Situated some 7 miles North of Oxford, Blenheim Palace was built in the early 18th century, and has enchanted an endless number of visitors ever since. The beautiful day certainly helped, as I enjoyed the breathtaking palace and its vast gardens basking in a lovely September sun. However, more importantly, during my visit I had the pleasure to see the exhibition ‘Michelangelo Pistoletto at Blenheim Palace’, which I found incredibly inspiring.
Blenheim Palace, View of the lake
Blenheim Palace is famous for being the birthplace of Sir Winston Churchill. In its beautiful interiors, the palace showcases an impressive collection of objects that belonged to Churchill, from his baby vest to his slippers, to the paintings he painted throughout his life. Memorable events that took place at Blenheim also include his wedding proposal to his future wife Clementine Hozier. As well his private life, the Churchill exhibition describes the eventful first decades of the 20th century and Churchill’s public role in them: the beginning of WWI, his appointment as Prime Minister, his famous speeches. Wandering around the palace, one is transported into a wold of history, where political events and personal facts have the same importance.
This in itself would be enough to make Blenheim Palace a remarkable place. What made the luxurious estate even more interesting was the modern art exhibition running in its interior. Organised by the Blenheim Art Foundation, the display features over fifty works by Michelangelo Pistoletto, scattered across the palace as well as its scenic gardens and terraces. This is not the first time the Foundation attempts to juxtapose ancient and modern, as artists Ai Weiwei and Laurence Weiner had already peacefully invaded the space with their works in the past. The decision to mix old and new, heritage and modernity is to my mind a successful one (albeit not appreciated by all visitors). In the words of Lord Edward Spencer-Churchill, founder of the Blenheim Art Foundation: ‘Mixing time, like mixing friends, makes for much more interesting discourse and debate’. The contemporary displays at Blenheim are admirable, as they breathe new life into rooms filled with antiquities and historical artworks, only to enhance their beauty. Incidentally, this summer a dialogue between ancient and modern also took place at Versailles, where Olafur Eliasson set up an astonishing set of installations.
As well as laudable as a cultural enterprise per se, this exhibition in particular works extremely well in the context of Blenheim Palace. Michelangelo Pistoletto’s artistic production spans from the late 1960s to the present day, and comprises a huge variety of themes and subjects. Pistoletto is famous for being one of the founders of Arte Povera (‘poor art’), the artistic movement responding to (and going against) Pop Art. A substantial part of his works, such as his famous ‘Venere degli stracci’ (1967-2016), on the one hand denounce the culture of mass-production and consumerism in which we live, while on the other they long for the purity classical art.
Michelangelo Pistoletto, ‘Venere degli stracci’ (1967-2016)
Other works of his have more overtly political tones, such as ‘Trombe del giudizio’ (1968-86) or ‘Il fascio della tela’ (1980). Born in 1933, Pistoletto lived through the years of Fascisim, which are often referred to in his art. I was impressed by ‘Trombe del giudizio’ because, in their sleek, bright beauty, they actually allude to the loudspeakers installed in Rome that would broadcast the Duce’s speeches. The apparent beauty of the trumpets thus uncovers the years of brainwashing and censorship that Italy underwent during Mussolini’s rule.
One final set of works have a philosophical resonance, in particular ‘Terzo Paradiso’ (2003-16), ‘C’è Dio? Sì ci sono!’ (2016) and ‘Senza titolo’ (1992) – the last being perhaps my favourite. ‘Senza titolo’ consists of two plies of rags, a multi-coloured one and a white one, symmetrically separated by a mirror. The work stands for diversity vs. homogeneity, and I read it as a two different ways of seeing life. On the one hand, there are people for whom everything needs to fit in their canons, and things are only ‘good’ when they are uniform, predictable, monochromatic. On the other hand are those for whom life is beautiful precisely in its diverse and variegated nature, which can at times be unsettling, but all the more exciting precisely for this. To the first category belongs the lady who, after seeing ‘Senza titolo’ labeled it ‘a distraction’. She was not expecting to find contemporary art at Blenheim, and the fact that the rooms were peppered with bizarre, ultra-modern installations was not at all a good thing for her. I feel that the world is full of people who look at contemporary art feeling they ‘cannot get it’, or worse ‘there is nothing there to get’, while in fact beauty, meaning, pleasure and new ideas all feature in several modern artworks, including those exhibited at Blenheim. From questioning the existence of God to reflecting on the status of contemporary art, Pistoletto proves a resourceful, sharp artist, whose work is imbued with the meaning and history of the 20th century.
Michelangelo Pistoletto, ‘Senza titolo’ (1992)
One final word should be said on why I enjoyed his exhibition so much. Seeing his works displayed in a standard gallery would have been exciting enough, but the setting of Blenheim Palace added an extra layer. In fact, I thought it proved the best place to exhibit his artistic production: Pistoletto’s sculptures and installations have a great deal to share with the 18th-century palace. First of all, they are both rich in shapes, curves, and surprising elements. Tricky as it might be, the adjective ‘Baroque’ well describes the rooms and furniture of the palace as much as Pistoletto’s art. Secondly, the palace and the modern artworks shared their nature as objects: portraits of important noblemen were displayed in front of Pistoletto’s ‘Mica Paintings’ (1967); gilded tables side by side with his upside down furniture in ‘Mobili capovolti’ (1976); his ‘Venere degli stracci’ right next to actual Neoclassical statues. The echoes and references multiplied like in a house of mirrors, in an exercise of semiotics which I thought absolutely brilliant. Finally, the overall message of Pistoletto’s art, in particular of his Arte Povera, clashes (in a productive way I think) with the wealthy setting of the palace. Deliberately aimed at opening our eyes on our materialistic society, his pieces of Arte Povera are exhibited in an extremely rich estate. In ‘Mirage’ (2016), the roof of a gold car timidly popped up from the fountain in the gorgeous Upper Water Terraces, and hinted precisely at this paradox, displaying (and criticising?) luxury in the most luxurious place you can imagine. The dimension of self-irony central to Pistoletto’s work, is all the more enhanced by the exhibition venue. Which is why ‘Michelangelo Pistoletto at Blenheim Palace’ is a remarkable display in every possible way.
Michelangelo Pistoletto, ‘Miraggio’ (2016)