Category: Art

Palaces of Power: Embarking on a Grand Tour at Nottingham Contemporary

The Grand Tour atNottingham Contemporary

Pablo Bronstein’s Via Appia frames the treasures of Chatsworth  including the coronation thrones and marble foot (c) Andy Keate for Nottingham Contemporary.

When German chancellor Otto von Bismarck proclaimed the second German Empire in 1890, he chose to do so inside the lavish Hall of Mirrors at the Palace of Versailles in Paris. Long a symbol of power and wealth, this was his way of asserting German authority over the French after years of conflict. Just over a century later, the Hall of Mirrors was chosen by the victorious allies of the First World War as the place where Germany signed the humiliating Treaty of Versailles.

Few things embody the relationship between architecture and power than Versailles. Its baroque style and vast art collections are replicated at palaces around Europe, including Chatsworth House. Nestled in the Derbyshire Peaks, Chatsworth is home to the impressive Devonshire Collection, which includes paintings and drawings by the Old Masters, blue-and-white Delft pottery and ancient sculptures.

This summer 62 pieces from this collection have been brought to Nottingham Contemporary in an exhibition curated by artist Pablo Bronstein. It forms part of The Grand Tour, a cultural experience taking place across four galleries in Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire. It recreates the grand tours of the 18th and 19th centuries when aristocratic young men – including successive Dukes of Devonshire – would travel across Europe, discovering the treasures of antiquity.

The tour begins with a collection of vast objects, including a pair of coronation chairs for the William IV and Queen Adelaide and a huge bathtub which the gallery attendant helpfully tells me would have been used for show rather than any practical purpose. There is also a Roman foot, dating back to BC 150 – BC 50, which is thought to have been part of a statue of a goddess. Bronstein has produced a series of highly-technical paintings entitled Via Appia, which was a strategic route in Roman times and creates a narrative for these objects. This road not only inspired Renaissance artists such as Michaelangelo, it also shows the journey undertaken by the grand tourists.

The mood in Gallery 2 shifts towards something more introspective. Faux oak-panelled walls display the works of German and Flemish artists such as Franz Hals, Albrecht Dürer and Rembrandt. In contrast to the grand pieces in other parts of the exhibition, these pieces are dark and brooding; Dürer’s 15th century etching, The Crucifixion, is imbued with pain and suffering, while Rembrandt’s drawing of the actor Willem Ruyters in his dressing room is intimate and humane.

Elsewhere, the themes of power and wealth resume once again. Huge pieces of silverware and Delft pottery fill cabinets surrounded by pillars and an imposing portrait of the 1st Duke of Devonshire hangs on the wall. Once again, these are juxtaposed with another Bronstein piece, this time a digital drawing of Chatsworth House. The familiar neo-classical building is suspended outside of time and space, giving viewers the chance to see if from different angles. Bronstein seems to be suggesting that art, architecture and power are anchored to their historical context – but that does not mean they are not subject to change.

As part of the Grand Tour, Bronstein is also exhibiting his drawings at Chatsworth’s New Gallery, as well as a large-scale drawing for the Old Master Cabinet Room. Other exhibitions include Wright Revealed: Uncovering Two Lost Paintings at Derby Museum and Elements of Architecture: Corridors and Welbeck Tunnels at the Welbeck Estate in north Notts.

See Pablo Bronstein and the Treasures of Chatsworth at Nottingham Contemporary until 15 September.

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Review: Glenn Ligon’s Encounters and Collisions at Nottingham Contemporary

Untitled, Glenn Ligon (2006).

Untitled, Glenn Ligon (2006).

One of the first pieces to catch my eye in Glenn Ligon’s Encounters and Collisions exhibition at Nottingham Contemporary is a neon sign which simply reads, ‘America’. Reminiscent of Allen Ginsberg’s poem of the same name, this untitled piece seems to be emblematic of this intensely personal exhibition in which Ligon brings together the post-War artists who influenced him, alongside his own work.

