The baroque style of art and architecture conjures up visions of Bavarian churches with elaborate decoration soaring upwards to skies full of clouds and cherubs. At first glance, it therefore seems strange to house galleries of European baroque art and design at the bottom of a staircase. Think however of a staircase leading down to a treasure house bursting with riches and this is what the Victoria and Albert Museum has achieved with its newly-refurbished galleries “Europe 1600-1815” which starts with the exuberance of baroque in Gianlorenzo Bernini’s powerful statue of Neptune and Triton (1622-23) and ends with the more controlled decoration of the empire style in the silver Victory Service (1813-16) presented to the Duke of Wellington by the Portuguese nation and designed by Dominigos Antonio de Sequeira.
The achievements of the two centuries in between are displayed in a variety of themes including Scrolls and Foliage, Rituals of Love and Loyalty, Workshops, and Catholicism weaved around the historic periods such as A New Style (Baroque), Rococo, and Design for a New Empire, providing a rich overview of design from a period where it seems that you could never have enough decoration, including costumes, interiors, sculpture, silverware, porcelain and furniture.
The designers ZMMA have restored the original Aston Webb interiors by ripping out later additions, returning the galleries to their original grand proportions and reinstating original windows, long blocked up. In doing so, they have created spaces with a contemporary style to the lighting and the timber window blinds to compliment the historic displays. At the mid-point of the exhibition is a new room within a room, the Globe, created by the Cuban art collective Los Carpinteros as a space to support debate and discussion with references on the one hand to bookcases of the great libraries of the period which housed the knowledge of the world or to a prison, hinting at the gilded cages in which people of the period lived.
In the 1000 items on display, the geographic theme of Europe has been broadened. While inevitably France, Italy and Germany dominate, other countries such as Russia are included and there is a link to the influence of European design (in particular Spanish) in South America.
A pleasant surprise within all the exuberance of European art and design of the period is the occasional piece that seems more modern than its date, for example an Italian bust of a woman from around 1660, Franz Xaver Messerchmidt’s sculpture from around 1770/80 and a Mexican water cooling jar from the 17th century that looks almost contemporary.
Completion of this latest phase of the Museum’s FuturePlan successfully balances contemporary design and the architecture of the historic galleries and anticipates the next phase – the completion in 2017 of the Exhibition Road Building Project designed, following an international competition, by Amanda Levete Architects.