All That Glitters: Versailles at the NGA

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Photos from the National Gallery of Australia website

The Chateau de Versailles was built by the ‘Sun King’ Louis XIV of France with one thing in mind: power. Beginning as his father’s hunting lodge on the outskirts of Paris, with the aid of a legion of architects, designers, craftsmen, artists and gardeners, Louis transformed the building into a gilded cage. It was in the palace he could hold captive all the aristocrats and power brokers of his kingdom.

Every sculpture, painting, carpet, piece of furniture, dress and garden feature of Versailles was created with a single purpose in mind: to enthral and bewitch those who might question the magnificence of the monarchy and the rightness of its divine claim to power. Even several centuries later, the scale of beauty and ambition summoned by just one man remains visually intoxicating.

The National Gallery of Australia’s summer blockbuster exhibition Versailles: Treasures from the Palace is, like the palace itself, a gilded spectacle. In miniature, the legendary opulence and extravagance of the Sun King shines brightly. So too does the lustrous arrogance which weaponised marble, wood, bronze, paint and canvas into extraordinary tools of French statecraft and power.   

It appears the cultural power of Versailles remains at the disposal of the French State, albeit appropriated from the legacy of past Kings. Even when transported to the other side of the world, these objects continue to evoke the lingering global dominance and pervasive influence of France. It is hard not to notice that the deal made by the National Gallery of Australia (NGA) and French Minister of Culture was very well timed to coincide with the massive diplomatic effort coordinated by the French Government to help secure the $50 billion submarine contract with Australia.

The intriguing path of the exhibit, through a series of different thematic rooms, is a satisfying taste of the magnificence prized in the world of Versailles. Ignore pretentious friends who squawk like galahs that the exhibit is a poor substitute for visiting the original site. Think of this as a privileged glimpse through the keyholes of the 700 rooms which make up the actual palace, or at least a taste of a select few. Less likely to be overwhelmed in the rarefied salons of the NGA, you have the chance to more closely inspect the delicate details of objects on display, and appreciate the craft and care with which they were made.

Regardless of whether you have braved the touristic-hordes at the real palace or not, I would recommend taking a moment to view the enchanting orientation video at the entrance to the gallery to get your bearings. Meandering through the exhibit, you can encounter the different aspects of life at the palace which has made its name synonymous with a whole cast of historical people, royal and otherwise. Yes, never fear, Marie Antoinette makes an appearance – her head still attached. Clever and theatrical curatorial choices, wafts of orange-blossom perfume and snatches of court music throughout the galleries – make it a feast for all the senses, and help conjure in your imagination the glorious whole of an authentic experience. Fortunately, unlike at Versailles in its day, this perfume is not intended to mask the fact that people have pissed behind the curtains.

The only discordant note struck was the overtly gendered nature of the exhibition accoutrements: unlike in many of the NGA’s previous exhibitions, the gift-shop and marketing were excessively focused on ‘women’s products’. This might seem like a small point, but having to exit the exhibition through the shop made it a jarring end to an otherwise well-rounded presentation.

The peasant-like state of the average student’s finances might lead to some outrage at the aristocratic admission price, even with the (somewhat paltry) student concession. But compared with the price of a plane ticket to France, and mindful of the cost to the gallery of putting on the show: the entrance fair is downright democratic. In any case, you can take your parents on their visit to Canberra and – while impressing them with your newfound cultured tastes – impose on their royal largesse for a free ticket.

Sensuously carved sculptures, sneaky Instagram opportunities, exquisite paintings, elaborate furniture and other objects of high craft are all on display in this exhibition, along with snippets of their history and the stories of those who made and owned them. While you have the chance, living it large in Australia’s own seat of power, get a taste of these luxurious lifestyles – and be glad that our Prime Ministers aren’t able to build and decorate palaces in scale to their egos.

Versailles: Treasures from the Palace is on at the National Gallery of Australia until the 17th of April. Student tickets are $25. If you want to avoid the flocks of pensioners, there will be late-night viewings during the Enlighten Festival 3-12 March.