Cecily Brown at Blenheim Palace

Rare are the successful contemporary presentations in Baroque environments. Running until 3rd January 2021, Cecily Brown’s exhibition at Blenheim Palace doesn’t disappoint.

Blenheim Palace is the home of the 12th Duke and Duchess of Marlborough and the birthplace of Sir Winston Churchill. Brown’s display follows previous presentations of works by Yves Klein, Lawrence Weiner, and Michelangelo Pistoletto.

Showcasing over thirty never-seen-before site-specific energetic paintings dotted across the stunning architecture and furniture (China Ante Room for example), Blenheim Palace gave carte blanche to an artist who blends the human and natural form with scattered-yet-cohesive examinations of Romanticism, themes related to flesh and disaster.

Raised in suburban Surrey, England, Brown studied under painter Maggi Hambling before attending art college. Her graduation from the Slade School of Fine Art in the early 1990s coincided with the rise of the Young British Artists but she never shared the group’s conceptual focus, ironic stance, and embrace of celebrity culture.

The exhibition opens with the Vitrine, which provides insights into the artist’s process and inspirations. These images range from objects within the Palace itself to hunting scenes and Victorian fair paintings. “I chose traditional subjects like the hunt, the kind of genre painting associated with old country houses, because I want visitors to do a double-take, to think for a second that my work belongs there, but then to see that it’s a slightly distorted vision of the world depicted around them.” Brown said.

Inspired by the magnificent woven Marlborough tapestries that ornate the State Rooms and the stunning imagery from the 1st Duke of Marlborough’s armorial banner, highlights include Brown’s first-ever textile work, a woven rug with a design originating from one of her new Armorial Memento paintings, also on view.

During her first visit to Blenheim, Brown encountered a copy of Sir Joshua Reynolds’ The 4th Duke of Marlborough and his Family (1777-8) in the Red Drawing Room, painted by the 4th Duke’s eldest daughter Lady Caroline herself. Brown here by reinterprets this masterpiece and injects her own gestural style and vibrant palette with The Children of the Fourth Duke, a printed image on the canvas of the original, painted by the artist into it, a technique she used in the Armorial Memento paintings.

The exhibition culminates with The Triumph of Death, a monumental four-part painting inspired by Palazzo Abatellis’s eponymous and anonymous masterpiece from 1446. This impressive contemporary revisitation was assembled at Blenheim for the first time and features Brown’s own set of dark themes and characters inspired by Britain’s past. An allegory to Britain’s current place in history, the work explores ideas of nostalgia, death and apocalypse.

“This is a moment of turmoil, for Britain as for the rest of the world. It was compelling to play within the walls of a place like Blenheim, which gives the perspective of passing time: you go through bad patches, but hopefully come out the other side.” Brown continues.

Brown’s intelligence is evident through the critical spirit with which she approached the grand location that hosts her paintings, British history and the themes explored in this new body of work. Using the past to express fatalism on the present is the artist’s genius.

Images: views of the exhibition. Photograph by Tom Lindboe. Courtesy of Blenheim Art Foundation.