Encounters and Collisions explores the many narratives of American discourse, touching on themes of race, identity, sexuality, politics, language, history and aesthetics.  For Ligon, who was born in the Bronx in 1960, the Civil Rights movement formed a backdrop to his early years. Here, we see journalistic pieces of the time, including Kelley Walker’s 2005 piece Triptych, which re-appropriates a photograph of a black man being savagely attacked by a police dog as well as  pictures of the Birmingham Race Riots and Black Panthers. These sit alongside pieces which examine how these experiences were internalised. Ligon’s 2005 painting, When Black Wasn’t Bceautiful, a quote from comedian Richard Pryor, plays on the idea that our notions of beauty are bound up with a society’s dominant narrative. Meanwhile, Giovanni Anselmo’s interactive exhibit Invisible, where the word ‘visible’ appears on a projector, highlights the ephemeral nature of language and identity.


Yellow Islands by Jackson Pollock (1952).

Sexuality, and the subversion of established norms, is also significant as shown in Ligon’s colouring book picture of Malcolm X, who is rendered feminine in a Warhol-esque way with bright lipstick and eye shadow. Another is a silent and hypnotic film by Steve McQueen called Bear in which two naked men square up to each other in a display of violence and eroticism. The close-up camera work is disarming as it follows the contours of the men’s bodies and disrupts our perspective; McQueen has said he did not want the viewer to be a passive observer but rather to be hyper-sensitive to their own part in the action.

Elsewhere, Ligon pays tribute to the artists who shaped his outlook. The abstract expressionists, including Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning and Franz Kline, are represented here and the immediacy of their paintings indicate a radical departure from the social realism prevalent in the US at this time. Looking at pieces such as Pollock’s Yellow Islands and de Kooning’s Valentine, it is easy to see why they proved so influential for Ligon: developed in New York, this movement saw artists peering deep into the human consciousness, by-passing rational thoughts, as they explored abstract human desires and experiences.

Encounters and Collisions is on at Nottingham Contemporary until 14th June. It will then move to Tate Liverpool where it will run from 30th June to 18th October. 

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A tour around 2 Willow Road, home of Ernő Goldfinger

The flat-roofed 2 Willow Road.

The flat-roofed 2 Willow Road.

Architect Ernő Goldfinger’s  family home in Hampstead was built as a celebration of functionalism over aesthetics – and yet I was surprised to discover that parts of it did not work very well at all.

2 Willow Road, with its flat roof and large windows at odds with the elegant town houses around it, provides a fascinating insight into the life of a man whose name is said to have inspired Ian Flemming’s notorious Bond villain. Of course, he was also one of the major proponents of brutalist architecture and his uncompromising public housing projects, including Trellick Tower in Kensington and Balfron Tower in Tower Hamlets, proved controversial. His family home, built in 1939, was constructed around concrete cylinders and served as advert for his architecture practice and ideology.

My tour of 2 Willow Road begins inside the small hallway with institutional-style rubber flooring. There is little natural light but then people don’t normally spend much time in a hallway. We climb the spiral staircase and enter the open plan living room which, in contrast, is bright and spacious. Each detail has been meticulously conceived, with partitions to create separate rooms, large windows to let in light and even low chairs to ensure the road didn’t obstruct views of Hampstead Heath. Goldfinger and his wife Ursula were avid collectors of Modernist art and the walls are adorned with paintings by the likes of Max Ernst and Bridget Riley.

The kitchen, however, is mysteriously small and almost unfit for purpose, even though we are told the Goldfingers hosted regular parties. But just like the tower blocks he designed, it seems his home was also subject to shifting social forces; our guide told us that while the couple were socialists they nevertheless brought with them a small army of servants when they moved in. The servants worked downstairs in a larger kitchen, sending the food up to the smaller one in a dumb waiter. When the Second World War broke out, the servants went off to do war work, leaving Ursula to do the work. When part of the house was converted into flats, the family lost the large kitchen and had to make do with the small one upstairs.

Goldfinger outside the controversial Trellick Tower.

Goldfinger outside the controversial Trellick Tower.

