Royal treasures from Versailles will dazzle visitors to the NGA in Canberra, writes Miriam Cosic
That evocative phrase shock and awe, coined by the writers of America’s doctrine of “rapid dominance” in the Iraq war, could have been applied to Louis XIV’s reign in France — twice over. Not only did the 17th-century French king consolidate state power into absolute personal rule, ramping up the state’s treasury after reforms by his brilliant minister of finance JeanBaptiste Colbert, he fought endless wars to expand France’s territory and ensure defensible borders.
Scarred in his youth by the rebellion known as the Fronde, when the entire national treasury was dedicated to the royal army, he also prioritised domestic security, establishing it with brute force and effective PR. Massive spending alternated between military acquisitions during times of war and burnishing the image of the king — and so the state — with cultural commissions in times of peace. He poured money into architecture, painting, sculpture, the decorative arts, music, and dance. Into science too, which served a dual role: modernising his war machine and producing hydraulic, explosive and mechanised marvels for public entertainments.
The most extreme example of this double focus was the furniture, including chairs, and decorative objects crafted for Louis XIV from solid silver. Over-the-top luxury, the chairs were also uncomfortable: suitable, perhaps, for objects that were actually part of France’s treaBeatrixBe Saule is the grande dame of Versailles. A sury. Louis had them melted down in 1689 to graduategr of the Ecole du Louvre, she studied fund his next war. So restricted were the arts economicsec and law as well as art history, and and crafts in favour of military spending in the hasha worked at the palace for 40 years. The disfollowing years that the even famous Gobelins playpl in Canberra and an exhibition of Marie tapestry factory was closed from 1694 to 1699. Antoinette memorabilia going to Japan will be
AAh Louis XIV adopted two Greek gods as his avherhe last major project before retirement. atars: Apollo, the god of knowledge and art; and The NGA exhibition is Saule’s vision of VerMars, the god of war. Apollo’s emblem, the face sailles.sa She is so intimate with the place, she has of the sun, became his emblem. instantin recall of any names and dates she is
And the epicentre of all this was Versailles, as asked about. the palace he transformed from his father’s simThe French art world still remembers fabuple hunting lodge into a small city that housed lo lous shows she curated over the years, including thousands, including his entire court and adLe Les table royales in 1993, which displayed tables ministration. It came to define taste and etian and tables full of extravagant china. A comment quette across Europe. that she has been married to the palace all her Duchesse de Polignac
On Friday, a rare exhibition of 130 objets d’art from Versailles opens at the National Gallery in Canberra. It follows a chance remark last year by the Australian ambassador to France, Stephen Brady, to former Le Point editor and Nicolas Sarkozy adviser Catherine Pegard, who is the (often controversial) president of the Public Establishment of the Palace, Museum and National Estate of Versailles.
After seeing a dazzling exhibition from Versailles in Arras, Brady said he thought a similar exhibition would go down very well in Australia, where ties with France are strong. Hundreds of thousands of Australians visit Paris every year; more young Australian men, per capita, than any other nationality lost their lives defending Arras in World War I; and the Australian government was talking submarine contracts with a French company at the time.
To his surprise, Brady says, Pegard agreed. “Are you serious?” he recalls saying. She was, and after a “dance of the seven veils”, as Brady puts it — several meetings to nail down the details — the exhibition was agreed upon. The on only venue could have been the NGA, Brady sa says, because he represents Australia, not any pa particular state. As it happens, this period of art hi history is also the specialty of the NGA’s directo tor, Gerard Vaughan. life prompts a wry aside to her aide about her husband’s opinion on that.
“I like to say that Versailles was a product of peace,” she notes, referring to the spending that was possible only when the country was not at war. “That’s why Versailles took so long to be built: it was always starting and stopping.”
Her show spans the reigns of Louis XIV, Louis XV and the ill-fated Louis XVI, the last absolute monarch of France who was so unceremoniously dispatched during the French Revolution. The exhibition demonstrates the shifts in taste and fashion over that time, particularly the shift from aesthetic shock and awe to the more domesticated personal rooms of the later kings and queens.
While anyone could view Louis XIV rise from his bed and make his toilette, small daily state occasions in themselves, Louis XV and XVI demanded privacy. Their rooms were smaller, more warmly decorated. The change in decor mirrored the shift in state power. No later building projects would rival the stunning Hall of Mirrors, for example: that explosion of light, a first in interiors, bookended by salons dedicated to Mars and Apollo.
“Louis XV hated to be on show. He was shy,” Saule says. “He wanted to be with friends, in good company.” The “small apartments”, as his rooms were called, may have been less grand, but they were “very refined and always at the latest fashion”.
Saule compares the ambience of the different eras. “So Louis XIV, with all its marble and gilded objects, its silver objects, was brilliant, but it was a little cold,” she observes. “The second atmosphere, more intimate, of the reigns of Louis XV and XVI, with wood replacing the marble, was more comfortable. Comfort became more important than prestige.”
Not that the later kings embraced the workaday. A 58cm perfume “fountain” from the wardrobe of Louis XV, which we will see in Australia, is an example. Made of glazed porcelain in the then-new cracked Chinese style, its stand and lid are made of elaborate gilded bronze. The
Louise Vigee Le Brun (1782) by Elisabeth
Louis XIV (detail, 1701) by Hyacinthe Rigaud, far left; MarieAntoinette de LorraineHabsbourg, left, by Elisabeth Louise Vigee Le Brun