Cecily Brown brings apocalypse UK to pomp of Blenheim

Amid all the pomp, splendour and tradition at one of Britain’s most spectacular grand houses there is now noticeable division, despair and death.

There is the odd bluebird in the new paintings of Cecily Brown but less heading towards us with optimism and more being torn to shreds.

Blenheim Palace in Oxfordshire, the birthplace of Winston Churchill, on Thursday opened a coronavirus-delayed exhibition of paintings, many of which explore a broken Britain.

Brown, considered by many as the outstanding painter of the YBA generation, is British but has lived in New York for 26 years. She said she might be in “exile” but still loved the country of her birth, which she described as “a tiny island that is still culturally huge”.

“I thought about an idealised vision of England and the contradiction between that and the reality of a nation in turmoil. Blenheim Palace seems the perfect situation in which to display images of a broken country, conflicted about its future and its place in the world.”

A woman looks at the The Hound with the Horses’ Hooves in Blenheim Palace.
A woman looks at the The Hound with the Horses’ Hooves in Blenheim Palace. Photograph: Alicia Canter/The Guardian

Brown follows artists including Ai Weiwei, Michelangelo Pistoletto and Jenny Holzer in having a solo show at Blenheim. The last exhibition was by Maurizio Cattelan who displayed a solid 18-carat gold toilet, which made headlines globally after it was stolen within three days of going on show.

The toilet has still not been recovered, said Michael Frahm, the director of Blenheim Art Foundation. “Every year there are different challenges but I didn’t see that one coming,” he said. Fortunately Cattalan “has a good sense of humour”.

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Frahm said the Brown show was the first one the foundation had commissioned from a contemporary painter.

“Blenheim, for each of the artists who have been here, is quite a daunting task,” he said. “For a painter I think it is even more challenging because you are putting yourself into a place where you already have a lot of great works and paintings by masters. It definitely is not easy, but I think Cecily has really found a beautiful balance by inserting herself in to the fabric, but also making some very bold statements.”

In total Brown has made 24 new paintings, five drawings, two monotypes and a large rug. They have been installed in Blenheim’s grand rooms among the palace’s cabinets of Sévres porcelain, historic furniture and paintings by artists including Van Dyck and Reynolds.

The exhibition includes Brown’s largest ever work, consisting of four panels that together measure 5.36 sq metres, titled The Triumph of Death. It was inspired by a 14th-century Italian fresco in a church in Palermo, Sicily, and shows a horseman of the apocalypse riding over slaughtered bodies. In one corner are aristocratic ladies in fur coats drinking champagne, apparently oblivious to the carnage.

When she made the painting she was thinking of a nation in turmoil but pre-pandemic. Now it takes on a new prescience.

“It just feels so timely,” said Anders Kold, who curated Brown’s big survey show at the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art in Denmark in 2018. “It is the old theme of the wheel of life … the folly of man. Everything has its time.”

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Another work, titled Dog is Life, in the Green Writing Room, takes its name from a 1988 track by the Fall.

A number of the paintings are hunting scenes, which Brown, with a style that is a mix of figurative and abstract, depicts in all their bloody horror – a contrast to the more bucolic way it is displayed in the palace’s historic works.

Frahm hopes the show will create a dialogue. “Not everyone will agree with her viewpoints but that’s fine. If everyone agrees with what we are doing then we’re not doing it right.”



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