Moving through the house, we stop to look at Goldfinger’s study area, which included a tool cabinet unceremoniously plonked on the wall, before entering the living room. Again, there are some fine examples of Modernist art and the garden once boasted a Henry Moore statue. One of the key features of the wall in a large wooden display ‘frame’ which allowed the Goldfingers to show off their vast collection of paintings in an ever-changing exhibition space. On the fireplace sits a chintzy clock which seems at odds with everything else in the house. We soon discover that it belonged to Goldfinger’s mother, who brought her decidedly bourgeois Austro-Hungarian furniture, ornaments and paintings with her when she moved into the family home. Upstairs, the sparsely decorated bedrooms offer few creature comforts but are designed to make maximum use of the space available.

As well as being an architect, Goldfinger was also an accomplished furniture designer who mixed natural materials with man-made ones and his pieces can be seen throughout the house. Simple yet practical, his designs would not look out of place in a modern home. My personal favourite was the elegant desk with a set of pivoting drawers, which echoes the concrete columns on which the house is built.

Like his own designs, 2 Willow Road is both resolutely functional yet also flawed. For all his meticulous planning, Goldfinger could not predict how human life changes; the tower blocks were built with optimism for a new way of living but soon became crime-ridden ghettos. In an ironic twist, Trellick and Balfron are both Grade II-listed buildings, with some of the flats being sold for almost £400,000.

2 Willow Road, which is run by the National Trust, is open Wednesday to Sunday, with hourly tours available. Further details are available via the website.

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Confronting its past: Exhibition sheds light on German responses to the Holocaust


Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe (Berlin).

Last month saw the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz and for many communities around the world it was a time to reflect on the crimes committed by Nazi Germany during the Holocaust. The television schedules were filled with harrowing survivor accounts – and the question on German responsibility was examined time and again.

The German response to these atrocities has been incredibly complex in the decades since, as an exhibition at Nottingham Trent University, entitled Germany’s Confrontation with the Holocaust in a Global Context, demonstrates.

The Holocaust cuts deep into the consciousness of the nation and over the years German responses have included denial in the first stages when local people were forced to see the extermination camps to protests in the 1960s as young people were angered by crimes the previous generation have committed. Later, there were feelings of guilt and remorse; across German towns and cities, particularly in Berlin, you will find sombre memorials to the victims, while school children are taken to Auschwitz to witness for themselves the site where these horrifying events took place.

The exhibition examines the delicate balance between Germany being able to move on from the past while never forgetting what happened. In 1945, the Allies were aware of what could happen if the country were punished too harshly as it was after the First World War and yet at the time there were still people who had supported the Nazis, either actively to passively.

The issue becomes no less cloudy as the years roll by although there is a sense of reconciliation and indeed, it is suggested that Germany can be used as a blueprint to show how a nation deals with genocide. The Germany of today is dynamic, forward-thinking and reluctant to involve itself in conflict unless it has to but sometimes it cannot shake off its past association and the exhibition shows protests in Greece where Angela Merkel is compared to Hitler and highlights the continuing presence of far right groups in the country. Germany will perhaps always grapple with its role during the Holocaust but its willingness to seek reconciliation and its capacity for reflection have meant that the nation has been able to move forward.

This exhibition has been curated by academics from the University of Leeds, with Professor Bill Niven from Nottingham Trent University acting as historical adviser. The exhibition opened at Leeds Town Hall with opening ceremonies also taking place at the National Holocaust Centre in Nottinghamshire and Cape Town Holocaust Centre in South Africa on Holocaust Memorial Day.

It is showing at Nottingham Trent University’s Newton Building on Goldsmith Street until Friday. Entry is free.

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Let the Chinese Dream Fly at Nottingham’s Lakeside Arts Centre

One of the posters from the exhibition.

One of the posters from the exhibition.

China’s role on the world stage is something which preoccupies many in the West, not least because of the economic power it holds. There is perhaps a common belief that it is a unified country but modern China is far more complex and although those living in the newly-industrialised urban centres may share increasingly similar outlooks, there are still vast differences between the regions.

