections in the streets in Britain and beyond. The exhibition room is eerily calm by comparison. There are more portraits of dukes and wives and daughters and lovers of privilege. Room 8 includes, oh fearful symmetry!, also 8 full-length portraits of the Hampton Court beauties (1690-1). After the said Duchess, these pale by comparison: individualized naturalistic portraits that do not go up to allegories.
The religious section is probably the weakest section because it does not flesh out the tension of this period. There are oil paints on canvas by James Thornhill to decorate St. Paul’s Cathedral. What type of imagery should be more appropriate for a young Protestant nation? Baroque must be put in both branches, the Catholic and the Protestant, of Christianity and the imaginary lines must be imagined blurry and bloody. There are devotional paintings of a Catholic denomination (John Michael Wright, Huysmans), but nothing exceptionally remarkable. Catherine of Braganza, Charles II’s spouse, had figurative paintings in her Chapel. In times of historic iconoclasm, these paintings may have found some use, sold and purchased and perhaps repurposed by Catholics and Protestants alike later on in a hybrid world of devotion or art, or both. Representations of the Virgin Mary, Bennedetto Gennari’s Holy Family (1682) and The Annunciation (1686), are here. I found them strangely unmoving. These images remain today rare, exceptional occurrence in Britain and merit more explanation. It appears fair to generalize a more deliberate push for brighter colours on the Catholic side. Hence, James Thornhill goes for a monochrome solution that is chosen for St. Paul, and the date is c. 1720. Is it fair to say that we are in a belated, more ‘muted’ insular difference, at least in relation to the cultural artifacts selected here, against its larger continental family of perhaps bigger and better examples? I leave this provocation standing.
The section “Illusion and Deception” deflates expectations. There is here something that feels underthought and underdeveloped as though arriving late to the traveller who missed the train. The charge can be extended to the generality of “British Baroque.” We see some trompe l’oeil paintings collected by Charles II. Richard Hooke’s Micrographia (1665) is the kind of microscope-aided drawing of insects in big sizes, very much to the liking of the diarist Samuel Pepys. But this is not a silly carrousel of amusing images: a Baroque episteme should have been invoked. John Donne’s poetry, Luis de Góngora’s and Francisco de Quevedo’s, to mention but two big foreign names, share the same universe of rhetorical play with sharp contrasts, although you would never guess that in the standard practice in the contemporary humanities classrooms in the modern languages in Britain. Where is the jump from these images to those letters, where the epistemological claims about the ways these individuals understood their world the best they could? This is a Lilliputian Eurovision contest. They are only two Dutch representatives, Van Hoogstraten’s “Peepshow” (c.1655-60) and Van der Vaart’s “Violin and Bow hanging on a Door” (after 1674). Is this merely about being clever and cute with the notion of perspective and the flickering between illusion and “reality”? Or disillusion and mirage? In between this set of binaries, we walk around a decorated box with holes placed in the middle of the exhibition room: we take a look. Is that an illusory image of a reclining woman half naked on a bed? Is that a putto above the motto “amoris causa” [for reasons of love]? What is going on? Flippancy? Anything else, anything more “serious”? And what would that be aesthetically and politically? “British Baroque” should have punched above its weight.
The final contrast is with the suggestion of the inclusion of architecture into the exhibition. There is selection of drawings, Wren’s St. Paul’s Cathedral, and Nicholas Hawksmore’s. There is also one small-size painting of a panoramic landscape of Greenwich by Johannes Vorsterman. This is very English after all: we are in London, never far away from Greenwich and Whitehall, more Hawksmore, a bit of Blenheim Palace, engravings on paper of 1718. “British Baroque” wants to make a final architectural point. It is not clear what it is: that the Baroque is also big over here? A floor-to-ceiling photography of ceiling of the Great Hall of the Old Royal Naval College closes this exhibition. Thornhill is “our” Michelangelo and this is “Britain’s Sistine Chapel” (https://ornc.org/our-story/royal-hospital/painted-hall/). That is the virtual message for the entire world to see. Fit the purpose: as far as I can see, to provide a self-congratulatory portrait of the British nation that is not tremendously “radical” in its claims. In fact, the reverse, it is simply a Great-Old-Masters’ take that disrupts no old norm or convention. The basic messages says something like this: “we also did it [the Baroque] over here in Britain at least for a bit, but this is not our main claim to fame.” Yet, the presumption is the nationalism that asserts equal value compared with the largely missing grand European art of the same period. There is no whiff of the Latin Baroque in Europe or the Americas.
