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.