In 2013, the president Xi Jingping launched a campaign called China Dream which aimed to create a sense of harmony across the country. The posters for this campaign have been a common sight around public spaces – but now they are being shown in the UK for the first time at Nottingham’s Lakeside Arts Centre.

The carefully-curated exhibition, entitled Let the Chinese Dream Fly, features a selection of facsimile posters from the campaign. Produced by a collective of artists, they draw on folk art techniques from around China, including brush painting, paper cuts and woodblock prints as well as traditional poems and symbolism.

But while these posters may have been influenced by regional cultures, the themes contained within them are defiantly universal, upholding Confucian ideals of peace, harmony, respect for elders and auspiciousness (good fortune). They are also displayed across the country as a way of promoting cohesion between the different regions and an overall sense of patriotism.

Previous publicity drives run by the Communist Party, notably those of the 1950s and ‘70s, have focussed on the party and the workers. This one, however, invokes a more general moral code by which people should live. And unlike those campaigns of yesteryear there is also an awareness that this one will be viewed not just by the people of China, but around the world including the western media and members of the Chinese diaspora. Of course, this means that it will also come under more scrutiny – but the resulting image is one of a bold, unified China which commands respect.

Despite these posters being a product of the state, the exhibition itself is not partisan. Some of the more politically-charged pieces have been left out and this is as much about cultural identity, design and aesthetics as politics. Viewers will instead come to their own conclusions about what this campaign says about modern China, bringing with them their own world and political views.

Let the Chinese Dream Fly is on at Nottingham’s Lakeside Arts Centre (Wallner Gallery) until 22nd February. For more details visit Lakeside’s website.

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Sets and costume design take centre stage at Bonington Gallery’s Make/Believe

Gary McCann - Die Fledermaus (Credit Bonington Gallery)

Gary McCann – Die Fledermaus (Credit Bonington Gallery)

Who can forget the magical opening and closing ceremonies of the 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games? Or the flamboyant costumes a pantomime? Sometimes it is the minimal sets of a drama – a few plastic stacking chairs against a black background for example – which proves so effective by subtly stirring a mood and concentrating our minds on what’s before us.

All too often design is forced into the background, with critics focussing on the actors’ performances or the script first and foremost. But it is design which lifts a performance above a mere reading or rehearsal – and it is this aspect of theatre which is explored in the Make/Believe exhibition currently showing at Nottingham Trent University’s Bonington Art Gallery.

Created over the past four years, this diverse collection features model boxes for stage sets, costume designs, costumes, props and mood boards which show the relationship between the designer, producer and director. The pieces come from a range of events and productions including the Olympics and Paralympics, as well as plays, ballet opera, pop concerts and more.

Some of the pieces are works of art in their own right and it’s a shame that they don’t normally go on display to the public. The model box for the Merchant of Venice, which comes complete with plush chairs and oak-panelled walls, is incredibly detailed and lets the audience members immerse themselves in this world of money, while the illustrations that accompany the large-scale outdoor events are beautiful.

These contrasted well with a Royal Opera House production of Kafka’s The Metamorphisis in which the clinical, white background is contaminated by a strange black fluid which evokes the physicality of his transformation into an insect. Similarly, the empty-looking brutalist set created for a production of King Lear which captures the cruelty and mental anguish of the play.

Another highlight was the model box created for Brecht’s Threepenny Opera which was performed at Nottingham Playhouse last year. I distinctly remember the unforgiving industrial set, with swathes of ripped red fabric which poked fun of the traditional theatre curtain separating the performers from the audience so seeing it in miniature form was incredible.

Make/Believe is a collaboration between the Society of British Set Designers, V&A museum and Nottingham Trent University. Selected works will go on display at the Prague Quadrennial in June and the V&A from July before going on a nationwide tour in 2016.

The exhibition is showing at Bonington Gallery (Newton Building) until 31st January. Entry is free. 

