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Issue 224

Pablo Bronstein’s Pleasantly Hellish Visions

At Sir John Soane’s Museum, London, the artist’s depictions of the excesses of consumerism and empire are all-too seductive

BY Cal Revely-Calder in Exhibition Reviews , UK Reviews | 20 OCT 21

Hell has always been elaborate – an elaboration of rumours that ossified as beliefs. There aren’t many scriptural references to it, and even those few are opaque. Christ compares Hell to Gehenna, a valley outside Jerusalem where the citizens burned their rubbish; he did not believe in souls being tortured for eternity. We owe the images of perpetuity – the violent in a river of blood, the lustful flung on the wind – to Dante Alighieri’s Commedia (The Divine Comedy, 1321), which took Thomas Aquinas’s conception of the justice of eternal damnation and fused it with classical myths and gleeful imaginative depth. But, even so, there is no canonical picture of Hell.

Pablo Bronstein, Flight, 2020-21. All images courtesy: the artist and Sir John Soane's Museum, London

The latest artist to add to the gallery is Pablo Bronstein, with ‘Hell in its Heyday’, an exhibition at Sir John Soane’s Museum in London, which comprises 22 watercolours and a 30-minute film (all 2020–21). He draws Hell as an infernal city of vast horizontal and vertical scale, a surreal panorama of embellishment and excess. We gaze on pâtisseries as tall as cathedrals; a monstrous lobster on a silver plate; a civic hall of ludicrous size, crowned with a statue of Lucifer. Industrialisation and consumerism (or so the show contends) have led to injustice and decadence, objectified here in a grab-bag of fascistic and colonial styles. In one picture is the Volkshalle that Albert Speer never built; in another is a cinema with the faded pomp of Buenos Aires, where the artist was born in the 1970s.

Pablo Bronstein, Botanical Gardens, 2020-21

This city seems to be largely pleasurable, enjoying its heyday. There are outdoor pools in the palest of blues and a nightclub for ‘swells in evening dress’. Most of the tableaux are as flashy and harmless as an aristocratic dream. And few ordinary people are visible, much less on the allegorical rack. No sign of the occupants of the cars on the motorways in Casino and Hotel, nor of the passengers in the aircraft in Flight, which fairies are ripping apart for sport – a rare bout of violence, if apparently whimsical. Elsewhere, Hell is easy, like your life on holiday. In Botanical Garden, a solitary woman is strolling with a pram, below three giant swans surreally intertwined at the neck; in Resort and Poolscape, male harlequins moon over a female in a bathing-suit. The film stars ‘a group of diabolical antique-dealers performing a masked ballet’.

Pablo Bronstein, Resort and Poolscape, 2020-21

This gives ‘Hell in its Heyday’ an ambivalence that pulls against what it depicts. Whereas the concept of Hell is ideological – in what you reap, we see what you sowed – Bronstein’s pictures are unsure of how much criticism they want to make. Their visual ironies are often pat – look how dirty fossil-fuels are mined in gaudy trucks – and there’s neither scarcity on the surface nor evident suffering underneath. The text that accompanies Car Plant, in which gilded machines are at endless work, compares those tools to waiters scurrying around an haut-bourgeois cafe. But they’re robots, not human beings; the same appears to be true in the nearby mines and oilfields. If all the gains here are to be read as ill-gotten, the ills can’t be invisible: disgust may contain fascination, but Hell is defined by rigorous judgement, not mercy on appreciative grounds. Bronstein has only redrawn – surreally, even gaily – the world we already know. This show will lead you into temptation, then deliver you from guilt.

Pablo Bronstein's 'Hell in its Heyday' is on view at Sir John Soane’s Museum, London, until 02 Jan 2022.

Main image: Pablo Bronstein, Coal Mines (detail), 2020-21

Cal Revely-Calder is a writer and editor from London, UK. He works on the arts desk at The Telegraph. In 2017, he won the Frieze Writers’ Prize.