Palace of versailles

The Palace of Versailles comes to Canberra in a big-budget blockbuster that does not disappoint | Art and design

Ihe word could sum up the experiential ambition of the National Gallery of Australia’s new major exhibition – which brings together more than 130 pieces from the Palace of Versailles in Canberra – it must surely be “immersive”.

Approaches to the institutional “spectacle” are changing rapidly, thanks to digitization and growing introspection among public collectors, but, as far as the gallery’s flagship exhibition, Versailles: Treasures of the Palace is concerned, can still be a benchmark. It is an engagement (tactile, visual, auditory – even olfactory) of sensitivity; a big-budget, mega-publicity exhibition filled with celebrity endorsementswhose curatorial tactics amplify an intriguing political, social and artistic history at its heart.

Many Australians know a bit of French history and have been traveling to France in droves for over a century. In recent years, we could not escape the (worked) story of the Franco-Australian common history, on the killing fields of the European Western Front. Yet, due to cultural and historical differences, and distance, staging Versailles in Canberra – rather than, say, London or Berlin – magnifies both its ambitions and its challenges.

It’s tempting to hunt down Australian angles through the paintings, sculptures, furniture and assorted treasures, to find relevance for an audience down below – but it really doesn’t have to be.

For the history of Versailles – of its opulence, decadence, glamor and utter indulgence; the reigns of the three kings Louis and Marie-Antoinette; and as the scene of the opening act of the French Revolution – resonates wherever you live.

Going back to the old language of journalists, Versailles is just a cracking thread and here it is told almost without fail.

“Versailles is only a crisp thread and here it is told almost without fault”: objects from Versailles: Treasures of the Palace. Photography: NGA

NGA director Gerard Vaughan explains how his exclusive blockbuster grew out of Canberra’s close bilateral friendship with Paris. Specifically, informal diplomatic conversations about French affection for Australia led to an unprecedented offer of a judicial center, the Palace of Versailles, on large-scale loan to a built capital: Canberra.

This show may not appeal to purists. But Vaughan wishes that the general public here could perhaps gain a new understanding of a distant culture and, above all, have a good time. High culture as entertainment is, after all, a primary function of a publicly funded institution like the National Gallery.

“We want people to walk away feeling like they learned something and it was also fun – that they had a good time,” he says. “With a blockbuster – you know, you want your blockbusters to be popular and we accept that people have choices of hobbies and one of them comes to see an exhibition like this.

“What if it was a very, very detailed exhibition on – I don’t know – the iconography of certain aspects of Baroque painting. You wouldn’t necessarily expect the man in the street to show up and get something out of it… But we want this one to be something that everyone thinks, “Wow, that’s amazing.”

The history of Versailles begins in the early 1660s when the young Louis XIV – who would eventually gain full monarchical control – began to build a square around his father’s modest hunting lodge outside Paris. Meanwhile, Louis’ superintendent of finances, Nicolas Fouquet, diverted state revenues to build himself a vast modern mansion, Vaux-le-Vicomte, on the land. He threw a housewarming party for 6,000 guests, recklessly inviting in guest of honor Louis XIV – who responded by sequestering the estate.

Versailles grew, becoming the center of the court (but not the capital) and home to the three Kings Louis (XIV, XV and XVI), their lovers and their queens, the most famous of whom was Marie-Antoinette.

The Hall of Mirrors at the Palace of Versailles
“An obscene testimony to royal excess”: the Hall of Mirrors at the Palace of Versailles. Photography: Jose Ignacio Soto/Shutterstock

Yes, it is obscene testimony to royal excess. But through its architecture, landscaping, commissioned furniture and artwork, 300 exterior sculptures, and 2,000 water jets serving hundreds of fountains, Versailles also showcased French culture, taste, and art. cutting edge for some 130 years.

Water was scarce. But Louis XIV, the Sun King (so named for his adoration of Apollo and the associated iconography), developed the hydraulics that made the greatest advancement in water supply since the Roman Empire.

As Béatrix Saule and Hélène Delalex write in the catalog of the appropriately opulent exhibition: “The water, although not abundant, played a role that no other marvel could rival… the fountains had instructed to signal with whistles the approach of the king so that the floodgates could be opened and then closed once he had passed.

Marie-Antoinette's golden harp (1775), on loan from the Palace of Versailles
Marie-Antoinette’s golden harp (1775), on loan from the Palace of Versailles. Photography: All rights reserved

Versailles is not an exhibition on the French Revolution. It indeed stops with the arrest and expulsion of Louis XVI and Antoinette in 1789, the seminal moment being the march of the Parisiennes on the Petit Trianon (where Antoinette – “Madame Deficit” – had fun and played of the harp). This, of course, was before the eradication of the monarchy and terror… and the guillotine.

But, after knowing Versailles, you will not be surprised to know why the peasants revolted.

Antoinette’s harp is on display, along with two candelabra from the Hall of Mirrors (the palace insisted on taking just one would be a mistake), the actual 1.5-ton sculpture-fountain, Latana, and numerous portraits (a Who’s Who of the victims of the guillotine), precious objects and custom-made furniture.

The atmosphere of the NGA, meanwhile, breathes the sounds of the Brandenburg orchestra and a fragrance created by master perfumer Francis Kurkdjian, who inspired it with Louis XIV’s favorite orange blossom. It incorporates photography and video, with Australian artist Tina Arena – resident in France for 15 years – as the exhibition’s global ambassador.

There are also Australian connections. In addition to unearthing from a private Australian collection a portrait of Antoinette painted at Versailles, the exhibition includes Nicolas André Monsiau’s painting, Louis XVI giving instructions to La Pérouse. Jean-Français La Pérouse, the French explorer of the South Pacific, arrived at Botany Bay shortly after Arthur Phillip before dropping off his specimens with the English captain and sailing into oblivion.

A fan of maps and exploration, Louis is said to have asked on his way to the guillotine: “Has anyone heard of M. La Pérouse yet?”

It is a reminder of how the empire of France was crushed just as Britain imposed its own tyranny on this continent.

Gallery Director Vaughan says, “For me, one of the most interesting things about this exhibition is how you can absorb all the aesthetic ideas, enthusiasms and tastes over about 150 years… We can trace the style and tastes of different kingdoms.

“It’s like everyone else – you don’t like your parents’ furniture and you probably don’t have any in your house, and they didn’t like their parents’ furniture. So every few decades there would be a change in taste.

It is a sensory treat, educational and entertaining. But Versailles: Treasures of the Palace also carries a heavy political load, reminding us at every turn why the French Revolution happened. A remarkable curatorial achievement.