BY Charlie Fox in Features | 12 AUG 14
Featured in
Issue 165

Magnificent Obsession

Time-travelling with Pablo Bronstein

BY Charlie Fox in Features | 12 AUG 14

Perusing the many fantastical catalogues of work by the artist Pablo Bronstein is like wandering punch-drunk through the dreams of an eccentric 18th-century aristocrat. You might find an illustration of a grinning crocodile with a gilded keyhole set into the jags of its back, extravagant designs for marble fireplaces representing ‘famous scenes from Handel’s Alcina (1735)’, the interiors of unreal museums and imaginary buildings, drawn with marvellous exactitude. A promiscuously inventive British artist, Bronstein makes work that sprawls across many fields – including sculpture, drawing and performance – and refers to a whole circus of peculiar passions to make an oeuvre of singular, knowing pleasure.

Bronstein maintains a magnificent obsession with the aesthetics of the 18th century,especially its theatrical spectacles and the accomplished frivolity of its architecture. Far from producing some slavish rendition of its history, the artist puckishly explores the era’s masquerades and fantasies, providing a playfully recondite account of its imagination. Ballet has always twirled through his work and he is just as intoxicated by its dreamy range of décor and costume as he is by the pageantry of the dancers. He likes to beguile you with possible histories, conjuring tableaux that seem authentic but emerge from sly confabulation; elsewhere, it appears the reverse is true.

Dramatic Unveiling of Monument to Peter the Great in Moscow, 1997, 2014, ink and watercolour on paper in artist’s frame, 1.3 × 1.5 m. All images courtesy the artist, Herald St, London, and Galleria Franco Noero, Turin

While many of us still wrestle with old-fashioned angst over the thought of treating pleasure as the engine of art, Bronstein seems to have triumphed over it about ten years ago. Dionysiac, Apollonian, whatever – an artist confessing that they draw from their own ‘index of delight’ when making art can be considered as decadent as a Turkish prince gamboling through a hall of mirrors – a role Bronstein played in his performance piece Constantinople Kaleidoscope in 2012. Yet, there’s nothing inherently modish or obviously insignificant about Bronstein’s fascination for World of Interiors magazine, the surreal topographic infelicities of 18th-century maps, plumes of smoke, Jorge Luis Borges, Rabbit’s Moon (1950) by Kenneth Anger, door-frames, rococo filigree or Federico Fellini’s Satyricon (1969). Pleasure can so often surface as something inscrutable or lifeless, suddenly cast in aspic, but Bronstein has turned it into an elegant world, richly allusive and full of strange seductions.

Through the murk of a wet summer evening in east London, I walked to Bronstein’s show, ‘Recent History’, at Herald St, wishing I were in an architectural print where there’s usually no discernible weather at all. Many of Bronstein’s drawings foster a mood of delicate eeriness that comes from not knowing precisely where you are. That feeling sneaks in again when I stumble off the street into the gallery and find its walls upholstered in green velvet like the drawing room of a dissolute countess. Arranged against this opulent backdrop are scenes that might have come from the archives of a perverse Parisian salon.

Theatre Section with Stage Design for an Oliver Cromwell Ballet, 2014, ink and watercolour on paper in artist’s frame, 102 × 142 × 4 cm

Revolutionary history turns gleefully camp in the watercolour Theatre Section with Stage Design for an Oliver Cromwell Ballet (2014). (According to Bronstein, there was such a production staged by an Italian company sometime in the 1600s. It was, of course, a farce.) Cromwell the danseur is pictured onstage as a delicate nymph in full Puritan costume, his stance charmingly croisé, a cane held jauntily in one hand in the style of Fred Astaire and the bloody severed head of Charles I gripped in the other. The deadpan juxtaposition of balletic festivity, regicidal gore and a figure so cold-hearted he scorned Christmas celebrations is madly funny but so carefully drawn it seems utterly plausible. An odd collection of details adds to its strangeness. The backdrop shows a narrow avenue of trees receding into the distance, as if Cromwell, fancy-free, had run off to a suburb of pre-revolutionary Paris. The stage is framed by a delightful system of staircases and shadowy passages that suggest the secret life of the theatre. Perhaps some magical compression means that more is hidden than is seen. The whole piece comes to resemble a Felliniesque fantasia of feinting artifice and gaudy attractions. The surrounding frame is part of the game, too. Bronstein buys them for lowly sums at auctions; weathered or gilded, slender or with rococo swirls, they perform around the edges of the pictures, making them seem older by their presence, but then – look closely! – the ink still gleams. 

