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Europe 1600–1815 at the V&A

12 December 2015

DSC_0016 copyBloggers are an opinionated lot: it goes with the (non)-job. And normally I know what I want to say, or at least what direction I’m heading, when I start. But on this occasion I am bewildered. I’d love to be completely enthusiastic about the newly reopened Europe 1600–1815 galleries at the V&A, as I have a soft spot for this institution. You may not know that the V&A is the national museum responsible for pastel – an unwanted hot potato passed by the National Gallery (they of course kept the best paintings, so for the most part the pictures in the V&A collection are second rate). It’s also the only national museum which I can reach any day of the week by car in 15 minutes, and that alone counts for a great deal when my visits to other museums are overshadowed by physical discomfort exacerbated by public transport. If you’re one of those who thinks everyone should be forced to cycle everywhere, just remember some of us can’t.

But however you get to South Kensington, it’s only a few steps from the front entrance of the V&A to the gloriously theatrical white marble staircase which leads down to the new galleries. It’s so long since they’ve been shut you may have forgotten the old basement with the Jones collection: I remember it with some affection, although it was certainly dingy, institutional and “tired”. So what have they done – with some £12.5m of public money?

The first sight brings immediate pleasure. As you go down the steps, as into a subterranean cave, the space opens into an exciting vista dominated by the V&A’s magnificent Bernini Neptune – finally in its rightful space after years of pretending to be British. Or is it? After all when Bernini made it 400 years ago it was intended for the open air in Rome. I can’t help feeling that the daylit Gallery 50, where it resided until some ten years ago, was not a better compromise for this ton of marble which epitomises the Baroque and, for me, yearns for the sun:

For it has landed in the first (or last? a curious minutia is that that the rooms are numbered backwards, both chronologically and geographically: this is room 7) gallery in the new suite.

The immediate impression is of architect-led lighting: VERY dim – my light meter barely registered any ambient light, showing an incredibly low 2 lux in many places, with objects dependent exclusively on directional illumination. (Perhaps this is because I visited on a dull December afternoon: the press release claims that natural light has been let in. Note that my camera “corrects” all this.) For the most part this is well done (there are few distracting reflections, although I have left one oval track in the photo below); and as I have argued before, this theatrical approach has some merit when the objects themselves are not the prime attraction.

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For while the V&A has many treasures and large, comprehensive collections of objects of specific types, museology has long abandoned any interest in systematic presentation of anything. And – unless you’re a specialist in mediaeval matchboxes or baroque biscuit-tins – that will be a great relief. So the purpose must be to present things which will grab the attention, inform and educate (in that order): and the audience should be as broad as possible, from the schoolchild and tourist to the intelligent tax-payer, and even perhaps the scholar in an adjacent field. With such impossible constraints compromises are inevitable.

You’ll have noticed that I too have abandoned any systematic approach to the structure of this blog: some random thoughts with a scattering of images to give you a better idea of what you can see when you go. Here’s what you find in one gallery:

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You’ll notice immediately that the objects are not just not lined up in serried ranks, but are mixed as widely as you can imagine. This is not so much the cabinet of curiosities as the Old Curiosity Shop. Within a few yards you find paintings, prints, miniatures, metal work, musical instruments, wax models, lots of Boulle (only natural history specimens seemed lacking – but perhaps I overlooked some). And textiles. Indeed (perhaps this should not surprise, as the lead curator is a renowned textile scholar) it is the textiles that come out of this display the best. They are given the room they need; the lighting works brilliantly; and a sense of the importance of wall-hangings in draughty seventeenth-century castles is admirably conveyed. Here is the Gobelins Infant Moses after Poussin:

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Costumes are also a strong point in the V&A’s collections, and well displayed in other galleries. A few token outfits in the final galleries looked a little forlorn in their glass boxes: some of the architects’ inspiration seemed to have evaporated by this stage, and the downside of raising the ceiling was the exposure of some rather institutional fittings that one might have preferred to hide.

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But elsewhere there is plenty to delight the eye. A glass clavichord has all the glitter required to offset so silly an idea. The Georges Jacob bed is gorgeous (the press release misspells his name). Graf Brühl’s ceramic table fountain is spectacular in its Dresden pointlessness: a video (mercifully with no sound track) is on hand, but I passed.

The recreated historical interiors are wonderful means of firing the imagination, even (especially?) when quite small: my favourite is Mme de Sérilly’s cabinet. But I seem to remember an even greater childish delight when you came across it in the old basement suite: perhaps faulty memory, or perhaps there was something after all in the institutional submarine ceilings that enhanced the fantastical potential of these little confined spaces.

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But what of the educational value of the presentation? (Incidentally there were sadly few people there during either of my visits.) I’m certainly not a subscriber to the idea that museums ought to take over the role of schools in teaching the history of Europe in a thousand objects. But I suspect there are lots of parents who think that that is at least part of its role. If so I suspect they will be disappointed. Perhaps if one reads the labels more diligently than I did…

The dominance of France does however clearly emerge, quite rightly. But here is the rather curious display explaining the role of the Académie royale in the development of the arts:

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You will notice the print after Leclerc, and you may well want to explore this further with the V&A’s own collection database as the print raises a number of questions – e.g. why is the Académie royale de peinture et de sculpture described as the Académie des sciences et des beaux-arts? Incidentally beaux-arts and arts are not synonymous; and the collection database can’t make up its mind whether this reproductive print is by Cochin père or fils. (It’s the former; and Leclerc’s allegory is a bit too complicated to explain here.)

But there’s a much more significant disappointment with this display, one right at its heart. And it’s disappointing for intellectual as well as visual reasons. First you need to understand the geography of these rooms: the enfilade occupies the Cromwell Road frontage west of the main entrance, and then turns up Exhibition Road. The middle room, the south-west apex of the building (as I know only too well from a successful appeal to a parking penalty based on road markings inconsistent with official order), is the apex, cornerstone, lynchpin, vertex not only geometrically but historically and intellectually. For this is the room dedicated to the Enlightenment. The V&A have had similar problems in the same room on the upper floors: within the British suite, what was an open space with a few armchairs and some books has now been fenced off as a sponsored “learning area” – with a large-screened TV and rows of chairs. So what would they do below?

I don’t know why it was felt necessary to do anything other than a conventional display of excellent Enlightenment material. I had hoped that this would be an opportunity to present some of the pastels which the V&A keeps in Blythe House: the extraordinary Liotard of Sir Everard Fawkener which you can see in the Royal Academy for another few weeks would surely (if suitably reframed) have told a significant part of the story, and the two Nattier pastels will probably never get a better opportunity to see the light of day (or as close as the V&A will allow). But no. Instead we get a few good portrait busts scattered around the corners of the gallery to leave room for an INSTALLATION.

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What were they thinking when they commissioned this? Its dominance in a small room makes it impossible to photograph in its full meaningless invasiveness. It is not so much a spacecraft from another planet as a giant pumpkin built by Ikea – but not just for November. To compound the intellectual vacuum it creates, a wall text has an inevitable reference to the Panopticon. Appropriately the equally inevitable bust by Messerschmidt that oversees all this is supposed to represent “strong odour”, an expression of profound disgust. I’ll leave you with that.

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