Installation view of “Cecily Brown at Blenheim Palace”, Blenheim Palace, 2020.
Photograph by Tom Lindboe. Courtesy of Blenheim Art Foundation.
As an English artist in ‘exile’ in New York, Brown explores her own nostalgia for England but also addresses the political realities of nationalism, through her signature anarchic pop culture references. Inspired by all aspects of the palace history, her paintings draw on heraldry, the courtly genre of ‘the hunt’ and the family portraits themselves. While we are more traditionally accustomed to seeing Brown’s work in a ‘White Cube’ setting, the curation of Brown’s paintings within an eclectic manor house challenges the viewer. As the artist herself states “…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.” There is a sense of a treasure hunt for her works, which emerge in surprising places: in the porcelain cabinet room, the Sèvres and Meissen cabinets are infiltrated with realistic drawings of erotic scenes and fairies. Blink and you could miss the Armorial Memorial paintings, which hang at the same height as the banners in the great hall.
Whilst chandeliers and sculptures make the viewing experience of Brown’s paintings more difficult, her paintings also deliberately stand in the way of the grand old masters in the collection. Her painting The Children of the Fourth Duke stands in front of its source material by Sir Joshua Reynolds The 4th Duke of Marlborough and his Family (1777-78). Brown has employed a new technique here: printing the image of Reynold’s picture onto her canvas and then painting over it. She has deliberately erased the Duke and given prominence instead to Lady Caroline, who was the eldest daughter and a painter herself. Brown brings to light the female painter in Blenheim’s history and both obstructs and erases the work of the male Old Master painter as if to say ‘I’m here now, look at me instead’.
As a viewing experience, the exhibition has its strengths and weaknesses. The rooms that work best are those with more space to appreciate her paintings, such as The Great Hall and the Long Library. However, the smaller rooms make for quite a stressful viewing experience, especially the staterooms where you are restricted to standing behind a rope barrier in a narrow corridor, and the combination of old and new becomes almost overwhelming. Arguably there is more cohesion in the rooms where her paintings are put against more muted tapestries, which offer less resistance to the busy and bold painterly works. The final painting in the exhibition, Brown’s Triumph of Death, does not fail to impress. It is the largest painting she has ever created and the exhibition was the first time all four panels were assembled as one. Drawing from the original fresco in the Galleria Abatellis in Palermo, Sicily, Brown blurs the composition, plays with the colour scheme, and inserts her own characters inspired by Blenheim and British history. The size of the painting overpowers the viewer and it is hard to take it all in: in Palermo there is a viewing platform that permits visitors to appreciate the work in its full majesty, while in the Long Library you cannot get far enough away from Brown's painting.
As a return to England for Cecily Brown, albeit not physically due to the travel restrictions, this exhibition was an opportunity for the artist to infiltrate the Palace with her vibrant body of work. However, there is an aggressive battle between the Blenheim Collection and Brown’s paintings. The artist took over the house in an almost gleeful 'horror vacui’ (fear of empty space) making it ultimately too much visually for me to take in. While I acknowledge the innovative escape from the white cube setting in the curation of this show, I wish I could have experienced her work separately to the tapestries and artworks from the Palace and vice versa.