Stories of progress and property: on the European galleries at the V&A

The new installation raises important historical questions and brings much joy

by Anne Puetz  |  10 March 2016
Stories of progress and property: on the European galleries at the V&A
Installation view of the Victoria and Albert Museum's new European galleries. Courtesy the Victoria and Albert Museum, London
The new Europe 1600-1815 galleries at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London (V&A) display over a 1,100 of the museum’s treasures of art and design: paintings, sculptures, furniture, porcelain, textiles and more. They are part of FuturePlan, a rolling programme of new galleries and collection redisplays that has, since the 1990s, endeavoured to shed the V&A’s image as a rambling Victorian Wunderkammer, and turn it into a streamlined modern museum of art and design.

The European galleries raise valid social questions. Who led style? To what purposes was style employed? Who had access to it? The display explores three main narratives within time frames deemed most relevant to each: Europe’s relations with the wider world (1600-1720), the passing of style leadership from Italy to France (1660-1720) and, related to both, developments in material culture and lifestyle that take us from splendour for the elite in the 1600s to relatively affordable luxury for the many by 1815.

There is much to enjoy. The galleries occupy Aston Webb’s original suite of spacious (day-lit!) galleries from 1909 that had been obscured by a warren of boxed-in spaces since the 1970s. The architects ZMMA have returned structure and grandeur to the entire ground floor. Each area has been given a unique, period-specific atmosphere through flooring, lighting, wall-colour and fittings. The lighting (by Sutton Van Associates) is magical: circular pendants from the ceiling pull interiors together, while strategic spotlights enliven major works of art and design, playing on the muscles of Bernini’s marble Neptune (1622-23) or the adolescent face of Carlo Dolci’s Salome (around 1665-70). The limpid light of Venice is brilliantly evoked.  

There are exceptional objects everywhere, but not just the masterpieces stand out. At the V&A, you see the "high" and the "popular" in telling proximity. A terracotta model by Bernini of the Blessed Ludovica Albertoni in the throes of a remarkably sensuous religious ecstasy is placed by a meticulously crafted wax tableau in which Father Time and Death surround bodies in various stages of decay; rats scuttle across a blackened corpse in the foreground. From opposite ends of the artistic spectrum, these objects illuminate the period’s visceral engagement with death and spirituality more powerfully than masterpieces alone could do.

The wall-panels and captions are clear and concise, as useful to the specialist as they are to the casual visitor. Objects of use are difficult to re-animate in a museum. Here, short films, period illustrations and contemporary quotes successfully restore social contexts.  Facsimiles allow visitors to turn the pages of major print publications and gain a sense of the propaganda value of the splendours of Versailles, or the open-mindedness of the Encyclopédie regarding global religious practices. Playful interactive displays target the digital generation. There is free Wi-Fi and the V&A has made enormous amounts of information available online, giving significant access to the curatorial thought processes: from audio commentaries and curators’ blogs to a site with installation shots, room labels and in-depth museum information on every work.

I have a couple of reservations. In addition to the main narratives mentioned above, each historical segment includes its own themes: period styles (Baroque, Rococo and Neoclassicism) as well as a range of subjects from "Catholicism" and "Louis XIV" to "luxury shopping" and "balloon-mania."  The themes are evidently not predetermined; they were generated by the works themselves.  

Some of the displays buckle under the weight of momentous historical events raised by these themes: Take ‘War’ in the first room, which looks at the Thirty Years’ War (1618-48), a conflict that ravaged most of Europe, redrew its map and re-balanced the powers. You would not know so from a display case with a suit of armour, or another one with bits and pieces of painted tiles and medals, or the two innocuous oil paintings nearby. There is one devastating work of art, a small etching from Jacques Callot’s The Miseries and Misfortunes of War (1633), which depicts a hanging. More from this series would have helped, along with a map perhaps. The emphasis is on uncomplicated positivity, particularly in the last rooms: salon culture is progressive, revolutionary France idealistic, and Napoleon was the style guru-in-chief. It is all true, but it is not the whole story. Generally, the changing scheme of wall colours perhaps marks an overly symbolic journey from dark to light, from religion to reason, from papal purple and royal blue (Catholicism, absolutism, the Baroque) to sprightly green (material plenty, Rococo) and pale grey (Enlightenment, Neoclassicism). In the later period, where are the darker shades of history, such as the blood-red of the Reign of Terror (1793-94) that could have been introduced through popular prints, contemporary quotations, or film clips?
History here is selective, as is the idea of Europe itself. The emphasis on style-leadership partially justifies a concentration on Italy and France. With the exception of the Dutch—here seen as masters of a globally-inspired domesticity—most other Europeans are represented in imitative mode, or with examples of local traditions resistant to high fashion: a Bavarian gingerbread mould, a Polish silk sash, a fierce-looking Norwegian ale bowl. A number of excellent short films made for the museum explore the elite response: William and Mary’s version of Versailles at Het Loo Palace in the Netherlands, the exuberant Bavarian rococo of Amalienburg hunting lodge at Nymphenburg Palace near Munich and Catherine the Great’s adoption of French Neoclassicism in Russia.

The global connections of this select Europe—colonialism and slavery, the give-and-take of trade and influence—are brilliantly explored early on. But where is Britain’s emergence as a major political, economic and cultural force on the European stage? Style leadership was at least shared between Paris and London by the end of the 18th century, when "Anglo-mania" ruled. The curators’ claim that the democratisation of “luxury, privacy and comfort” is visible in the galleries could have been even better supported by reference to the British genius for product innovation and domestic comforts, which had wide influence throughout Europe. Of course, that story is already told in the wonderful British galleries. But these are unconnected to the European ones. A little duplication, or at least some cross-reference to the older galleries, would have been preferable to this truncated Europe.

Caveats aside, within their contextual frame, the objects are allowed to sing.  

Anne Puetz is a scholar of early-modern British visual culture and is currently responsible for an extensive programme of art history short courses at The Courtauld Institute of Art in London.

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