Pablo Bronstein: Hell in its Heyday
LondonSir John Soane’s Museum
October 6, 2021 – January 2, 2022
Architectural fantasias run deeply through Pablo Bronstein’s veins. At the age of 16, the Argentinian-British (or British-Latinx) artist redecorated his bedroom in drabby Neasden, a West London suburb, transforming it into an iridescent Baroque palazzo. Several flats and studios in London, as well as his eccentric studio home in Deal on the east coast of Kent, followed. Bronstein’s infatuation with architecture by no means stops here; rather, it forms an integral part of his artistic (and curatorial) practice. He switched from architecture school to art school to pursue his own kind of architectural drawing, fashioning a historic aesthetic in contemporary dress. Bronstein then expanded into the three-dimensional realm to install his work in almost absurdly overweening structures, followed by choreographed performances both live and on film.
So how is it that this self-professed architectural provocateur’s newest exhibition at the Sir John Soane’s Museum in London is, at first glance, anything but eventful, momentous, or provocative—despite its rather promising title, Hell in its Heyday?!
The short answer is that Bronstein was bound by Sir John Soane’s privately negotiated 1833 Act of Parliament. It mandated that the house museum and personal collection were to be preserved exactly as it was arranged at the time of Soane’s death and maintained in perpetuity. Hence, there was no room for the kind of rebellious rethinking of historical settings for which Bronstein has typically been known.
A slightly longer account would reveal that Hell in its Heyday is more of a response—and ultimately an effective one—to British architect Sir John Soane than an intervention in his eponymous house museum. Here, Bronstein presents his newest body of work, which comprises 22 large-scale watercolors and a film, all devised during the lockdown in his magnificent and idiosyncratic studio home in Deal. This display might well be a fork in the road for Bronstein, marking the pivotal transition from emerging to mid-career artist.
Sir John Soane was one of the greatest architects in Regency Britain. Known for devising the Dulwich Picture Gallery, the very first purpose-built public art gallery in England, as well as his (now largely destroyed) work on the Bank of England, Soane believed buildings could create and manage emotions, particularly through the use of light. However, it is his eponymous museum that is perhaps the greatest testament to Soane’s architectural prowess. During his lifetime, the architect converted his home and office at 12-14 Lincoln’s Inn Fields, London, into an intriguing, labyrinthine, and dramatically lit interior which, to this day, forms one of the most magnificent architectural cabinets of curiosities in the world. A one-way system of circulation leads to both the architectural highlights and the temporary exhibition galleries.
Hell in its Heyday opens midway through the Soane, in the unassuming and dimly lit Foyle Space on the first floor, with Boutique Fantasque (2021), a 32-minute-long phantasmagoric film produced in the artist’s own palatial home in Kent—like Soane, Bronstein transforms his living environment into space of artistic practice.1 By the time they encounter the film, visitors will have marveled at the celestial Dome Area, replete with complex arrangements of plaster casts and ambient light effects. Boutique Fantasque is in direct competition with this architectural Gesamtkunstwerk, setting a precedent for the exhibition as a whole. Narrated by Bronstein himself, the film features a sinister antiques dealer, played by Bronstein’s longtime collaborator Rosalie Wahlfrid, and her two assistants performing a masked ballet to entice a dapper Englishman-turned-corpse-in-a-faux-tux—the artist himself—into acquiring silverware or chinoiseries in a salesroom that looks like a curious cross between a stately home, a warehouse, and a junk shop. All performers wear masks or kabuki-style makeup, while the choreography recalls the style of commedia dell’arte performance. Here, consumerism is painted as the ultimate sin.
Fast-forward to the end of the visit to Soane’s house museum: it is here that Bronstein presents his seductive and slightly cloying vision of hell as a monumental city in 22 large-scale watercolors. This represents the first major museum exhibition of Bronstein’s works on paper since 2009. But gone are the static, singular, and almost reductionist architectural drawings of Bronstein’s earlier works, in which figures remained merely illustrative props. The colorful cycle that provides the title of Hell in its Heyday shows lively and densely populated dystopian scenes, featuring the industrial progress of the last two hundred years while reflecting on its shortcomings for a more sustainable future. Even the coloration is in stark contrast to Bronstein’s (and the museum’s) usually muted color scheme, which clashes with the jarring contemporary pigments on display here.
For Hell in its Heyday, Bronstein takes advantage of the fact that there are many conceptions of what hell can be. He drew inspiration from John Milton’s epic poem Paradise Lost and subverted the architectural model of an ideal city that Joseph Michael Gandy proposed in his watercolor visions of Milton’s Pandemonium—these are in the collection of the Sir John Soane’s Museum. Stylistically, though, Bronstein’s watercolors (all 2020–21) are closer to an elaborated James Gillray or a delicate Shoe Print by Andy Warhol. They also provide a rather satirical account of contemporary consumerism and are replete with historical references from Dalí’s lobster in Port to a Piranesi-inflected lipstick column in Department Store, or 1950s cinema advertising posters in Member’s Club. Venetian Capriccio could be Bronstein’s take on the Canalettos in Soane’s Picture Room, while High Altar features a Bernini reference—and with a little luck, one can almost detect the iconic Elephant sculpture from the shopping center in Elephant & Castle in Factories. Like Hieronymus Bosch’s The Garden of Earthly Delights (c. 1500), Bronstein’s watercolors overflow with action, and the devil is in the details: a fountain of Venus lactates in Casino Hotel, harlequins sunbathe at a summer resort in Resort and Poolscape, and a telephone mast powers a High Cross adorned with gilded cherubs in High Altar, to describe just a few incidents. Like Soane’s arrangements, Bronstein’s illustrations transcend time and space; there is no distinction between a copy and the original, and objects from different periods are brought together, creating new poetic juxtapositions.
Hell in its Heyday is Pablo Bronstein at the top of his game. Although centuries separate them, Bronstein’s watercolors for Hell in its Heyday complement the current display at the Sir John Soane’s Museum very well. The artist has created a new and seductive body of work for this exhibition, which engages with the architect, his house museum, and collection on many different semantic and visual levels. By re-introducing his works on paper and distancing himself from previous, more dramatic and provocative interventions in historic settings, the artist ushers in a new, more mature phase of his work—that is, if we allow ourselves to look, and ultimately look again.
- The film borrows its title from the 1919 ballet, La Boutique Fantasque, about a magical romance between can-can dancer dolls in a toyshop. It was devised and first performed by Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes in London and starred its maestro, Enrico Cecchetti, as the shopkeeper. Cecchetti developed his own distinctive method, which favored a more balanced and healthy approach to training the dancing body. Today, this style is the most prevalent of the six ballet methods taught worldwide.