The press delivered its verdict and it is unimpressed (“An insightful show,” by Alastair Smart, https://expressdigest.com/british-baroque-power-and-illusion-review-an-insightful-show/; “More bluster than blockbuster” by Rachel Campbell-Johnston (The Times, 7 Feb, p. 13); “School of Baroque,” by Jackie Willschlager, (Financial Times, 8-9 Feb, p. 13); “Show that sucks the life from a vibrant aesthetic” by Jonathan Jones (The Guardian, 4 Feb, p. 9); and “Pomp and Circumstance” by Laura Cumming (The Observer, 9 Feb, p. 39); https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2020/feb/09/british-baroque-tate-britain-review-radical-figures-whitechapel-art-gallery). There is good news: the critical mind is still alive and kicking in contemporary Britain. I close by adding a turn to the screw. The exhibition fails to break the silence about the problematic relationship between Britain and the Baroque. “British Baroque” behaves as though nothing problematic had ever happened since the XVI and XVI centuries until today in the cultural institutions and the universities, the literature, the national symbols. And let us not forget about the unschooled domains, the popular culture and the streets. The Baroque is odd and uncommon and is not recognised as a convention or norm of cultural national identity, thank you very much. This repudiation of the Baroque by the official “constitution” of Britain remains in place with or without the exhibition “British Baroque,” one insufficient push in the right direction.
Again, my argument about “British Baroque” (or better, Baroque in Britain) says that future efforts must engage with the nature of the repressed encounter, the silencing, the conventional distancing, the likely strangeness effect among friends, relatives and foes alike, apropos the typical othering of the category of the Baroque in the Anglo Zone. The Baroque remains to this day an unwelcome category, subordinate, perhaps even subaltern, for official or establishment Britain –and also the U.S.—about self-definitions. There are exceptions, but these remain glorious exceptions to this rejection, externalization, disavowal, which, I defend, is still by 2020, mainstream convention or majority-sector political-unconscious norm.
This norm or convention, which “British Baroque” does not upset like it should, is undergoing a doubling down in these troubling times. Add Brexit to a general distancing or divergence from the closest European neighbours. Reinforcing this withdrawal or isolationism, add global covid throwing all sorts of uncertainties, complications and interruptions at trade and travel, exchange, intercourse of goods, peoples and ideas, and finally add the recent upheaval in the streets and few institutions about police brutality after the killing of George Floyd, a catalyst for the tumbling down of few civic statues implicitly and explicitly against the legacy of imperialism, racism and slavery. These “externalities” matter, this is our general habitat, also in relation to the historical aesthetics of the international Baroque. Brexit Britain enforces all sorts of insular (mythical) claims of happy sovereignty. There are symptoms in the “go-it-alone” British Baroque in the aesthetics and the politics: a marked diminution of the expansive category of the international Baroque becoming “British,” or perhaps “mostly English,” as it is cut to pieces detached from others, European and (Latin) American, under lockdown. As we emerge tentatively from it in different parts of the world, let us see how we survive, also intellectually.
The somewhat unusual “BAME” acronym stands for “British Asian Minority Ethnic” and as such it is peculiarly British, BBC-mainstreamed, “politically correct,” and admittedly awkward. It is recent and not yet fully naturalized. Yet, it is a valid sign from where to look at the lack of curiosity at the diversification of human agency embedded in the cultural artifacts included in “British Baroque.” The clumsy acronym underlines the limits of the notion of provenance of these works, agency and reception (or generally the ideal of multi-perspectivism). “British Baroque” provides no vast race-and-ethnic tableau of a tense and terse historical society inside which these cultural artifacts circulated. There are hints and flickers but these are not enough. In failing to do so, the prism remains minority-elite, history-from-above, Grand-Old-European-Masters by default, narrow and insufficient, hence “white” at the core of the Baroque that lands unnaturally in Britain. A renewed approach must be critical and conceptual, aesthetic and inevitably political, with no illusions. The challenge remains for the next exhibition or the next lesson in the humanities classrooms to address the double B-word in English and the foreign tongues.
Warwick 13 July 2020 / FGH / Photography by FGH too.