‘British Baroque: Power and Illusion’ at Tate Britain

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This grotesque portrait is in the current Tate Britain exhibition British Baroque: Power and Illusion – an overview of the art that followed the Restoration of the monarchy in England. The c1688 work by Benedetto Gennari depicts the notorious libertine Hortense Mancini, aka Duchesse de Mazarin, as Diana the Huntress, surrounded by collared black child slaves intermingled with her dogs. As such the picture is charged with racial and sexual connotations relating not only to the biographical facts of Mancini’s life but whose spatial composition uses racial superiority as part of the ‘distortion’ associated with baroque art. The artist, Gennari, was a painter first to the French and then the English royal courts. Likewise Mancini, after being a protegé of Louis XIV, became the mistress of British King Charles II.

The portrait lacks context in a show that does not properly interrogate the connections between the growing strength of British maritime and colonial power in the 17th century and the aesthetics of the Baroque – with its fondness for what architectural historian Anthony Vidler has called ‘anxiety, ambiguity…disturbance, distortion and conflict’. The Tate curators have not connected the visual decadence and racial distortion in the Gennari portrait with the excesses of the Stuart monarchy, and the expansion of maritime and colonial power under Charles II, expressed in such works as Antonio Verrio’s ‘The Sea Triumph of Charles II’, 1674 and Willem Wissing’s 1675 portrait of Mary Grimston with a black servant.

Even in the section on architecture, if the Tate had been serious about addressing slavery, Christopher Wren’s Greenwich Hospital could tell that story so well through the testimony of its only known African inmate, Britton Hammon. There could have been a whole room on colonialism to properly contextualise these works making links between the increasing British wealth and scientific discovery in the baroque age, maritime exploration, and even Newtonian mechanics.

Rather than highlighting slavery and its relationship to the decadence of the Baroque age, this racially charged painting looks tokenistic, only serving to draw attention to Tate’s failure of scholarship and curatorship. An opportunity has been missed to make clear the connections between power, baroque art and the history of British colonialism and the source of the wealth that produced the ‘courtly mansions and gardens’ given so much space in the show.