LONDON — It is a bold decision by curators Tabitha Barber, Tim Batchelor, and David Taylor at Tate Britain to dedicate a show, British Baroque: Power and Illusion, to Baroque art in Britain from 1660 (the restoration of Charles II) to 1714 (the death of Queen Anne). Most art historians consider ca. 1600 as the start of Baroque, signified by the architecture of Inigo Jones and the lightning vivacity of Rubens and Van Dyck, painting under Charles I. Focusing on the last Stuart monarchs and the political, dynastic, and religious machinations of this era (conflict between Protestant and Catholic worshippers following the restoration of the monarchy; the Revolution of 1688) should provide ample material for a meaty exploration of the relationship between art and power. Indeed, the defining characteristics of Baroque are technical wizardry and visual opulence, both of which lend themselves to an assertion of dominance by commissioning patrons. Yet two factors make this show dry: a dearth of Van Dyck- or Rubens-caliber painters and the difficulty of effectively displaying scattered architectural monuments within a gallery space.
The return from exile of Charles II spurred a determined campaign to reaffirm dynastic solidity with art and splendor. His likeness was painted into various mythical allegories, as a means of presenting the crown as miraculous or God-given. Antonio Verrio’s ca.1674 “Sea Triumph of Charles II” is a preposterous imagining of a pile of mythical figures, with Charles’s likeness incongruously superimposed among generic celestial faces; wearing classical armor, he is driven in a chariot through water by Neptune. Elsewhere, a fragment of the King’s bedchamber ceiling by John Michael Wright, “Astraea Returns to Earth (The Apotheosis of Charles II)” (ca.1660), shows flowing heavenly clouds and a cameo of Charles held aloft by seraphim. There is a reason most people have not heard of these painters: there’s little of the chutzpah someone like Rubens would have infused, from conception through execution.
A room dedicated to similarly self-aggrandizing portraits commissioned by court personalities vying for power shows a predilection for playing dress up: Hortense Mancini, Duchess of Mazarin, is depicted as Diana, while the Duchess of Cleveland and son are seen as the Virgin and Child. Jacob Huysmans’s “James Duke of Monmouth” (ca.1662-5) portrays the King’s eldest illegitimate son as St. John the Baptist. The caption tells us that equating James with John, who was the cousin of Christ, indicates the former as son but not successor. This is a valid and intriguing notion, yet the piece itself is a soppy and saccharine work of pink pastels. The curators methodically demonstrate their point through visual examples, but when the best painter here is Peter Lely it’s hard to get excited about what should be a colorful cast of characters.
Weirdly anemic are two rooms on “The Religious Interior” and “Illusion and Deception.” The former looks at the struggle between Protestantism and Catholicism, which perpetuated an endlessly engaging debate over the idolatrous nature of imagery. (A 2013 Tate Britain exhibition, Art Under Attack, examined this more fully.) Here, however, it is represented by underwhelming pieces showing patrons worshipping crosses, intended for domestic use to avoid controversy. For a subject that, at the time, had life or death stakes, the room is startlingly bare. Similarly, a room dedicated to illusionistic painting includes trompe l’oeil works by Edward Collier and others of flower studies; these are not only middling, but, crucially, are described as significant only because they were collected by members of the court.
Arguably the era’s most potent tool to project splendor and power was English Baroque architecture, spearheaded by Christopher Wren and Nicholas Hawksmoor, who are represented by architectural drawings. The stunning dynamism of the physical spaces in such buildings as St Paul’s, Blenheim Palace, or Castle Howard cannot be transposed into a gallery context and it would be pointless to criticize the curators for this. Yet the innumerable architectural drawings add to the exhibition’s dry academicism, acting as thumbnails for the real things. A full-length photo of The Painted Hall (1707-26) by Sir James Thornhill at the Old Royal Naval College, Greenwich, flattens this dynamic space in more ways than one.
The show cannot be faulted for accomplishing what its curators set out to do — methodically selecting examples and arguing how each demonstrates points A, B, and C — yet this, combined with the general lack of pieces that “wow,” makes for an lackluster experience that won’t win over those uninitiated with this particular period. Upon emerging into the shop I saw Christine Stevenson’s book The City and the King: Architecture and Politics in Restoration London (she taught me this module at the Courtauld Institute). This reminded me that there’s no substitute for visiting these extraordinary landmarks in London and experiencing more viscerally their undeniable power.
British Baroque: Power and Illusion continues through April 19 at Tate Britain (Millbank, London, UK). The exhibition was curated by Tabitha Barber, Tim Batchelor, and David Taylor.