From Rags to Riches

There's a car in the fountain and a pile of rags in the chapel at Blenheim Palace. Lucinda Bredin talks contemporary art with Edward Spencer-Churchill

You might think some things never change: the sun will come up, the UK will have its place at the world's top table and the stately homes of England will continue to express the power and the glory throughout our "green and pleasant land". 

Well, that's the theory. But looking at the reaction of a group of the Cream Tea Brigade who have just walked into the Green Drawing Room at Blenheim Palace, the world's been turned upside down – or at least the furniture. In the middle of the salon, usually celebrated for its portrait of the 4th Duke of Marlborough, there's the unlikely sight of a bed, table and chairs tipped over onto their backs, each piece with a mirror on its base reflecting the surrounding room. 


Venus of the Rags (2003-2016) by Michelangelo Pistoletto. Photography Tom Lindboe. Courtesy of the Blenheim Art Foundation

As far as the CTB are concerned, it gets worse. There are oversized brass trumpets in the Red Drawing Room, a vast bundle of wooden sticks in the First State Room and a plaster cast of Venus against a pile of rags in the chapel (the chapel!). There is no let up either when it comes to eating one of those cream teas. From Blenheim's café, which overlooks the glorious upper water terraces, they can see a gold VW Polo submerged in the fountain. You can only feel a bit sorry for them... they had come to be marinated in Downton Abbey-style nostalgia, not Art. 

This was the opening day of the exhibition Michelangelo Pistoletto at Blenheim Palace. One of the foremost exponents of the Italian Arte Povera movement, Pistoletto's work has, during the course of his 50-year career, explored the politics of consumerism, the rewriting of history and provided a commentary on nothing less than the fate of mankind. He makes a point of using waste materials when he creates his work to draw attention to the disregarded and the marginal. Many pieces are challenging – Does God Exist? Yes I Do!, first made in 1978 and then adapted for this show, is a child-like scribble across a board propped up in Blenheim's Third State Room. 
The effect is that Pistoletto makes us all into gods. Or none of us. 

In the Long Library, the most spectacular of Blenheim's rooms, Pistoletto has filled its length with huge mirrors on to which he has painted representations of people. By their very nature, the mirrors reflect the viewer, thus engaging the audience with the artwork, and making them a part of it. Pistoletto calls it "a self-portrait of the world". As the son of an icon restorer, he sees it as a vehicle for turning Everyman into an iconic figure. 


Mirror Paintings (2003-2016) by Michelangelo Pistoletto. Photography Tom Lindboe. Courtesy of the Blenheim Art Foundation

What would John Churchill, 1st Duke of Marlborough, make of it? Blenheim Palace, one of Britain's most famous stately homes, was a gift of the grateful Queen Anne in honour of Churchill's astonishing victory in 1704 over the French in the War of the Spanish Succession. The munificence took the form of a ruined royal manor house and £240,000 (about £37m in today's money). The newly ennobled Marlborough took the opportunity to hire John Vanbrugh to create a Baroque masterpiece. It was here, 170 years later, that another saviour of the nation, Winston Churchill, son of Lord Randolph, the third son of the 7th Duke Marlborough, was born in 1874. 

Since 1950, the public has been allowed to visit the house, which is laden with tapestries, frescos, sculptures, a china cabinet featuring Sèvres and Meissen, and a museum-quality collection of portraits by artists such as Joshua Reynolds, John Singer Sargent and Peter Lely. But, in 2014, Lord Edward Spencer-Churchill decided to shake things up. Edward, the son of the 11th Duke and half-brother of the present incumbent, grew up at Blenheim but always felt he wanted to add to the experience of visiting the house. As he says, "I was brought up here which was an amazing privilege, but it is slightly like being in a museum. ... Actually, forget the 'slightly'; it is like being in a museum. And while I'd always appreciated the beauty of the art we have here, it had never grabbed me in a deeply emotional sense." 

We are standing in the Great Hall, below Pistoletto's symbol for his manifesto The Third Paradise, two circles intertwined with a large central one. It's quite a statement and, hanging from the rotunda, makes its presence felt as a framing device for the ceiling painting by James Thornhill. Spencer-Churchill, 40, with a nice line in self-deprecation – he asks me to edit out his "awful plummy accent" – is clearly anxious to know what people think of the latest show. In 2014, he unveiled the Blenheim Art Foundation with the express purpose of placing contemporary art in Blenheim Palace and the grounds. The inspiration came, he says, from an "astonishing" house he saw in Paris. "It was a private 19th-century mansion in the 7th arrondissement and it opened my eyes to the idea of mixing Old Masters with modern art. I also became acutely aware that if you are going to do it, you have to do it properly. So it took me quite a lot of time to put the process together...". 


Third Paradise (2003-2016) by Michelangelo Pistoletto.Photography Tom Lindboe. Courtesy of the Blenheim Art Foundation

As part of that process, Spencer-Churchill brought on board art advisor and collector Michael Frahm as the Director of the Foundation. Their first show together was Ai Weiwei, no less – a real coup, and brave considering it was, at that time, the most extensive UK exhibition of the Chinese artist's work. The show was widely acclaimed. This was followed in 2015 by an exhibition of the conceptual artist Lawrence Weiner, whose work consists of strips of text. Weiner's work clearly has staying power: one of the pieces is still on the wall of the Long Library. 

And now we have Michelangelo Pistoletto. When I catch up with the artist on the steps of Blenheim, he is delighted with how the show looks, even if it was "a long journey". The one new work, Mirage (aka the gold car in the fountain), has been particularly successful in his opinion. "The day I came here, I saw the fountain and I had a vision for the work. And it has been precisely realised. A mirage is something that doesn't exist, but paradoxically it now does. But then I think art is always a mirage."

It is interesting that each of the three artists who have been given the opportunity to set their works in Blenheim's state rooms are overtly political, and that none of them, so far, have been British. 

I ask if there's been any reaction from either the audience or Spencer-Churchill's family. "Everyone has been very supportive," he says firmly. Michael Frahm, however, says he has encountered a few visitors who find the art "disrespectful". How do they express this? Send letters in green ink? "They sign the visitors' book, 'Great tea, hate the art.' Some people are shocked by the installations. 

And I can understand it. But most people find they engage with the works and have a dialogue with it. It would be a boring conversation if everyone thought the same."

Apart from Ai Weiwei – whose celebrity has made him into a brand – these aren't particularly easy artists for the general public to engage with. In fact, they seem almost designed to cause maximum froth for the core audience. Spencer-Churchill disagrees. "I think we've too readily accepted an art apartheid, in which post-1900 art is shown in an entirely different way from anything that preceded it. And that to me is intellectually baffling – and poor decision-making on everyone's part." He does concede, however, that he can understand how things have come to such a pretty pass. "There is such a divide between those who visit historic houses. There's the Cakes and Cream Tea Brigade, who are Blenheim's bread and butter and the great defenders of our heritage and cultural identity. Then there's what you might call the Metropolitan Urban Elite, who slightly reject England's past and want to focus on the contemporary and the future. I can understand why people hated the elitism that preceded 1900 and the lack of opportunities offered at that time, but I don't think art plays a role in that. Art should be presented as a continuum. You can't have a present without a past."

Guest article provided by Lucinda Bredin who is Editor of the Bonhams Magazine.

The exhibition Michelangelo Pistoletto at Blenheim Palace runs at Blenheim Palace, Woodstock, Oxfordshire, until 31 December 2016.

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This article has been compiled using information available to us up to 14/12/16