Royal trea­sures from Ver­sailles will daz­zle visi­tors to the NGA in Can­berra, writes Miriam Cosic

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Feature -

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

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