Theatres of Power

It was not the artist’s fault that the real king rode into the picture of himself and never came out.


Charles I with M. de St Antoine
by Van Dyck, 1633, Royal Collection.
Image source: Wikimedia Commons

Baroque imagery, even when superbly executed by artistic geniuses, did not always succeed as political message in the patron’s favour or keep the King or Queen’s head on during a revolution, but it still works as art. Over three and a half centuries later, the first impression of Charles I that grabs most of us is Van Dyck’s interpretation of a refined and chivalric paternalistic figure, not “that man of blood”, the “tyrant, traitor, murderer and public enemy to the good of this nation” called to account for all the lives that had been lost in civil war…..

Van Dyck’s portraits, etherealising Charles I and his court, are as much of a theatrical device as Inigo Jones’ fantastical masque designs, creating an ineradicable illusion of aristocratic grace and virtue in parallel with the historic reality of an unpopular and flawed regime.  A sophisticated public relations initiative presented Stuart hereditary monarchy as an ideal nuclear family, affectionate and impeccably dressed, complete with pet dog and aspirational home.


Half holy, half theatrical family: Charles I and Henrietta Maria with their eldest children, Charles and Mary,
by Van Dyck, 1633. Image source: Wikipedia

Fortunately for the development of public theatre, the more autocratic a government grew in reaction to religious, social and political tensions that it could not control, the more theatrically ambitious and extravagantly fanciful their allegorical entertainments became. The improvement in production values was facilitated when the musical and dance elements of court masques were formalized into opera and ballet, which demanded bigger, increasingly elaborate, moveable wing and drop scenery for the temporary court stages, and, eventually, the construction of permanent buildings to store them.

These decorative fantasies derived from late Italian Renaissance Italian artists using perspective for illusory effects in architectural capricci, which were adapted into designs of receding vistas of idealized buildings and landscapes for the court and outdoor public entertainments of the City States.

The use of newly invented cloud machines that could carry performers dressed as gods….through the air, of wave, storm and fire machines and of atmospheric lighting changes added to sophisticated spectaculars that raised government prestige at home and abroad.


Jacques Callot, Interlude in the Medici Theatre, c.1617, with proscenium arch.
Image source: Wikipedia

Catherine de Medici introduced these techniques to the French court during the 1560s to enhance her famous politically motivated “magnifences” that were an astonishing multi-media experience, incorporating masque, ballet, song, street theatre, traditional tournaments and mock battles, and avant-garde adult entertainment, all to win support and loyalty for the Valois during the Wars of Religion.


A scene from Le Ballet Comique de la Reine, Paris 1581.
Engraving. Image source: Wikimedia Commons

Catherine’s use of the arts as a propaganda tool was more blatant than her predecessors’ and contemporaries’, but the infinite metaphorical possibilities of theatre to enhance public perception of government by beguiling spectators, were fully assimilated into political and cultural thought, long before scientific and artistic innovations made it possible for artists to put their designs into as many dimensions and different materials as they chose. The convention of representing royalty in their portraits as theatre, complete with regal props and a fixed palatial or celestial set, was already established.


Queen Elizabeth
by Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger, 1592.
National Portrait Gallery. Image source: Wikipedia

In the famous Ditchley portrait of 1592 (National Portrait Gallery), Elizabeth I is standing on a globe painted with a map of southern England, floating imperiously through the sky – but, in the style of iconography the queen preferred, the painting is flat, shadowless, an elaborately wrought emblem without any depth of field.

Forty years later, Van Dyck’s painting of Charles 1 on horseback (National Gallery), shows the king riding under a triumphal arch that could be from a stage set, with painted backdrop beyond, straight towards the spectator, who has to look up in awe at all the approaching majesty of man and animal, an image in which the mastery of perspective and theatricality is designed to create a breathtaking immediacy. It was not the artist’s fault that the real king rode into the picture of himself and never came out.

PART THREE coming soon

© Pippa Rathborne  2014

Adapted from an article published as Exhibition Review | STAGES AND SCENES on Rogues and Vagabonds Theatre Website in 2008, with permission of Sarah Vernon and with many thanks to The Samuel Courtauld Trust, The Courtauld Gallery, London for permission to use images from their collection.

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4 comments on “Theatres of Power

  1. PJR says:

    Thank you, Silver Screenings, for your astute comment. The closest parallel to Baroque Absolutism’s pervasive cultural power is “beguiling” Hollywood (an appreciative allusion to our mutual friend Vickie Lester’s brilliant blog). We know they were/are corrupt, nepotistic, mercenary, unfair, reliant on special effects at the expense of substantial narratives – d’uh – the surprise is that both systems produced so much good art and permanently alluring personalities.

    Like

  2. Your analysis makes me think of George Orwell’s 1984, where fake lotteries were held to keep the masses entertained by believing real people were winning big prizes.

    This was very telling: “It was not the artist’s fault that the real king rode into the picture of himself and never came out.”

    Liked by 1 person

  3. erickeyswriter says:

    “the more autocratic a government grew in reaction to religious, social and political tensions that it could not control, the more theatrically ambitious and extravagantly fanciful their allegorical entertainments became.”

    What does that say about modern Hollywood?

    “It was not the artist’s fault that the real king rode into the picture of himself and never came out.”

    Indeed…

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Reblogged this on Rogues & Vagabonds and commented:
    Adapted from an article published as Exhibition Review | STAGES AND SCENES on Rogues and Vagabonds Theatre Website in 2008.

    Like

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