Hermenia is Art UK‘s Digital Content Trainee, as part of Culture&’s New Museum School Programme. She has previously worked at a range of arts centres across London including the Barbican Art Gallery. She has a BA degree in Illustration from the University for the Creative Arts and aims to continue a career in marketing within the arts and culture sector after her traineeship at Art UK.
Reimagining the Baroque
A statue in Bristol falls head first to the ground, carved to commemorate the legacy of Edward Colston (1636-1721), a merchant who acquired his life’s wealth through the trading of African people in the Atlantic slave trade. In the world today, there is a newly found urgency to truly understand the past which we have been taught to admire and revere.
Even if you’re not looking for art, it will be served to you- often on plaques and grand plinths, elevating sculptures of historical figures, commissioned to capture their best light.
We gaze up in awe and perhaps find glowing reports, recalling ‘virtue, wisdom, philanthropy’.
But an independent search beyond their gold-crusted engravings opens up a window of doubt and questions. When the viewer seeks a full narrative, we find a multifaceted history left to consume. Art provides a peephole into the past, revealing truths that are often left veiled.
Asha Gwatkin, from Bristol, holds a placard on a plinth praising slave trader Edward Colston (2020)
Museums can offer a unique role in our societal fabric. Which is, the opportunity to encounter, interact and understand art outside of a glory-spun narrative. Earlier this year, Tate came under critique for displaying a racially charged painting in its ‘British Baroque: Power and Illusion’ exhibition. The exhibition discussed how art was used to support the authority of the monarchy after its restoration in 1660 with the reign of King Charles II and how the elite used Baroque-extravagance to assert their importance and influence. What was absent, was any information confronting the power dynamics between a ruling white class and its Black slaves at that time – which of course gave way to Baroque and British ‘splendour’ then and now. Clumsy then, of the exhibition curators to include the explicitly racist painting, ‘Hortense as Diana’.
The exhibition was deemed insufficient in serving the full scope of which its title infers -the painting had opened a door to conversation outside of the acknowledged perimeters of ‘power’; unprepared to explore this layer, the work was consequently removed.
When we think of the Baroque period in European art history, several buzzwords spring to mind, opulence, abundance, affluence, excess – Baroque has its place in European art history forever. The art movement was born after the Renaissance period, an eclectic style which has origins in Italy but spread throughout Europe. In the early 17th century, the movement penetrated all facets of art, from painting, to architecture, theatre, music and sculpture. But taken for granted is what it takes to build an empire that creates a ruling class of aristocrats; Like the statue, we can look at the paintings and ask for the story behind the image.
An anti slavery art installation near Edward Colston statue in Bristol (2018)
This leads us to question, how could a historically and racially sensitive exhibition about power, which interrogates a movement designed to parade the affluence and prosperity of empire be curated? In writing this short piece ‘Reimagining the Baroque’, I find ‘confronting’ and ‘re-imagining’ are two sides of the same coin.
Museum professional Michael Ohajuru, describes the journey he takes visitors on in his tours where he reveals the Black presence in European paintings.
He breaks his tour into three sections: explicit presence, implicit presence and contemporary autonomy. Using this, we can create a framework to navigate our interrogation of this particular power dynamic within Baroque art in a re-imagined exhibition, taking a look at several artistic examples for each category.
First starting with the implicit, meaning to unveil the race relations between a ruling and slave class that are covert or undeclared in the art, illuminating a white supremacist shadow in Baroque painting. A strong introductory example is the show-stopping ‘The Sea Triumph of Charles II’ by Antonia Verrio, a ridiculously extravagant masterpiece portraying the king as victorious over the seas, after having defeated the Dutch in a naval battle for territory. European countries were desperate to achieve their own colonial rulership, by the 18th century, Britain would become the leading slave-trading nation. Moving on, other good examples of subtle assertions of power would be through portraiture of the wealthy, making note that their lavish lifestyles and flamboyant displays of finery had been afforded through the profits of slavery. Here also, lies the opportunity to tell unexpected, lesser-known stories from that period about people who lived their lives against a back-drop that was very different from the courts and mansions of that era.
Antonia Verrio (C. 1639-1707), The Sea Triumph of Charles II c.1674, Courtesy Royal Collection Trust
Then, the explicit. Art which clearly denotes Black servitude and subservience, In a painting by Pierre Mignard of ‘The Duchess of Portsmouth, Louise de Kouraille’, (who was a mistress of Charles ll), the Duchess is painted to look strikingly fair in contrast to her Black slave. The girl hands the Duchess of Portsmouth a cluster of pearls in a seashell, it is speculated that she may be a fictitious character only there to elevate her whiteness. Although the Black servant-girl is painted with a gleeful smile, similar to the pearls, clothing and luxurious dwelling in the painting, she is solely there as an accessory to the Duchess.
Pierre Mignard (1612-1695), Louise de Kéroualle, Duchess of Portsmouth (1649-1734), Courtesy National Portrait Gallery.
In ‘The Whig Junto’ by John James Baker (1710), we can see five members of the Whig Party spread around a table looking directly at the viewer. The Black servant is painted to be barely noticeable in the shadows as he tends to the curtain in the background, looking away. Adjacent to him and lingering out of eye level, is a pet dog, spotted black and white – also looking out at a side view.
John James Baker (c. 1685-1725), The Whig Junto (1710), Courtesy Tate
Digesting the realties and treatment of non-white people is hard to consume, but addressing it is somewhat liberating. Certainly it feels better to understand the past than to overlook, hide it, talk around and hint at it, but never fully contextualise or acknowledge its relevance. Importantly, the last phase in the tour is about autonomy, creating a chronology from suppressed presence to unapologetic authorship of art from Black voices. In a re-imagined exhibition, it would be interesting to end with Black artists who have borrowed from the aesthetics and ideas of Baroque. Kehinde Wiley’s elaborate portraiture of everyday Black people, using colour, scale and intricate detail as a means of elevation is a brilliant example. Fabiola Jean-Lewis, is a photographer asserting Black women as the focal point and dominant voice of the aesthetics of Baroque-like luxury. Not to mention Kara Walker’s Fon’s Americanus sculpture, a dramatic confrontation of the belligerent extraction from Africa, after centuries of Britain’s ‘triumph over the seas’.
Kara Walker, Fons Americanus (2019), Tate Modern 2019. Photo: © Tate (Matt Greenwood)