Versailles: Treasures from the Palace at the National Gallery of Australia

Time for another incredible guest post by Imogen! 

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Hello lovely readers! Bec has kindly allowed me contribute another guest post, this time sharing my thoughts and feelings on the ‘Versailles: Treasures from the Palace’ exhibition currently showing at the National Gallery of Australia (NGA) in Canberra. I visited the exhibition earlier this month, and while I expected it to be very busy and crowded on a Saturday morning, the crowds were very manageable, and we were very grateful to be in the air-conditioned gallery on an incredibly hot day.

I was lucky enough to visit the Palace of Versailles in 2009 on a school trip to France, where we spent a day touring the palace and exploring and picnicking in the surrounding gardens. I was keen to compare what I remembered from this visit to how the palace was represented in the form of an exhibition. My main memories from my own visit as a 16-year-old were lots of gold, the sheer enormity of the palace itself and everything in it, and the gardens, so I was curious how these elements could be communicated in a gallery space, to an audience that may not have seen the ‘real thing’ themselves.

I was apprehensive that the curatorial approach of this exhibition would be to attempt to recreate the palace in the exhibition space, in terms of the aesthetic and scale, which in my opinion would have been an impossible and fruitless task. However, upon entering the exhibition space I was relieved to see that this was not the case. The exhibition really did include the ‘treasures’ of Versailles, in that it was a display of a hugely eclectic mix of all different kinds of objects from the palace. These ranged from gold gilt gates and fences, statues and sculptures, artworks, tapestries, crockery, works on paper and furniture.

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Seeing these objects in the gallery space really made them stand out in terms of the sheer size needed to fill the large spaces at the palace, which gave a great indication of the enormous scale of the place that was being represented. One of my favourite objects for this reason were the woven tapestry wall hangings and rugs. They were absolutely enormous and incredibly detailed. I was surprised to see that these pieces were in excellent condition (most were made in the 16 and 1700’s). I learnt that this was because the king’s that reigned from Versailles would commission vast numbers to be created (the rug pictured was one of 93 made at the request of King Louis XIV), however they were never actually used, and were kept in storage.

While I noticed other visitors to the exhibition were also in visible awe of the scale of the objects, which reflected the size of the palace itself, I was surprised to see how many visitors stopped to view the numerous screens displaying slideshows of images from the palace. Despite all the incredible objects on display, the digital images definitely received the most viewing time from most visitors which I found very interesting.

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Despite all the huge tapestries, paintings and pieces of furniture on display, it was actually a small room of works on paper that I enjoyed the most, because for me they best communicated what life was like at Versailles, and the extravagance and enormity it is synonymous with. One small room of the exhibition space (which, unfortunately was the one room visitors didn’t actually have to walk through, so it may have been missed by many) contained about two dozen framed works on paper, mainly etchings and hand drawings. These works all depicted the ‘divertissements’ at Versailles, the extravagant, incredibly over the top celebrations hosted by the King. While I was familiar with these events and they have been depicted in films, these etchings made to commemorate them represented them to me in a new and meaningful way, and truly made me understand their scale.

The etching pictured here by Jean Lepautre (1676, the photo really does not do it justice) shows the fifth day of a two-month long celebration at Versailles, which culminated in an enormous fireworks display. I was really glad these works were included in the exhibition, as for me they were the one element that portrayed Versailles in a new light.

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To end on something pretty, I can’t help but mention one of the most stunning objects in the exhibition – Marie Antoinette’s harp, made in 1775 by Jean-Henri Nadermann. This was truly stunning and caught my eye from across the room. It was gilded all over and covered with glittering glass and pearl beads. I have no idea if she was much of a harp player or if it was ever actually used, but it was stunning none the less – I can’t imagine living in a palace where every object was as extravagant as this one.

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As is always the case with exhibitions of this kind, visitors must leave via the gift shop filled with tie-in products to purchase. I decided that this iteration of the giftshop must have been an in-joke from the curators and organisers, as it was filled with the kind of frivolous objects the residents of Versailles (with more money than they knew what to do with) would have purchased and never used. The objects in this gift shop were some of the most tenuously connected to the exhibition I’ve ever seen, however any exhibition sponsored by Moet and Chandon and Dom Perignon with a giftshop filled with champagne can be taken with a grain of salt and a smile.

The exhibition is showing exclusively at the National Gallery of Canberra until the 17th of April 2017.

This post was written by Imogen Kennard-King. Her email is: Imogenkennard.king@gmail.com.

As always, Imogen, it has been a pleasure! 

 

 

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