The Old Guard's New Art: The Commissions Reinvigorating Historic Houses

The Old Guard's New Art: The Commissions Reinvigorating Historic Houses

Three invitations for contemporary artists to create site-specific works in historical homes cast heritage in a new light this summer, says Amah-Rose Abrams
Three invitations for contemporary artists to create site-specific works in historical homes cast heritage in a new light this summer, says Amah-Rose Abrams

H istory and how we research and present the past has gone through a significant reckoning in recent decades; historical houses and palaces, symbols of power, have become vehicles for this reflection. As many have engaged public audiences with programmes of contemporary art, conversations are sparked by the positioning of new, site-specific work amid these homes and their collections – chiming with the cultural sphere’s self-examinations.

Ceramic artist Magdalene Odundo. Courtesy of the Gardiner Museum

This summer, three exhibitions of contemporary work show the ways in which traditional residences – whether still private homes or transformed into public museums – commission and present art in dialogue with cultural and social heritage.

Few institutions have been as transformed by a contemporary art programme as Florence’s Palazzo Strozzi, a Renaissance palace and seat of the Strozzi family until 1937. The programme, spearheaded by a cultural foundation established for the building in 2006, has been credited with making the palace one of the country’s most popular contemporary art locations, although it once served as a symbol of the Strozzi family’s defiance against the rival power of the Medicis.

This spring, the institution opened the exhibition Fallen Angels by German artist Anselm Kiefer – an admirer of the palace since first visiting in the 1960s. An exhibition of diverse works is presented alongside a large, specially commissioned painting that occupies the central colonnaded courtyard. “We use what we have: our palace, our building… [and] we invite artists to respond to it,” says Arturo Galansino, general director of the Fondazione Palazzo Strozzi and curator of Fallen Angels. Galansino believes artists should not treat historic palaces as monuments or vitrines, and instead “be engaged by the past”.

In giving artists agency in how they respond to the setting, the resulting commissions can have surprising outcomes. “No one had ever suggested having a painting in the courtyard before,” says Galansino. Kiefer, he adds, welcomed the idea that the work would be exposed to the elements, transforming over time.

“In giving artists agency in how they respond to the setting, the resulting commissions can have surprising outcomes”
– Arturo Galansino, General Director of the Fondazione Palazzo Strozzi

The painting in question, Engelssturz (Fall of the Angel), 2022–23, depicts the Archangel Michael in flight against a golden sky, driving rebellious angels out of heaven into a tumultuous ravine below. Expressive of Kiefer’s longstanding interest in myth and history, its narrative theme of ruination nods to the political turmoil and decline that beset the Strozzis in Florence. The work complements the majesty of the courtyard space and recalls ambitiously scaled, gold-leafed Renaissance works of religious art, often commissioned by influential families.

In the English county of Norfolk, Houghton Hall was built in the 1720s for Prime Minister Robert Walpole – and is now lived in by his direct descendent, David Cholmondeley, 7th Marquess of Cholmondeley, and his wife Rose. Since 2000, Cholmondeley has commissioned contemporary art for the grounds, turning it into a sculpture park, and organised installations throughout both the house and the park.

Eva Jospin’s largescale embroidery, Chambre de Soie (A Room of One’s Own), 2021. Credit: Camille Lemonnier

“Our aim is to bring something of our time into a historic setting – whether as a temporary ‘intervention’ (as in an exhibition), or more permanent site-specific works,” he explains. “Not in competition or opposition, but in a symbiotic relationship to the house, its landscape and history.”

“When planning any exhibition, it is so important to consider the history of the place,” says the ceramic artist Magdalene Odundo, who is the focus of an exhibition at Houghton this summer. “Houghton Hall has always had all forms of art and artefacts around the house. Understanding the house, the art, the objects and the family has been crucial. This gave me, hopefully, the perspective to intervene and place my own work with its own story in an interesting juxtaposition.”

