Rory Olcayto reviews an exhibition of the treasures of Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire through the eyes of today’s artists
Anything that helps architects kick their Tuscan hill town habit has got to be a good thing. Why should San Gimignano and Sienna trump Nottingham and Derby? They shouldn’t, says the cheekily-named Grand Tour project, a canny art-PR-tourism wheeze promoting the Midlands cultural sector.
The Grand Tour features new art by Pablo Bronstein at both Chatsworth House and Nottingham Contemporary alongside 70 or so works from the Chatsworth collection selected by Bronstein for display in the Caruso St John-designed venue.
This multi-partnered project brings together local attractions, galleries and tourism bodies to provide an ‘experience’, which aims to increase overnight stays in the region by 10 per cent. The Welbeck Estate’s Harley Gallery is another collaborator and plays host to some of Rem Koolhaas’ Venice Biennale Elements of Architecture show, while Derby Museum is profiling Joseph Wright of Derby, the celebrated 18th-century landscape and portrait painter.
We, as a nation, still think there’s more culture to be had when we travel overseas
But the Fantasy Baroque drawings of the Anglo-Argentinian Bronstein are the main attraction, and their dispersal across two venues is the reason for the ‘tour’. They have a strong architectural bent, and casual observers might assume them to be 18th-century originals. Close inspection, however, shows them to be very ‘now’ (and funny too) – one image at Chatsworth has Hawksmoor’s Christ Church at Spitalfields converted into housing. This dissonance, central to Bronstein’s work, might have been more fully explored had it been intermingled with the Rembrandts, Reynolds and Veroneses all around, instead of being crammed into one room.
Still, if you like Bronstein, the visual thrill of his new work at Chatsworth will be enough to carry you onwards to Nottingham. The gallery itself, surely one of the most underrated new buildings in Britain, is also one of the most influential: the scalloped cast concrete facades, the gold-anodised metal, the obvious Brutalist ancestry – these are popular tropes today. But its curatorial ambitions were lost on me. A colossal Roman marble foot transposed from Chatsworth to a windowless gallery should at least have visceral impact. It didn’t. And as much as I liked Bronstein’s panoramic drawings on the walls around it, the same criticism could be made of them. You may think differently. Go and see for yourself. And once you’ve had your way with Bronstein’s drawings, mysterious Nottingham – a city of caves – awaits…
Yet the problem remains: despite Jonathan Meades’ consistent tambourining for off-beat Britain or Owen Hatherley’s skill at making Barrow-in-Furness seem promising as a destination, we, as a nation, still think there’s more culture to be had when we travel overseas. ‘Nottingham? Really? Gerona’s more my bag for weekend breaks.’ For that we can blame the original 18th and 19th-century Grand Tours, when gap-year aristocrats flounced across Europe to establish the prejudices that shape us today.
This Grand Tour at least attempts to redress this deficiency, which is why, regardless of its incongruity – the corridors section of Rem Koolhaas’ (boring) Biennale show, for example, is a hard sell to the uninitiated – and the forced juxtapositions in the Nottingham Contemporary, it deserves any success that comes its merry way. Not only does it encourage us to look closely at places we too often overlook, it provides a sensible model of how galleries and venues across the UK can work together, instead of fighting each other for footfall. That, perhaps, is the real victory here.
The Grand Tour, venues in Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire until 20 September