Cecily Brown’s New Paintings Are Beautifully Sinister Visions of British History
Portrait of Cecily Brown in her studio, 2019. Photo by Tom Lindboe. Courtesy of Blenheim Art Foundation.
Britain’s stately homes have meant a lot of things to Cecily Brown. As a child growing up in suburban Surrey, in the southeast of England, they meant boredom—mandatory school trips and last-resort entertainment on rainy days. The gardens were nice. As a young artist waitressing for a catering company, they meant extravagant weddings and a paycheck.
And now, as one of Britain’s most revered living artists, collected by the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Pompidou in Paris, and the Tate in her native London, they mean work once more: In September, the painter (and eternal auction favorite) opened an exhibition at Blenheim Palace, the Baroque birthplace of Prime Minister Winston Churchill, current home of the 12th Duke and Duchess of Marlborough, and a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Cecily Brown, installation view of Dog Is Life, 2019, in “Cecily Brown at Blenheim Palace,” 2020. Photo by Tom Lindboe. Courtesy of Blenheim Art Foundation.
Following the likes of Jenny Holzer, Ai Weiwei, and Maurizio Cattelan (the last of whom installed an 18-karat gold toilet that was famously stolen from the site in 2019), Brown is the first British artist to participate in the palace’s contemporary art program since it launched in 2014. But whereas most artists before her showed existing works, Brown decided to adopt Blenheim as her muse, producing new site-specific paintings to exhibit in its halls.
“It just seemed so ripe a moment to respond to Blenheim itself,” she said over the phone from her studio in New York, where she’s lived and worked since 1994. “I was kind of intimidated by the idea of showing paintings there because I've never really liked the idea of showing my work with Old Masters, but just the combination of things made me think it would be super exciting.”
Cecily Brown, installation view of Armorial Memorial, 2019, in “Cecily Brown at Blenheim Palace,” 2020. Photo by Tom Lindboe. Courtesy of Blenheim Art Foundation.
Taking inspiration from the palace’s history and the family’s collection of artworks and artifacts, Brown offers a kaleidoscopic interpretation of England and its histories. With her expressionistic melding of the abstract and the figurative, she conjures animals, soldiers, and pastures in oil and gouache. Look long enough, and whole scenes emerge from her layers of vivid color. There’s beauty, but there’s something sinister to it, too. (Brown’s new work is also featured in a solo show at Paula Cooper Gallery in New York this fall, opening October 15th.)
Among the antique furniture, tapestries, porcelain, and Old Masters of Blenheim, Brown inserts bloody scenes of hunting spaniels in verdant woodlands and armorial banners turned psychedelic on linen. The 4th Duke and Duchess are painted and overpainted out of their own family portrait by Joshua Reynolds. The Triumph of Death (2019), a colossal painting standing at almost 18 feet, sees fur-clad elites swilling champagne, oblivious to the destruction that surrounds them. In the sardonically titled There’ll always be an England (2019), the tattered remains of Saint George’s Cross blow through the chaotic suggestion of a battlefield.
Cecily Brown, installation view of The Triumph of Death, 2019, in “Cecily Brown at Blenheim Palace,” 2020. Photo by Tom Lindboe. Courtesy of Blenheim Art Foundation.
“This is reconciling my fantasy of England. There’s a combination of Downton Abbey and my own memories that are mixed with some punk,” Brown explained. “[I’m] thinking harder about what the reality of Britain’s actually been like through my life.”
At this point, Brown has yet to see the exhibition herself, and hasn’t been to Blenheim since last September. Due to COVID-related travel restrictions, she’s been unable to travel, and supervised the installation remotely over daily video calls.
The exhibition comes nearly two years after Michael Frahm, the director of the Blenheim Art Foundation, first approached Brown about showing at the palace, floored by her critically acclaimed 2018 retrospective at Denmark’s Louisiana Museum of Modern Art. (Anders Kold, who curated the Danish exhibition, consulted on this one.) Initially, she recalled, Fraham had wanted to replicate the Louisiana exhibition wholesale.
“At first I was excited at the idea, but I realized straightaway I didn’t want to do that. If I am going to do a show somewhere like Blenheim, I really want to do something very specific, because here’s a chance to really think about what being English means,” she said. “[At Blenheim,] one’s inevitably oppressed by the weight of history and class and colonialism, and more and more aware of the very selective history that’s presented,” she added, pointing to the glorification of war and Churchill.
