New European galleries at the V&A

December 16 2015

Image of New European galleries at the V&A

Pictures: Neil Jeffares

The new Europe 1600-1850 galleries at the V&A have opened. Neil Jeffares gives us his view here.

Update - Perhaps inevitably, the V&A couldn't just put European works from 1600-1850 in the European 1600-1850 galleries: no, there's a contemporary installation (below). Neil was not impressed:

I don’t know why it was felt necessary to do anything other than a conventional display of excellent Enlightenment material. I had hoped that this would be an opportunity to present some of the pastels which the V&A keeps in Blythe House: the extraordinary Liotard of Sir Everard Fawkener which you can see in the Royal Academy for another few weeks would surely (if suitably reframed) have told a significant part of the story, and the two Nattier pastels will probably never get a better opportunity to see the light of day (or as close as the V&A will allow). But no. Instead we get a few good portrait busts scattered around the corners of the gallery to leave room for an INSTALLATION.

What were they thinking when they commissioned this? Its dominance in a small room makes it impossible to photograph in its full meaningless invasiveness. It is not so much a spacecraft from another planet as a giant pumpkin built by Ikea – but not just for November. To compound the intellectual vacuum it creates, a wall text has an inevitable reference to the Panopticon. Appropriately the equally inevitable bust by Messerschmidt that oversees all this is supposed to represent “strong odour”, an expression of profound disgust. I’ll leave you with that.

On Twitter, Josh Spero, editor of Spears Magazine, calls the installation 'desperate b*llshit'. 

In Apollo, Katy Barrett is more approving, and tells us what the structure is:

Here an installation by Cuban art collective Los Carpinteros creates a space for debate and discussion, while evoking in its structure a library, architectural model, gridded globe, or even panopticon. 

So basically it's just a bench. I wonder whether any visitors will ever spontaneously sit down there for a 'debate and discussion'. 

Are we heading into Guffwatch territory? Here's what the V&A have to say about the thing:

This installation by the Cuban art collective Los Carpinteros (The Carpenters) is a response to the theme of the Enlightenment.

The structure refers to several images from the Age of Reason. It can be viewed variously as a hemispherical map of the world, a bookcase, an interior from a great library classifying all human knowledge, a symbol of the universe, or an architectural model. It can equally be interpreted as a cage – an important reference for Los Carpinteros being the late 18th-century ‘panopticon’, a circular jail in which a single guard located at the centre could keep watch over hundreds of prisoners.

Like the salons of the 18th-century, where the ideas of the Enlightenment were debated and where music was performed, The Globe provides a space for conversation and special events.

I haven't seen this installation in person. But it seems on the surface to be another example of the forced imposition of contemporary ideals onto the exhibitions about the past. Surely part of the point of going to see an exhibition focusing on the period 1650-1800 is to get some sense of what it was like back then, which requires an element of immersion in the objects on display. Dragging us into the 21st century with, as Neil Jeffares says, something from the posher end of an IKEA catalogue seems unnecessary.

The V&A say they wanted to recreate the idea of an '18th Century salon'. So why didn't they? The V&A are masters at the actual recreation of period interiors. To have come up with such unsuitable installation represents nothing more than a failure of imagination.

There's a video of the installation here.

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