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British Baroque: Power and Illusion review

  • Art
  • 4 out of 5 stars
  • Recommended
Antonio Verrio 'The Sea Triumph of Charles II' (c.1674). Image courtesy of The Royal Collection Trust

Time Out says

4 out of 5 stars

Thousands of heavy-jawed faces stare back at you from the walls of this exhibition. And almost every one has the same set of worrying, vulgar, distended features. Royal inbreeding, it’s no joke.

This is the big-chinned art of the British Baroque period: the art of power, dominance and shagging your cousins. From the restoration of Charles II in 1660 to the death of Queen Anne in 1714, art in this country was used to codify and reinforce the power of royal rule. And it was totally ridiculous. As you walk into the show, Charles II, with his face like someone melted Quentin Tarantino, sits in flowing pink robes, flanked by cherubs. He’s a mound of pastry-like curls in a marble bust, he watches over a Greek goddess in a ceiling painting. Pompous, over-the-top, ridiculous.

The next room is filled with portraits of people from his court, painted by artists like Jacob Huysmans and Peter Lely. It’s all fat men in wigs and women with translucently white skin. One image shows the Duchess of Mazarin as the goddess Diana, one boob out as she gestures to her black slave boys in collars. Yikes.

But there’s an air of desperation to the display of power here. All these enormous paintings are attempts to show strength and wealth in a protestant Britain where royal power was waning.

So they get more desperate, showy and ostentatious. There’s a room of trompe l’oeil optical illusions; paintings of doors that look like real doors; portraits on canvas made to look like they’re on wood. It’s the Baroque equivalent of buying designer jeans with ripped knees.

The show then takes you through the architecture of the Baroque – huge domes and opulent gardens and interiors – before showing you incredibly bored-looking court beauties in a series of portraits by Godfrey Kneller and Michael Dahl.

There’s not a lot of great art here, but it’s a hypnotising show: a pretty exhibition of ugly paintings. The thing that elevates it is the way it makes the rich and powerful people look so silly. The monarchy uses art to show how beautiful, wealthy and influential it is, but all it shows is that inbreeding is regrettable, and power is temporary.

By the last room, the monarchy has lost its grip and political parties have come to the fore. Sovereignty has shifted, but its face hasn’t changed much. The politicians commission the same ridiculous, pompous paintings as the monarchy. Call it royalty, call it parliament, it’s all power, and it’s all ugly.

Written by
Eddy Frankel


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