Hell in its Heyday: Pablo Bronstein Reveals a Gorgeous Dystopia at London’s Sir John Soane’s Museum

Pablo Bronstein, Container Ship, 2020-21. Image courtesy of the artist and Sir John Soane's Museum.
Pablo Bronstein, Private Members’ Club, 2020-21. Image courtesy of the artist; Sir John Soane’s Museum, London; Herald St, London; and Galleria Franco Noero, Turin.
Pablo Bronstein, Central Bank and Administrative Buildings, 2020-21. Image courtesy of the artist; Sir John Soane’s Museum, London; Herald St, London; and Galleria Franco Noero, Turin.
Pablo Bronstein, Pâtisseries and Confections, 2020-21. Image courtesy of the artist; Sir John Soane’s Museum, London; Herald St, London; and Galleria Franco Noero, Turin.
Pablo Bronstein, Department Store, 2020-21. Image courtesy of the artist; Sir John Soane’s Museum, London; Herald St, London; and Galleria Franco Noero, Turin.
Pablo Bronstein, Oil Rigs, 2020-21. Image courtesy of the artist; Sir John Soane’s Museum, London; Herald St, London; and Galleria Franco Noero, Turin.
Pablo Bronstein, Container Ship, 2020-21. Image courtesy of the artist; Sir John Soane’s Museum, London; Herald St, London; and Galleria Franco Noero, Turin.
Still from Pablo Bronstein’s Boutique Fantasque, 2020-21. Image courtesy of the artist; Sir John Soane’s Museum, London; Herald St, London; and Galleria Franco Noero, Turin.
Still from Pablo Bronstein’s Boutique Fantasque, 2020-21. Image courtesy of the artist; Sir John Soane’s Museum, London; Herald St, London; and Galleria Franco Noero, Turin.
Still from Pablo Bronstein’s Boutique Fantasque, 2020-21. Image courtesy of the artist; Sir John Soane’s Museum, London; Herald St, London; and Galleria Franco Noero, Turin.
TOP
515
41
0
 
8
Nov
8
Nov
Art Gate

At London’s Sir John Soane’s Museum, Pablo Bronstein creates an entire society and its architecture in watercolours, and explores a dubious antiques business through dance and film.

TEXT: Herbert Wright
IMAGES: Courtesy of the artist; Sir John Soane’s Museum, London; Herald St, London; and Galleria Franco Noero, Turin

 

Pablo Bronstein, Private Members’ Club, 2020-21. Image courtesy of the artist; Sir John Soane’s Museum, London; Herald St, London; and Galleria Franco Noero, Turin.

 

Contemporary British-Argentinian artist Pablo Bronstein and 19th century architect Sir John Soane have a lot in common. Bronstein’s work in visual arts and performance builds on a sharp, uniquely witty appropriation of historical styles; while Soane, who designed the Bank of England, collected antiquities that informed his eccentric architectural vision. Thus, Bronstein’s new show, both inspired by and nestled within Sir John Soane’s Museum, London, has found the perfect match for its venue.

Titled “Hell in its Heyday” the exhibition showcase a film and 22 new works—all more than a metre high; in ink, pencil and watercolour on paper. The watercolours depict an imaginary world of conspicuous over-consumption, in a ludicrously decadent city that is permeated by extravagant historical design styles. The sheer number and richness of the works is stunning—thanks to COVID-19, which delayed the show for a year. “The extra time and the solitude helped me work,” Bronstein tells me. “My mind roamed into places that Ive not gone to before… the [late 19th century French] post-impressionists, and 1950s advertising, and 19th century photographs. Had I had the usual round of art fairs and commercial shows to contend with, I would never have gone there.”

 

Pablo Bronstein, Central Bank and Administrative Buildings, 2020-21. Image courtesy of the artist; Sir John Soane’s Museum, London; Herald St, London; and Galleria Franco Noero, Turin.

 

Documenting and imagining architectural whimsy—a Bronstein hallmark—has always been the subject of his books as well as exhibitions across Europe and North America. Much of “Hell in its Heyday” is a veritable feast of architecture. Descriptions that accompany each watercolour bring attention to the details in the buildings he depicts, such as the lactating Venus on a shell, and the Rococo air-conditioning vents on the otherwise modernist Casino Hotel with its glass curtain wall in gold and blue. With such rich buildings and sculptures, Bronstein is indulging his imagination to the fullest, and his modernist structures, such as motorway flyovers or skyscrapers, appear plain in comparison. He also has an architectural point to make: “The 20th century is primarily a Beaux Arts century,” he says, referring to the broad architectural phenomenon of giving buildings grandeur by rendering them in historical styles.“Beaux Arts for me is a sort of decorated modernism at its weakest, and that is what I mostly represent in the show,” he continues. “In the environment I created for this exhibition, architecture is stylistically equivocal and complicated.”

 

Pablo Bronstein, Pâtisseries and Confections, 2020-21. Image courtesy of the artist; Sir John Soane’s Museum, London; Herald St, London; and Galleria Franco Noero, Turin.

