Europe’s great palaces have always been stuffed full of art – but usually dusty canvases and sculptures rather than contemporary works. Now this is changing, writes Aindrea Emelife.

What’s the difference between museums and palaces? “Not much,” says the artist Laurence Weiner, as we sit in one of Britain’s greatest buildings, Blenheim Palace, where the artist’s current exhibition Within a Realm of Distance is on display. To him the monumental 18th Century country house is “not so different from places like the Metropolitan Museum of Art or the Guggenheim”.

Among Blenheim’s dusty canvases of royal battles and kings on horseback, Weiner’s pops of bright blue text scream from the walls. Weiner is one of the founding figures of US conceptual art and in theory his upper-case text-based ‘Weinerisms’ should seem at odds with Blenheim’s historical interiors – but it works.

Louis XIV was the first to imagine that the palace must be at the forefront of creativity – Catherine Pigard

This is not Blenheim’s first exhibition of contemporary art. Last year Ai Wei Wei was invited to install his works here, and elsewhere in Europe, historic palaces are opening their doors to contemporary artists. The most headline-grabbing of these exhibitions have been at the Palace of Versailles, outside Paris. Every year, since its inaugural exhibition with Jeff Koons in 2008, Versailles has played host to a retrospective of a leading contemporary artist. Koons reflected the interiors and exteriors of Louis XVI’s palace in his colossal balloon animals; Takashi Murakami paralleled its pomp with Tokyo kawaii-kitsch. This year Anish Kapoor turned Versailles into a sculpture safari by placing his monumental artworks throughout Versailles’ gardens.

“This is after all the precedent in Versailles,” says Catherine Pigard, the palace’s President. “Louis XIV was the first to imagine that the palace must be at the forefront of creativity. He invited the best artists from around the world to make artworks for the palace which began our long history between art and culture.”

Now that we have done away with absolute monarchies, art works in palaces serve a different role

Indeed, royal and papal patronage has favoured artists in the past quite handsomely: Philip IV of Spain appointed Velazquez as his court painter and so kick-started his career, Cardinal Francesco del Monte preserved Caravaggio’s talent whilst he lead a life of vice, and Peter Paul Rubens and Anthony van Dyck must have painted almost every European royal of their time between them.

The motives behind their enthusiasm of the arts speak of calculation and ambition: the royals of the past used these works to elevate their personal power, ensure their legacy and promote their country’s wealth and prestige and forge alliances with other nobles. But now that we have done away with absolute monarchies, art works in palaces serve a different role – less propaganda, more provocation, and with a touch of controversy.

The storming of the palace

It is an exciting thing that you can visit a palace like Versailles, turn the corner from a sculpture of Louis XIV and be met with a gold immortalisation of Michael Jackson by Koons – though not everyone agrees. The opening of Koons’ display was met with protestors arguing for ‘artistic purity’; Dirty Corner, Anish Kapoor’s steel sculpture (nicknamed “the queen’s vagina” by the French press) was repeatedly vandalised with racist graffiti.

“I think that contemporary art can disturb everywhere – not only at Versailles,” says Pigard. “Some people consider that Versailles is so unique and so we should not have to put new things in. It’s a thought I respect. But it is not the same debate as I think people now understand that the past feeds the present and the link is symbolised perfectly in art and culture”.

We are used to seeing the art world’s superstars dominating the white cube space of the world’s greatest museums and in some ways their works seem less threatening in them. The blank canvases of gallery spaces are aimed at creating a neutral environment in which the works can be understood, without the architectural quirks and lavish accoutrements of a stately home.  But the interaction between the work and the setting creates an experiential journey: the context makes us see the works in a new light.

Unfinished business

In Brussels, they have taken to the idea wholeheartedly with a permanent artistic addition to the palace rather than a pop-up controversy. The Royal Palace in Brussels, the previous home of King Leopold, the man who claimed the Congo for his own, has housed disturbing works by Jan Fabre, the ‘enfant terrible of Belgian art’, since 2002. The intention is to leave them in place for centuries to come. In the 19th Century Hall of Mirrors, 1.6 million iridescent green beetles have been affixed to the ceiling by the artist. Heaven of Delight, which from afar looks like a Baroque fresco, is made up of scarabs sourced by entomologists who scoured the restaurants of Malaysia, Thailand, and Indonesia where they are a culinary delicacy. Clustered like emeralds and gems, they fuse the grotesque with grandeur. The work harks back to the dark fairytale fantasies that palaces play host to in the minds of our Disney youth – Maleficent could easily play out in this interior. The piece was commissioned by Belgium’s Queen Paola, the Italian-born wife of King Albert, and so refreshes the legacy of royal patronage.

The ceiling of the Hall of Mirrors in Brussels was left incomplete when King Leopold died before entire project was realised; now Fabre’s jewelled insects have finished the job. Back in Blenheim, the ceiling in the visually impressive Long Library that runs the entire length of the palace, has been emblazoned with Weiner’s text-sculpture installation reading “MORE THAN ENOUGH”, after being left blank for the last 200 years. Contemporary art is filling in the gaps that history forgot.

Contemporary art is filling in the gaps that history forgot

Until recently Versailles, Blenheim and so many of Europe’s great historical houses were more or less frozen in time since the 1900s. Conservators wish to preserve the past but forget to engage with the present: this leaves us with time capsules we can look at and admire, but without feeling or connection. Grand palaces were never meant to be public galleries, but the patronage of the monarchs who lived in them meant the walls were covered in the art treasures of their time – the difference was that they were for the enjoyment of the householder rather than the public. These new endeavours do not seek to forgo the art of the past, but to intermingle it with the present and create new life.

Royal patronage is not dead, it has just evolved beyond being a buttress for talent that uses art as a pawn in a game of propaganda.

The only difference between the royal patrons of a bygone era and the modern day collector is time. We must remember that these buildings are not relics, they are houses too – Blenheim Palace was the birthplace and ancestral home of Winston Churchill and now the bombastic Bronx-born Weiner has made it his conceptual dwelling. Lord Edward Spencer-Churchill founded the Blenheim Art Foundation but he grew up in the palace as well. “There is no clash between historical and contemporary,” he tells me. “It is all contemporary. This was my home and Blenheim Palace is still living.” Indeed it is – I can feel it.

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