Alice Godwin is a writer, researcher, and editor living in London. An art history graduate from the University of Oxford and Courtauld Institute of Art, Alice joined Gagosian in summer 2018.
Among the cultivated gardens of Derbyshire’s iconic Chatsworth House, the ancient seat of the Dukes of Devonshire, is an enchanted grotto. This cavern, surrounded by autumnal blossoms, overlooks a pond where fish were once bred. Inside, past heavy boulders and dripping stalactites, lies a sculpture of a female figure by Rachel Feinstein. Standing triumphant, the woman is covered in a dazzling mosaic of color that shines from within the gloomy interior, luminous through the darkness.
Feinstein discovered the grotto during one of her first visits to Chatsworth as Gucci’s inaugural artist in residence at the estate in early 2018, catching a glimpse of the entrance through the mist as if on the wild moors of Heathcliff and Cathy. Later, after falling asleep in the comfort of Chatsworth’s tremendous frescoed sitting room, Feinstein woke with the thought that perhaps she had been dreaming.
Fairy tales, myths, and stories of magical forests and sleeping princesses are the foundation of Feinstein’s work, which focuses on the construction of fantasies and illusion. For this reason, the tragic history of Duchess Georgiana, the wife of the 5th Duke of Devonshire, who built Chatsworth’s grotto in the late 1790s, sparked her curiosity. As Feinstein related in a recent conversation, she was entranced by Georgiana’s political activism and by her flirtations with other women, which led to a scandalous polyamorous relationship between the Duchess, the Duke, and Lady Elizabeth Foster, affectionately known as Bess. As a mother, Feinstein was struck by the accounts of Georgiana’s adulterous affair with Charles Grey and the illegitimate child she bore in exile in France, banished there as punishment for her transgression. Georgiana was so fearful of dying in childbirth that she wrote to the young son she had left behind in England in her own blood, expressing outpourings of love. When the baby was born without complications, Georgiana was forced to give up the infant daughter to her lover’s family, a prospect that Feinstein finds unbearably heart-wrenching.
During her residency at Chatsworth, Feinstein worked from the idyllic Swiss Cottage on the grounds, dining each night with the current Duke and Duchess of Devonshire at the main house. The dreamlike quality of this existence, together with her solitary state, apart from her husband, John Currin, and their children, brings to mind fairy-tale heroines like Sleeping Beauty, lying slumbering under a spell in her castle. Feinstein embodied her own version of this princess in 1994, when she slept in a gingerbread house at a New York gallery overnight. The concept of “happily ever after” and what shadowy secrets might lurk below continues to fascinate Feinstein and to affect her sculptural practice. With Sleeping Beauty, for example, Feinstein discovered that all is not as it seems: the original tale tells the story of a princess falling into an enchanted sleep and becoming impregnated by her prince, before being awakened not by the kiss of true love, but by the new life of her child. Feinstein explores this notion of a concealing façade through the duality between her sculptures’ perfect, gleaming surfaces and their hidden interiors.
The concept of “happily ever after” and what shadowy secrets might lurk below continues to fascinate Feinstein and to affect her sculptural practice.
As Feinstein considered what might come from her time at Chatsworth, she found herself in the galleries of the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, absorbed by cabinets lined with curiosities. Among a selection of eighteenth-century figurines, a small character called Britannia caught Feinstein’s attention. The Roman personification of the British Isles, the figure was clad in armor, dressed in a helmet and swaths of vibrant material, and positioned atop a scrolled Rococo base beside a watchful lion. Feinstein’s life-size incarnation of Britannia looks closely to this porcelain figurine, taking inspiration from its flushed cheeks and kaleidoscopic clothes, the shield clasped lightly in the figure’s left hand, and its flamboyant base.
The idea of a colorful life-size sculpture for Chatsworth crystalized when Gucci photographer Samuel Keyte took pictures of Feinstein inside Duchess Georgiana’s grotto. Hoping to use the images as a means to gauge the scale of Britannia, Feinstein was captivated by the sight of the rainbow of tones in the Gucci dress she was wearing in the photographs and knew that her sculpture had to possess the same vitality.
For Feinstein, the subject of color is riddled with oddities. A lively palette, she explains, is often associated with the gaudy and the kitsch. Over centuries, the pure white marble of classical Greek and Roman statues has come to connote high taste, when these sculptures were in fact extraordinarily colorful at the time they were made. Feinstein challenges the reputation bestowed upon color through the false narrative of Western art history by covering Britannia in a cacophony of crimson, cerulean, purple, and orange.
Rendered in glazed majolica, Feinstein’s Britannia was created at the famous Nymphenburg Porcelain Manufactory in Munich, where the artist has worked on several projects, including her pedestals for Frieze Sculpture 2018 in London, inspired by the commedia dell’arte figures modeled for Nymphenburg by Franz Anton Bustelli in the eighteenth century. The grand traditions of the manufactory and its role in the annals of the royal courts of Europe have drawn Feinstein to Bavaria over and again, each visit cementing her awareness of her own position in history and feeding her captivation with the Rococo and the Baroque. Much like the Chatsworth collection, which traces the lineage of the Dukes of Devonshire back to the sixteenth century in its remarkable array of family portraits and treasures, Feinstein acknowledges the artists who have come before her by collaborating with Nymphenburg and harnessing the historical medium of majolica.
The embodiment of the British Isles, the figure of Britannia at Chatsworth House also represents the ideals of womanhood in her strength, agency, and beauty. Feinstein was astonished by Britannia’s serene expression as she came to life at Nymphenburg—a stark contrast to the sculptures inspired by Victoria’s Secret models she had created for her debut exhibition with Gagosian, held in Beverly Hills in 2018. Quite unlike the grotesque and erotic “Angels,” Britannia seems at peace, like a Grecian kore or an idol for worship. Yet it was during the preparation for her Secrets show with Gagosian that Feinstein had the idea to create a full-scale female figure in majolica that could be placed outside.
This residency for the inaugural Gucci Places initiative continues a partnership that began in 2015, when Feinstein was invited to participate in the exhibition No Longer/Not Yet at the Minsheng Art Museum in Shanghai by Gucci’s creative director, Alessandro Michele. It was far from the first time she had strayed into the world of fashion: Feinstein modeled between the ages of fourteen and twenty, and has been the muse of designers including Tom Ford and Marc Jacobs. For Feinstein, fashion and art are intricately connected. She argues that perhaps they are the only art forms that can still resonate with a society controlled by an addiction to screens and the need for instant stimulation. Feinstein and Michele share this appreciation for a close relationship between fashion and art, as well as a passion for the Old Masters and a fear that artists and designers alike are not willing to look back to the past enough.
As Feinstein prepares for her first major institutional exhibition, at the Jewish Museum in New York in fall 2019, she finds herself inevitably looking back on her career and on her childhood, spent in Florida during the 1970s and 1980s. With a sense of nostalgia, Feinstein thinks on the strange fantasy of Miami at that time—a place devoid of cultural experience, where Southern rock and Gloria Estefan dominated the radio waves and teenagers would sneak into Disney World at night. She considers how different a life spent at Chatsworth, like that of the Duchess Georgiana, might have been.
Unless otherwise noted, photos: Samuel Keyte, courtesy Gucci