Dirty Baroque

At the moment, for rather circumstantial reasons, it is Le Corbusier season in London. There are exhibitions, talks and films at the Barbican and RIBA, and pop-up events elsewhere. I have mixed feelings about this acknowledged  giant of modern architecture and design. The over-riding one is that he was clearly a very strange man. He may have been a genius. He was definitely incredibly pious – by which I do not mean religious. He was not that. Throughout his lengthy career he tackled not only architecture, but art, sculpture, landscape, masterplanning, interior design – anything that came to his attention really. Although he professed to be redesigning the world – creating ‘machines for living’, enhancing the lives of the masses, all good intentions – I find it hard to see the humanity in his work. The possible exception is his little ‘cabanon’, but that was built towards the end of his life when his philosophies had admittedly softened a little. But mostly it’s too austere, too self-righteous, and those who proselytise him are often guilty of similar sins.

So as a refreshing counterpoint to all this Corbusian cap-doffing, I am pleased to see the Baroque movement getting some airtime, with a BBC4 series by Waldemar Januszczak showing now and an exhibition at the V&A in April. Compared to the blank walls of modernism, the baroque panoply is a visual feast. I like the baroque because it is not pious. It is the moment when painting and sculpture, so poised and refined in the Renaissance, gets dirty. Rather like a tabloid newspaper, it understood the mores of its audience very well. But in its early days it was, almost without exception, religious, and didactic.

Something Januszczak covers, although not to the extent I would like, is its purpose as Catholic propaganda. The Baroque represents the might of Rome pulling out all the stops against Luther’s Puritan breakaway movement, a weapon of the Counter-Reformation. The geographical focus shifts from Florence to Rome, and the agenda changes too. If Italian Renaissance art can be seen as a humanist movement, in that it celebrated the art forms of the pre-christian classical world, then the baroque is a religious one, Catholicism restating its claim over the people. Sensationalist imagery intended to draw the congregation back to mass shamelessly exploits religious icons. The heights of pain, suffering and ecstasy are depicted through real, sensuous, flawed people. Catholicism provides a spectacle altogether lacking in the white boxes of Protestant churches.

Caravaggio, a prime exponent of early baroque painting, uses every theatrical trick of lighting, shadow and composition to entice the viewer. Bernini’s sculptures turn marble into plump flesh – in his Rape of Proserpina, Pluto’s fingers sink deep into her thighs. Another painting by Caravaggio, ‘Madonna and Child with St Anne’, was returned, deemed too racy to be hung in the church for which it was designed: Mary is incredibly voluptuous, her breasts spilling over her corset and a wisp of hair falling loose over her face. Caravaggio evidently overstepped the mark occasionally, but essentially the baroque’s genius was to use high art to appeal to the baser human instincts.

In architectural terms, they stopped being so restrained by the rules and stately balance of Neo-Classicism, and aimed for jaw-dropping gravity-defying maximum impact. Bernini’s square for St. Peter’s in Rome is expansive and opulent, with gushing fountains and oversized columns that dwarf the human scale. Borromini’s architecture is more tortured, contorted, complex, but just as elaborately impressive.

Januszczak, probably for the sake of simplicity, refers to the baroque as though it is a thing. Like the pink slime in Ghostbusters, he has it spreading throughout Europe, absorbing the existing trends and baroquifying them. His explanation for this is that it was ‘just so adaptable’. Well, maybe, but that’s only half the story. It also coincided with the start of Empire-building, colonisation, and a greater freedom of movement throughout Europe, so it was able to travel. Rubens eventually brought it over to a reluctant England, a stronghold of Puritannical values. But I don’t conceive of it as ‘a thing’, and it is problematic to define it as a single movement, as it crossed borders and became something different wherever it landed, tricky to pin down. Rather it was a method of communication, a style, a tendency, an emphasis on emotion. The agenda shifted and what was once religious somehow became synonymous with luxury, extravagance, expense. It still retains those connotations.

The baroque tendency is to be exuberant, unrestrained, expressive, unashamed of excess. Today we can see the seeds of a baroque response in the design world to the functional, modernist aesthetic. Proponents – old and new – will be on display in the V&A exhibition ‘Style in the Age of Magnificence’. The timing is poignant, given the backlash against excess and ‘magnificence’ of which we are currently in the midst. Opulence may be about to become incredibly unfashionable. So what does this mean for the Baroque? Once again, it will just have to adapt.

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