The contents of another watercolour are compressed within its title: Scene from the Commedia: Pierrot bores Columbine with a detailed description of an elaborate doorframe. Meanwhile Harlequin has sex with a servant upstairs (2014). The commedia is, of course, a reference to the commedia dell’arte, the masked Italian comic theatre popular from the 16th to 18th centuries and another of Bronstein’s obsessions. Pierrot, the sad clown, always falls for the beautiful Columbine – Bronstein depicts her lounging moodily with a parasol like a silent movie star – who spurns him for the devilish Harlequin. In this retelling, your eyes drift past the ornate little carousel above the doorframe to find, in a high window, a rumpled bedspread, two legs in white stockings thrown out like errant exclamation marks and the pink shape of Harlequin’s arse mid-thrust. The whole scene is matter-of-fact but full of subtle mirth as Bronstein embellishes the commedia with personal fancies. The thought of lovesick Pierrot attempting to woo his beloved with scholarly knowledge of doors is especially inspired – a self-portrait hidden inside a non sequitur – the original commedia, a suggestive but strict medium, would never allow such flagrant antics in the bedroom. The spooky blankness of the building recalls the description of the house made by the foppish versions of Tweedledum and Tweedledee in Peter Greenaway’s baroque murder mystery The Draughtsman’s Contract (1982): ‘It looks as though it might be attached by the sky.’ (You might happily go mad recording the many symmetries between Bronstein’s work and the films of that chilly sensualist.)

Erecting of the Paternoster Square Column, 2008, ink and pencil on paper in artist’s frame, 2.2 × 1.5 m

No scholar of the commedia has yet unearthed a text that commingles erotic high jinks and architectural minutiae like this: it’s very much Bronstein’s métier. In his drawing Erecting of the Paternoster Square Column (2008), he sends a piece of London architecture built 11 years previously into a looking-glass past, transforming it into an exuberantly phallic folly contained in a frame from the 1650s. You could gaze at these drawings for hours, exploring their playful oscillations between the unspeakably grand and feverishly small. Bronstein often conceals one inside the other. My eyes ache from trying to keep in focus the intricate ornamentation above a certain archway in Large Building with Courtyard (2005), which is made doubly difficult by the rivalry between the array of other decorative felicities – the needle-thin statues are exquisite – and the blank expanse of roof that dominates most of the building. Sometimes it seems as if these drawings might be accomplished through a careful process of subterfuge or by succumbing to a fabulous breed of madness. I wish Bronstein would adapt Gustave Flaubert’s Salammbô (1862). One of the artist’s favourite books, it’s a fantasia on occult life in ancient Carthage, full of descriptions of dazzling objects and decadent ceremonies. Like Flaubert, Bronstein is a hallucinatory miniaturist, capable of performing vertiginous switches between scale and detail. For a passage exemplary of Salammbô’s delirious art, look no further than the description of a battle which includes ‘elephants with all their tusks gilded, their ears painted blue, armoured in bronze, and with leather towers shaking about on top of the scarlet caparisons with three archers in each holding great open bows’. Bronstein’s taste for such disorientating pageantry is balanced by a dandyish fascination for neglected areas of aesthetics. His book Ornamental Designs for the Framing of Doors (2008) contains a funereal procession of doorways surrounded by many kinds of decoration – my favourite is the plush lining that suggests a luxurious padded cell. With the japing pomposity that characterizes much of his writing, Bronstein claims in its preface that these drawings comprise ‘a set of self-portraits’.