The exhibition enters into a dialogue with Houghton’s 18th-century state rooms, designed in decorative neoclassical detail by English architect William Kent. The family’s collection throughout the rooms includes paintings by Salvator Rosa, Artemisia Gentileschi, William Hogarth and Thomas Gainsborough, as well as Roman marble busts, 17th-century Mortlake tapestries and Sèvres porcelain.

Odundo’s exhibition features pieces from across her three decades of making, including eight new works conceived for the show, and a large ceramic sculpture produced following a residency at traditional English porcelain manufacturer Wedgwood in Stoke-on-Trent.

The Palace of Versaille’s Orangery, where Eva Jospin’s largescale embroidery, Chambre de Soie (A Room of One’s Own), 2021, will be on display this summer. Credit: Thomas Garnier

The intricately detailed piece – created using historic Wedgwood moulds – responds to Odundo’s research into company founder Josiah Wedgwood and his role in the 18th-century abolitionist movement. Its surface decoration depicts scenes and legacies of slavery as well as contemporary political protest. At Houghton, it prompts connections between Walpole and Wedgwood’s politics and influence (Walpole’s son, Horace, voted against the abolition of the slave trade).

Also on display is Odundo’s ongoing work Metamorphosis and Transformation, a 28-part installation made up of a series of blown-glass vessels, which draws on narratives of migration. “I am looking forward to Metamorphosis and Transformation morphing and transforming in the space [of Houghton Hall],” she says. “The nature of the piece is that it retains its layered narrative.”

“The sculpture reclaims the female gaze in a male-dominated landscape”

The Palace of Versailles, an opulent monument to King Louis XIV, has also attracted attention for its contemporary art installations in recent years. This June, a tapestry by French artist Eva Jospin will be unveiled in the 17th-century Orangery, housing a central gallery more than 150m long. Chambre de Soie (A Room of One’s Own), 2021, promises to echo the heady grandeur of the setting, and weaves into the history of fabric at Versailles: Louis was pivotal in the rise of France’s textile industry, banning imports in order to centre and expand French craft. During his reign, he commissioned and collected thousands of lavish tapestries for the palace, holding the art in higher regard than painting.

Jospin’s 105m-long embroidery work depicts an abstracted landscape scene in silk, cotton and jute, and was initially inspired by the embroidery room of the Palazzo Colonna in Rome, which is decorated with 17th-century gold and silk tapestries. For the installation of her delicate but monumental work at Versailles, Jospin has added a new panel, taking inspiration from the groves of the palace’s gardens, particularly Apollo’s Baths Grove.

Erika Verzutti’s site-specific work Naked Venus, 2024, at the Compton Verney Sculpture Park, a new addition to its permanent collection. Credit: Compton Verney, photo by Jami

These are not the only site-specific contemporary works in historic homes this summer. In the UK, Compton Verney in Warwickshire – an 18th-century home transformed into a gallery by the Sir Peter Moores Foundation – has opened a sculpture park. Alongside works by Louise Bourgeois, Sarah Lucas and Larry Achiampong, a sculpture by Brazilian artist Erika Verzutti has been commissioned to sit by a lake in the Lancelot “Capability” Brown-designed grounds. Naked Venus, 2024, forms part of Verzutti’s series based on the ancient sculpture of the Venus of Willendorf; positioned at Compton Verney, it aims to reclaim the female gaze in what can be seen as a male-dominated landscape.

By engaging with the complex histories of how some of these institutions came to be, inviting in contemporary artists to create responsive work has allowed a tradition of cultural patronage to continue through the lens of today’s thinking. The exhibitions also bring in new audiences, opening up what have been considered closed or exclusionary environments to a wider public – to the benefit of both.

Cover image: Anselm Kiefer’s Engelssturz (Fall of the Angel), 2022–23, responds to the central courtyard of Palazzo Strozzi, Florence. Credit: Okno Studio

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