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In the Shadow of War at Nottingham’s Lakeside Arts Centre

Francis Bacon's Figuure in a Landscape. Credit: Tate

Francis Bacon’s Figuure in a Landscape. Credit: Tate.

Before the explosion of pop art of the 1960s, when the works of David Hockney and Peter Blake heralded a new era of optimism, British art went through a period of deep reflection as the nation began to come to terms with the devastation of the Second World War. This dark period, characterised by grimy industrial landscapes and introspective figures, forms the basis for a beautifully-curated exhibition called In the Shadow of War at Nottingham’s Lakeside Arts Centre.

Featuring an impressive collection of artists, including Frank Auerbach, Francis Bacon, Lucien Freud and Henry Moore, it begins with a series of pieces which highlight how fresh the memory of war was in the 1940s and ‘50s. Auerbach’s Building Site, Victoria Street, London (1959) reminds that the post-War reconstruction was a protracted process. His thickly layered paint creates a viscous feel as if the city is slowly emerging out of the ashes.

Some of the pieces such as Moore’s Falling Warrior (1956-7) references the human cost of war more overtly. It depicts a warrior laying on the ground in defeat which stands in contrast to the idea of the victorious soldier. With its distorted facial features and gaping holes, Eduardo Paolozzi’s bronze statue Shattered Head (1956) evokes the physical and mental anguish of war. Meanwhile, Francis Bacon’s 1945 piece Figure in a Landscape, in which the figure is obscured by a black void, suggests a loss of identity though he is still discernible as a person. Blood-red flowers flicker in the background alluding to death on the battle field, poppies or Nazi uniforms.

Lucien Freud’s portraits – Head of a Girl, Head of a Woman and Portrait of Peter Watson – reveal inward-looking figures who appear to be carrying a heavy burden, although it is impossible to decipher what they are thinking.

The exhibition then moves towards a series of pieces where the connection with war is less obvious but its effects can nevertheless be felt. The pale, vacant faces of L.S. Lowry’s The Funeral Party (1957) references the austerity of the post-War years, while Josef Herman’s Evenfall (1948) is a startling study of a mining village in Wales where life continues despite the hardships people face.

Alongside In the Shadow of War, Lakeside is also hosting a complementary exhibition featuring photographs by Lee Miller. Miller worked with some of the most eminent artists of the early 20th century, including Picasso, Man Ray and Jean Cocteau, she also worked as Vogue’s official photographer during the Second World War. This exhibition features some of the photographs she took during the Allied victory and her images include the liberation of the concentration camps, towns razed to the ground, the suicide of Nazi officials and Hitler’s mountain home in flames.

Looking at these pictures it is almost impossible to believe that Europe was able to rebuild itself following destruction on this scale. Miller’s subjects bear a look of relief but also extreme weariness; you can only imagine how she and the envoys felt as they uncovered the extent of the Nazi atrocities.

The two exhibitions take place ahead of the 70th anniversary of the end of the Second World War next year. Both are free to attend and run until 22nd February.

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Notes on Carol Rama’s exhibition at Nottingham Contemporary

c2A busy summer has meant that I didn’t manage to get to Nottingham Contemporary’s Carol Rama exhibition until Eanna O Ceallchain’s Wednesday walk-through earlier this week. The tour was an exploration of Italian artist Rama’s work, in particular her ideas around formalism and physicality, as well as the literary influence of her friend, the avant-garde writer Edoardo Sanguineti.

The Rama exhibition follows on very neatly from the Contemporary’s previous one, Somewhat Abstract, which examined different degrees of abstraction in art. Rama, who was born in Turin in 1918, experimented with these techniques in the post-War years but it is her bricolage – pieces made using found or everyday objects – which are particularly striking. As Eanna explained during the walk-through, the objects ‘reach out’ towards us, adding a sense of the corporeal to her work. Rama was fascinated by both purely formal ideas, such as mathematical formulae, language, shapes and colour, but she punctuates her pieces with physical and grotesque objects such as glass eyes and animal claws.