When I visit the artist’s home in Deal, a small seaside town in Kent, the sun is a flaming bauble in the sky. Our conversation orbits around his obsessions in an erratic fashion, shifting wildly at the mention of this or that passing fancy, which, before long, becomes the subject of its own disquisition. Soon, he’s regaling me with an ad hoc history of domestic candlelight, paying special attention to how many candles it might take to light a small room – ‘an enormous number’ – before trashing the sumptuous but disinfected past captured in Stanley Kubrick’s film Barry Lyndon (1975), the interiors of which were famously lit by nothing but candles. He tells me that French actor and director Jean Marais, queer heartthrob and longtime lover of Jean Cocteau, was voted ‘the sexiest man in the world’ for 25 years by a certain Japanese publication, though, sadly, he couldn’t recall its name. A chronic bibliophile, Bronstein shows off catalogues on décor from the 1730s and a monograph of interiors by the designer Madeline Castaing, including the bathroom of her house in which she permitted mould to slowly creep across the wall like an exotic flower. In his living room, above the spinet – which I mistook, to my shame, for an antique piano – there’s a pair of prints by François de Cuvilliés, the 18th-century Belgian decorative designer, architect and dwarf responsible for importing rococo to Central Europe. Bronstein later writes to tell me that Cuvilliés designed the Amalienburg, the hunting lodge in the grounds of Bavaria’s Nymphenburg Palace, noting also that the ‘frilly’ interiors in Alain Resnais’s film Last Year in Marienbad (1961) were by Cuvilliés, and that its star, Delphine Seyrig, ‘has her freakout looking at an alcove’. Rarefied knowledge and idiosyncratic taste possess a special lustre for him, which is subsumed into his pieces, lending them their discreet strangeness. Compulsive allusion, artfully concealed, is one of Bronstein’s tricks. You can detect a shadow, perhaps, from a film by Cocteau, or a feather curiously like those in prints by the 18th-century draughtsman and architect, Jean-Jacques Lequeu, but the whole of each enigma feels somehow like his own invention.

House of a Washerwoman, 2014, ink and watercolour on paper in artist’s frame, 84 × 72 × 6 cm

In his book Postmodern Architecture in London (2008), Bronstein’s drawings and descriptions transform the capital into a gothic wasteland containing buildings that are at once incarnations of ruinous grandeur and creepily reminiscent of dollhouses left to fester in an attic. Inked in spidery lines, the drawings look as if Giovanni Piranesi has illustrated Edgar Allen Poe’s short story ‘The Fall of the House of Usher’ (1839). The accompanying text finds Bronstein waggishly assuming the tone of an architectural historian – possibly monocled, decidedly in tweed – and treating the objects of his enquiry with a mixture of disdain and fascination. The Cascades housing block – built in east London’s Isle of Dogs in 1988 by the architectural firm CZWG – looks bizarre, like the palace in a dystopian fairytale. In the description Bronstein writes, as if explaining a mystery: ‘This building was highly prized at the time by a new class of financiers known as Yuppies.’

I suspect that Bronstein is sympathetic to the kitsch outlandishness of its architecture,which comes from a juxtaposition of the sinister and tasteless, ‘a fantasy on the theme of 1930s nautical engineering’ that dreams of expressing ‘jazz-age frivolity’. This refraction of London through the artist’s mind obliquely makes for a critique of contemporary architecture and its dismal lack of aesthetic adventure, even as it seems like an impish sequel to Borges’s Book of Imaginary Beings (1969). The Book of Postmodern Architecture in London closes in a disorientating montage with ‘An ABC of Postmodern Detail’, capturing arcades, balconies, cornices and so on in monochrome snapshots, as if Bronstein were location-scouting for an epic film about contemporary ennui.

