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Issue 215

Cecily Brown: Broken-Down Glory at Blenheim Palace

Amongst the family portraits and Sèvres porcelain, the artist’s newly commissioned paintings reflect on a broken Britain


BY Aindrea Emelife in Reviews , UK Reviews | 05 OCT 20

Blenheim Palace is awfully pretty: rose gardens, gilt writing sets, rosy-cheeked family portraits with sprightly springer spaniels. But, look up and you’ll soon notice that the cabinets of Sèvres porcelain are interrupted by surprisingly lascivious scenes. At every juncture, colourful messages appear hidden in plain sight.

For Blenheim Palace Foundation’s first show of newly commissioned painting, British-born, US-based artist Cecily Brown has produced a body of work that offers a poignant visualization of society in crisis. Known for referencing the rich history of European and American art, Brown here fictionalizes then abstracts her memories of Britain to create a synergy of idealization and critique.

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Cecily Brown, Armorial Memorial, 2019, installation view at Blenheim Palace. Courtesy: the artist and Blenheim Art Foundation; photograph: Tom Lindboe

Fortified by the heraldry and stately pride of the Great Hall’s Corinthian capitals and a commanding 18th-century ceiling fresco by James Thornhill, Brown’s Armorial Memorial paintings (2019) mischievously pluck these emblems of dominion and pulverize them into chaotic fragmentation. ‘I found the armorial banner so compelling,’ Brown tells me, ‘so steeped in a fucked-up history, and what it represents in terms of a Britain of the past. I wanted my version to be a broken-down version of this glorious symbol.’

There is a similar air of sabotage in Brown’s family portraits. Her The Children of the Fourth Duke (2019) references one of the most famous works in the collection: Joshua Reynolds’s Fourth Duke of Marlborough and His Family (1777–78). Brown leans in, as we do, to observe this wholesome scene of young children playing with their family pets under the watchful gaze of their parents, before loosening up the composition in her own interpretation to reveal a gloom in the air between each brush stroke, allowing its beauty to fade away.

Cecily Brown, Dog Is Life, 2019, installation view at Blenheim Palace. Courtesy: the artist and Blenheim Art Foundation; photograph: Tom Lindboe

Tradition, here, is sent up in smoke and the works can be seen as a call-to-action against what Brown described as a ‘broken England’, adding: ‘My idealized fantasy of England is completely unrelated to reality, especially the reality of Britain today.’ Layered with sardonic mockery, Brown’s political articulations directly abut the palace’s traditional interpretations. For instance, her hunting paintings, such as Hunt With Nature Morte and Blenheim Spaniel (2019), have blood in their midst, with animal body parts tossed aside and fragments of bone buried between impastoed flecks of white. There may be one or two too many variations on this theme, but then I am reminded of the artist’s early, turbulent scenes of animals such as Untitled (Bunny Gang Rape) (1996) – it seems to be a longstanding interest. Elsewhere, There’ll Always Be an England (2019) – a defiled St. George’s Cross lying in the dirt – hangs in the same room as a set of tapestries that depict French troops surrendering to John Churchill, 1st Duke of Marlborough, as they lay their standard at his feet.

Armorial Memento, Floored (2020), Brown’s first textile piece, is a particular triumph: abstraction abstracted further as brushstrokes transform into bold geometric arcs of visceral colour. For centuries, tapestries were the primary decorative form for palaces, surpassing paintings and other artworks in status and expense. Brown’s critique of the romantic fantasies surrounding stately homes and British heritage in the popular imagination is at its most poignant here, in all its psychedelic, cartoonish whimsy. I just wish there were more of it.

Cecily Brown, Armorial Memento, Floored, 2020, installation view at Blenheim Palace. Courtesy: the artist and Blenheim Art Foundation; photograph: Tom Lindboe

The show’s concluding work, The Triumph of Death (2020), is a gargantuan, four-panel painting, based on a 15th-century fresco in Palermo, featuring a harrowing skeletal horse, with Death astride, charging through a crowd of figures pilfered from centuries of Churchill family portraits. The ever-present spaniels make an appearance, as does the palace itself. Merciless, Death storms through the landscape causing carnage while blithely unaware aristocrats sip cocktails. Sound familiar? Yet, Brown’s critique is far from a cheap shot at her host’s expense. Rather, she shows us the human cost of glory, softening the veil of nostalgia in a time of immense change.

Main image: Cecily Brown, Hunt with Nature Morte and Blenheim Spaniel, 2019, installation view at Blenheim Palace. Courtesy: the artist and Blenheim Art Foundation; photograph: Tom Lindboe

‘Cecily Brown at Blenheim Palace’ is on view at Blenheim Palace, Woodstock, until 3 January 2021. 

Aindrea Emelife is an art critic, curator and presenter based in London, UK