Arts / Varied ‘Versailles’ beautifully staged

visual art / “Versailles: Treasures from the Palace”. At the National Gallery of Australia, until April 17. Reviewed by Anni Doyle Wawrzynczak

VersaillesdukeTHE name “Versailles” has conjured visions of opulence and grandeur for generations of Australians. In this beautifully staged and varied exhibition the NGA has sensibly resisted any attempt to replicate this excess in their staging. Consequently, away from the breathtaking whole, the more than 130 works of art shine in their own right.

Included are paintings, sculptures, tapestries, woodwork, furniture, engravings and objets d’art from the reigns of Louis XIV, XV and XVI. The largest gallery space, whose tastefully mirrored walls pay restrained homage to Versailles Hall of Mirrors, holds the exquisite Baroque masterpiece, “Queen Marie-Thérèse’s reliquary” (1665-74 gilded bronze, silver, painting on vellum 63 x 65 x 5cm). This personal devotional object, gifted to Louis XIV’s wife, Marie-Thérèse, is said to contain a fragment of the Virgin Mary’s veil. On facing walls are two magnificent tapestries from the series “Life of the King,” (1729-34 wool, silk and gold thread) manufactured by the Gobelins tapestry workshop. “The king’s visit to the Gobelins factory,” October 15, 1667 (370 x 576cm), is visually thrilling in content and execution.

The playful, restrained references to Versailles are extremely successful. In the space dedicated to Louis XIV’s passion for gardens, a soundscape comprising water rushing through the fountains of Versailles is paired with a large, curved screen depicting the fountains in action. Within this dynamic, immersive installation sits the 1.5-tonne marble fountain sculpture “Latona and her children”, its presence a testament to the commitment required to bring the exhibition from Versailles to the NGA.

Also successful is the short traverse that references the Versailles Labyrinth. Five large glassed recesses, backed by lush green ivy, contain animal sculptures from the 1670s created “Fables”. Remarkably, this small space evokes the sense of unexpected discovery conferred by the Labyrinth itself.

There are powerful sculptures, some wonderful paintings and a series of splendid engravings, in their own small gallery space, depicting various divertissements at Versailles during the 1660s. Exquisite personal objects include a series of gouache painted fans dated from 1756 to 1820, embellished with pearls, glitter, embroidery, sequins, ivory and gold and five exceptional Japanese Lacquerware boxes from the 18th century Edo period, from Marie-Antoinette’s collection of more than 70 boxes.

A really splendid exhibition, not to be missed.

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