Bronstein is knowledgeable about such things having grown up in Neasden, a glum suburb of northwest London. But its dullness made it quite accommodating to him. Anyone who’s lived in suburbia knows that it can seem, in retrospect, oddly seductive. Its climate of unwavering boredom can encourage the imagination, allowing the adolescent mind to fill with peculiar dreams. For Bronstein, his long phase of suburban inertia was crucial in forming the fanciful character of his work, which remains conspicuously remote from much else in contemporary art. Cut off from many sorts of excitement, suburbia becomes the space where you can, as Bronstein says, ‘invent yourself on a rainy Saturday afternoon’, a magical act that’s difficult to accomplish in adulthood. The artists Bronstein prizes most are those who maintain a childlike, hallucinatory attachment to their obsessions. A certain immovable contingent still insists on calling them ‘outsider’ artists. A splenetic corrective should be issued against this, not least because the outsider’s typical state is one of profound inwardness: waves of the imagination are spun into a private world so dense it comes to replace whatever exists beyond. It’s rare for them to explore anything outside their own minds. Bronstein especially likes those artists who shamelessly broadcast their psychopathology. Look at the bewildering work of Achilles Rizzoli, a Californian draughtsman who portrayed those he loved, or those who obsessed him, as Baroque confections in grandiose architectural sketches like Mother Symbolically Recaptured / The Kathedral (1937) or Shirley’s Temple (1939), which are crammed with concupiscent domes and phallic spires. Lequeu spent most of his life in 18th-century France drawing whimsical imaginary architecture for a book that was never published. 

Enlightenment Discourse on the Origins of Architecture, 2014, performance documentation at REDCAT, Los Angeles

Such figures are often treated as objects of ghoulish fascination but, for Bronstein, they provide heroic examples of the ‘minor artist’, disconnected from whatever commotions surround them and fixated on the mythic histories they’ve dreamt up. Rizzoli’s work, for instance, maps out an empire of kitsch madness and remains a tutor par excellence in camp aesthetics. Whilst we’re poring over a book on Lequeu, Bronstein exclaims: ‘You’re speaking to a minor artist!’

Many of the artists Bronstein admires were schooled in art but indifferent to fashion and allowed their work to explore the outwardly inconsequential or bizarre. There are all sorts of thrills and provocations to be found when an artist goes beyond the tasteful towards the perverse, or shuns what appears ‘serious’ in favour of decorative splendour. The refusal to behave according to the rules and to pursue, instead, brazen self-indulgence, secret meanings or non sequiturs can lead to wondrous things. Following these examples, Bronstein wishes to ‘push at the limits of what you can say in a picture’. By way of further explanation, he quotes a maxim from choreographer George Balanchine: ‘There are no mothers-in-law in ballet’. His rule is meant to stress that his art should glide merrily above our humdrum world or else wreck the sense of fantasy. (And how exactly would you dance the role of mother-in-law?) But Bronstein’s work revels in the pleasure of breaking these rules, throwing forgotten incongruities and wild fictions into the well-ordered world of history. This spirit of provocation appears in whatever Bronstein makes. To prove that no rule is as cast-iron as it might seem, let’s add that one of the most successful productions Balanchine ever choreographed was a ballet for the Ringling Brothers & Barnum Circus, Circus Polka (1942): it was scored by Igor Stravinsky and had a cast of ‘50 beautiful girls and 50 elephants’.

Pablo Bronstein lives in Deal, UK. This year, he has had solo shows at Herald Street, London, UK, and Redcat, Los Angeles, USA. His work is in the Folkestone Triennial, UK, until 2 November. In 2015, he will have solo shows at Nottingham Contemporary, UK, and Chatsworth House, UK; and in Italy at the Museo Marino Marini, Florence, and Franco Noero, Turin.

Charlie Fox is a writer who lives in London, UK. His book of essays, This Young Monster (2017), is published by Fitzcarraldo Editions.