Indeed, five months after its original opening date (Blenheim postponed the exhibition due to coronavirus), the show feels especially urgent, as activists are increasingly urging institutions to reconsider the use of symbols that glorify unchecked privilege and oppression. In recent months, a monument to Churchill in London’s Parliament’s Square has been repeatedlydefaced with graffiti branding him a racist, and just days before the exhibition’s opening, the U.K. government faced backlash for exempting grouse shooting (a largely upper-class pursuit) from newly enacted social distancing restrictions.
Cecily Brown, installation view of The Calls of the Hunting Horn, 2019, in “Cecily Brown at Blenheim Palace,” 2020. Photo by Tom Lindboe. Courtesy of Blenheim Art Foundation.
Through that lens, stately homes are controversial spaces. Part-time residences and full-time tourist attractions (Historic Houses estimates they generate some £1 billion for the U.K. economy), they’re testaments to privilege, generational wealth, and the nation’s unforgiving class system.
But when the show was conceived, Brown had different concerns. Pre-pandemic, Brexit was the issue making headlines, as the government negotiated its way out of the European Union—a move that had split the country into warring ideological factions, and forced her to question her own relationship with Britain. Though she admits she doesn’t keep up with the British newspapers, she found “sickening” stories of poverty and social disparity increasingly difficult to ignore. That her adopted home was in the middle of an explosive Trump presidency only added to her feelings of ambivalence toward home.
“I can’t really talk about England because it’s been so long since I lived there, but America is a disaster, an embarrassment,” she said. “When America is in this dreadful state, you’re just sort of questioning everything: Why do we live where we live? Is there an alternative? I suppose I’d always in the back of my mind thought, ‘Well, I could always move back to England,’ but then with Brexit, why would you want to do that?”
A vitrine in Blenheim’s Great Hall, filled with sketches, watercolors, and paint-covered print-outs that informed Brown’s new works, demonstrates both a nuanced reflection on the nation’s past and her own upbringing. (“I have this sort of idyllic version of my childhood in the green and pleasant lands, and yet, it was actually a pretty dreadful time in lots of ways, politically,” she was quick to note.) Stills from The Beatles’s animated Yellow Submarine film sit with Victorian fairy paintings by Richard Dadd (“There’s nothing more trippy than Richard Dadd”); illustrations from children’s authors Racey Helps and Marilyn Nickson, who share her fondness for woodland creatures; and photos of objects found in the palace, snapped on her phone during a site visit. There are hunt scenes by the 17th-century Flemish painter Frans Snyders and images of Daffy Duck, bill blown askew by Elmer Fudd. Walking through the exhibition, then, becomes a game of spotting the references and drawing connections.
Cecily Brown, installation view of Armorial Memento, Floored, 2020, in “Cecily Brown at Blenheim Palace,” 2020. Photo by Tom Lindboe. Courtesy of Blenheim Art Foundation.
Borrowing from the house’s largely subdued color palette, and riffing on the familiar themes has meant that Brown’s paintings (and one tasteful handwoven rug, her first textile work) seem surprisingly at home among the works on show.
“I was looking at one of the paintings in one of the installation shots of the Hunt after Frans Snyders (2019), surrounded by Old Masters on the wall. This guy looks like he’s sort of gesturing towards it, and another is looking down [on it]. There’s a kind of conversation going on,” she observed.
Cecily Brown, installation view of Hunt with Nature Morte and Blenheim Spaniel, 2019, in “Cecily Brown at Blenheim Palace,” 2020. Photo by Tom Lindboe. Courtesy of Blenheim Art Foundation.
“I wanted to make sure not to just do paintings that looked like they could have [fit in] there in that they look like they’re from the past,” Brown said. She hopes her works will bring the site into conversation with the present. “Sometimes contemporary work might sort of do something jarring that actually helps make other things look more alive, too.”
For all of its faults, Brown retains an indelible fondness for the fantasy of England that shines through. Until now, she’s travelled back home to visit her “enormous” family at least twice a year, and has become ravenous in her consumption of imported British culture.
“I always get teased by my husband because I want to watch anything English. One has a sort of longing. You know the green is greener on TV, [but] anything with a British accent I’m like, ‘Let's watch this!’” she said with a laugh, pointing to her love of Downton Abbey. “Your standards gradually lower over the years, so you’re watching any shit.”
“It’d be incredibly hard for a middle-class girl from Surrey to end up in a stately home… But then I think art belongs with other art, so while I might not belong there as a person, my work can.”
There’s one particularly special, blink-and-you-miss-it details to look out for. In the Green Drawing Room, a framed childhood photo of Brown on horseback has been inconspicuously added to a display of the current Duke’s family photos, a subtle infiltration among the grandeur.
Correction: A previous version of this article misstated that Cecily Brown is a Turner Prize winner.