Another recurring motif is the use of inner tubes, a reference to her father’s failed bicycle business which precipitated his suicide. They are used in her pieces about so-called Mad Cow Disease in which they represent udders, although in their dismembered state they also resemble other body parts like intestines. The idea of a physical disease such as this breaking down mental faculties and changing the abstract notion of what a person (or animal) is.

Rama’s earlier works are also included in this exhibition. The figurative pastel illustrations, full of whimsical and sexually-charged creatures, are stylistically different to her later work yet many of the themes are present. The autobiographical references, such as her mother’s incarceration in a mental hospital and her uncle’s business of making prosthetic limbs (disembodied parts), also indicate how her early interest in mental illness and body parts would recur again and again.

The exhibition, which runs alongside one featuring the works of Danh Võ, is on until 28th September. Entry is free. 

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Review: Engaging performance on the streets of Nottingham

Jamie Lewis Hadley during the performance (c) Lamar Francois (

Jamie Lewis Hadley during the performance (c) Lamar Francois.

It was Friday night and a large crowd of people had gathered outside Twenty Eight barber’s shop in Hockley. The weekend had just begun and all around us revellers were strolling past, looking for a pub or bar to visit and occasionally stopping to see what was going on.

We were there to watch a show by performance artist Jamie Lewis Hadley called Blood on the Streets. Standing in the window at Twenty Eight, and with a pair of speakers to ensure that he could be heard, Jamie presented a lecture on the beliefs around blood letting through the ages. The window, which was put to good use as a blackboard during the show, also made the metaphorical ‘fourth wall’ of theatre something quite tangible, creating a barrier between the audience. It was almost as if the performer was encased in a glass box like the subject of a science experiment.

During the show we learned some of the facts behind blood letting in the past, such as why people would rather go to a barber’s shop than a doctor (it was cheaper) and how the first blood transfusion was administered. It all culminated in Dr Belinda Fenty taking a pint of blood from Jamie as he continued to deliver his lecture, despite seeming to be slightly uncomfortable at one point. Thanks to the glass window it was possible to see how the various audience reactions, which ranged from mild shock to gruesome fascination and reminded me on how surgical procedures were once seen as a form of entertainment. As a regular blood donor, however, I wasn’t particularly troubled by it – in fact it made me think how sanitised the process now is.

Ultimately, what made this performance so engaging was Jamie’s style. He managed to deliver it as a lecture but he also had the style of a street performer – which is perhaps why he attracted such a large crowd, many of whom were simply intrigued by what was going on.

Blood on the Streets was hosted in Nottingham by Little Wolf Parade. Photo reproduced with kind permission from Lamar Francois.

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There will be blood . . . performance piece set to chart the history of blood letting

Blood letting during the Middle Ages.

Blood letting has been a common medical practice throughout the ages.

We all know the story of Sweeney Todd, the demon barber of Fleet Street who slit his customers’ throats with a razor blade. But throughout history and across different cultures blood letting has been highly prized because many people believed it had healing properties. Now the this ancient belief is the subject of a unique lecture/performance called Blood on the Streets which will take place, appropriately enough, at Twenty Eight barber’s shop on Friday evening.

The piece has been devised by performance artist Jamie Lewis Hadley and Dr Belinda Fenty who will be examining the history of bloodletting as a medical practice, tracing its roots in ancient medicine, the rise of the barber-surgeon and our current understanding of this incredible substance. Through a combination of live text, projected images and re-enactment, the key figures, instruments and often unbelievable techniques will be revealed.

Jamie, who has showcased his work in the UK, USA, Canada, South Africa, France, Lithuania and Croatia, uses his experience as a professional wrestler as a departure point to create live performances based on blood, deterioration, endurance, pain and violence. His current area of research and creative is based the history of bloodletting as a medical practice – and during this performance, he will have a pint of blood extracted from his arm by an experienced doctor.

Blood on the Streets will premiere in Nottingham on 27th June at 7.30pm and is hosted by the city-based performance art group Little Wolf Parade. To obtain your FREE ticket visit this website.


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