 

Pablo Bronstein, Department Store, 2020-21. Image courtesy of the artist; Sir John Soane’s Museum, London; Herald St, London; and Galleria Franco Noero, Turin.

 

Those qualities extend into everything we find in Bronstein’s watercolours in the exhibition. In Pâtisseries and Confections, a table carries an arrangement of spectacular cakes; while behind it, a canyon of skyscrapers recedes into a pink sky. The massy high-rise and buzzing helicopters echo with the city of Fritz Lang’s 1927 film Metropolis, but the fantasy food conveys a very different flavour. Bronstein’s description is as mouth-watering as the visuals: “rhubarb and white sherbet iced fruitcake”, “swirling raspberry-gem biscuits’, sambayón-flavoured cream egg”, and more. We also see this society’s citizens. In Department Store, the shoppers look distinctly fin-de-siecle Parisian; while in Resort and Poolscape, everyone wears bathing suits and theatrical masks with long noses, as men, whom Bronstein calls “harlequins”, listen to a great chanteuse. Even the industrial infrastructure and maritime trade that support Hell arefancy. Each derrick in Oil Rigs competes with one another in Neoclassical and Baroque styling; while Container Shipdepicts a vast, Baroque barge propelled like a Roman galley by hidden oarsmen. Globalisation is eluded to in the waves the vessel stirs, rendered in the style of Hokusai’s iconic Great Wave off Kanagawa (ca.1830-32), and beyond the water is a classical Chinese landscape of hills and pagodas.

 

Pablo Bronstein, Oil Rigs, 2020-21. Image courtesy of the artist; Sir John Soane’s Museum, London; Herald St, London; and Galleria Franco Noero, Turin.

 

Pablo Bronstein, Container Ship, 2020-21. Image courtesy of the artist; Sir John Soane’s Museum, London; Herald St, London; and Galleria Franco Noero, Turin.

 

What inspired Bronstein to create this extraordinary and deliciously over-the-top vision of Hell? He refers to his family memories of Argentina’s prosperous pre-war heyday, and the paintings of Joseph Michael Gandy—commissioned and hosted by Soane—that depict Soane’s buildings in states of ruin. Gandy’s “condensed architectural history [and] the dramatisation of an architectural idea into theatre, were of central importance to conceiving the works,” comments Bronstein. I asked whether this Hell is also an allegory of our globalised, fossil-fuelled, consumerist, contemporary society, and thus super relevant to the climate emergency. “Yes absolutely,” Bronstein replies. I’m looking back as a precursor to what we are living through now…In the period between the ‘Great Exhibition’ in 1851 at Hyde Park, London, and the 1973 OPEC oil crisis we have the rise and fall of a culture based on limitless production and consumption. Now we are, or should be aware, that there is a price—human and ecological—to be paid for everything.”

 

Still from Pablo Bronstein’s Boutique Fantasque, 2020-21. Image courtesy of the artist; Sir John Soane’s Museum, London; Herald St, London; and Galleria Franco Noero, Turin.

 

Bronstein’s glorious parade of watercolours, reproduced with zoom-in detail in the catalogue, are not all he offers. Navigate the dense labyrinth through Soane’s collection in the museum’s basement and you will find Bronstein’s new film, Boutique Fantasque. Unlike the epic, detached vision of Hell in the watercolours, this film takes us into an up-close and intimate world of an antique store that is something between a posh historic house, a junk shop and a warehouse.

 

Still from Pablo Bronstein’s Boutique Fantasque, 2020-21. Image courtesy of the artist; Sir John Soane’s Museum, London; Herald St, London; and Galleria Franco Noero, Turin.

 

The proprietor, played by Rosalie Wahlfrid in a grotesque mask, summons her two assistants, Iris Chan and Irene Cena, to help flog antique objects to a customer they call the Dead Man. “We will stage jolly dances in front of the merchandise” she says. The Dead Man is Bronstein himself, whose face is behind a mask with an exaggerated moustache—a silent caricature of a stiff 1920s English gentleman.

 

Still from Pablo Bronstein’s Boutique Fantasque, 2020-21. Image courtesy of the artist; Sir John Soane’s Museum, London; Herald St, London; and Galleria Franco Noero, Turin.

 

The women are professional dancers, and the playful video montage enhances the frivolity of their dance. Bronstein has previously drawn from 17th century ballet to develop performances at the Tate and elsewhere. Here, as Bronstein explains, the dance owes much to the “clumsy music-hall choreography, or amateur productions, or circusy dance performances…something you might see in a shoddy theatre.” Just as entertaining is the desperate sales pitch which borders on the inane—always expressed in the fine detail of the antique objects that Wahlfrid proffers—with sprinklings of the saucy and the sinister.

The dialogue, dance, and wonky cinematography of the film are total fun; while the watercolours are a tour de force by a master draughtsman whose unique take on historical design always delights. Now, however, Bronstein also delivers a profound message for us as we trash our planet: a good helping of sugar always makes something bitter easier to swallow.

 

 

Pablo Bronstein: Hell in its Heyday
6 October 2021 – 2 January 2022
Sir John Soane’s Museum, London

 

You might also enjoy reading

 

 

 

 
Leave a Comment

Leave a Reply