Above: Cecily Brown, The Vitrine (2019) and Armorial Memorial (2019). Installation view of ‘Cecily Brown at Blenheim Palace’, the Great Hall, Blenheim Palace, 2020. Photograph by Tom Lindboe. Courtesy of Blenheim Art Foundation.
Blenheim Palace’s history is a rich and colourful one – a reflection of its 12 generations of occupants dating back to 1705 and the birthplace of Winston Churchill. Yet little can prepare you for the sheer vastness of the estate. Its grounds and rolling hills reach the horizon, and the baroque-styled palace reveals itself in parts as if hiding its grandeur for fear of overwhelming. One walks about the demesne simultaneously in a sense of awe and slight intimidation. If ever you’ve tackled the Louvre in a day, you’ll understand the feeling.
The palace itself, designed by John Vanbrugh and completed in 1722, was intended for John Churchill, the 1st Duke of Marlborough, as a reward from Queen Anne for his military successes during the War of the Spanish Succession (1701 - 1714). The Duke’s victories culminated in the Battle of Blenheim in 1704, hence the palace’s name. For cinephiles amongst us, a select part of the building’s history is depicted in Yorgos Lanthimos’ 2018 film, The Favourite – although a factually inaccurate film, its historical brushstrokes are there regardless.
Beyond its architectural and landscaped splendour with its rotation of seasonal delights for adults and families alike, the palace’s Art Foundation hosts an annual artist commission. In ordinary years, the exhibition is held over the summer months, but this year, the exhibition opened in the autumn instead – and is due to steadfastly remain well into the winter season.
This year, British-born and US-based artist Cecily Brown (b. 1969) stepped up to the challenge of reconciling her work with the Palace and its history. Brown’s work in this space is a visual essay of memory, representation, and nostalgia, each holding space as the visitor navigates the cloistered hush of the palace’s countless salons and chambers.
The commission is the first of its kind in more ways than one. Brown is the first pure contemporary painter, and the first to display an exclusively new body of work in response to the appointment. Blenheim Art Foundation, established in 2014, is not new to exhibiting firsts nor to courting controversy. Cecily Brown follows in the footsteps of artists such as Ai Weiwei (b.1957), Jenny Holzer (b.1950), and Yves Klein (1928 – 1962), and Maurizio Cattelan (b. 1960, whose infamous 18K gold sculpture, America (2016), is still to be found at Blenheim). These exhibitions are often provocative both in thought and in audience reaction, intended to challenge the status quo, much to the delight of the palace’s accommodating and dedicated guides.
Brown’s focus is Great Britain and the England she knew before moving to New York City 25 years ago. Nonetheless, as with all of us who leave our natal shores, Brown has continued to watch the island, even if from afar. Since 2016, however, she’s witnessed it tumble and trundle through significant socio-political changes. Now, upon the dawn of a new year as we awaken with new hope but also the very real bleary-eyed Brexit hangover and a pandemic most alive and raging still, Cecily Brown asks: What is home?
As a form of answer, this exhibition is her ‘Albion’; her understanding of it, her place within it, and her role as an observer. We walk with her in this quest, our own questions arising, niggling, and interrupting the surrounding decorative luxe as we are guided by Michael Frahm and Anders Kold’s curatorial touch.
Cecily Brown’s paintings are gestural, visceral evocations of her mind and thought using oil paint as her preferred language. Her work evidently pulls influence from that of the Great Masters, but it is decidedly, formatively hers. Sponge-like, the artist consciously and subconsciously absorbs media, references, and details that ultimately end up on the canvas like a controlled cacophony of glimpses and brushstrokes, making us look deeper into the piece, drawn inwards but reflexively recoiling as our own distorted memories bubble and simmer, bringing up questions we thought long-buried - or did not want to ask again.
Brown’s Blenheim collection is the synthesis of this process as we come face-to-face with it, at the start of the exhibition in the palace’s Great Chamber, in the shape of a long vitrine full of Brown’s source material. It ranges from the bucolic to the absurd, showing A4 printouts of nature morte paintings, Punch cartoons, and Looney Tunes hunt scenes. All the while, framed high above, are her first completed pieces of the exhibition, the Armorial Memorial quartet (2019). The paintings stand as silent sentinels marked in molten and warped heraldry, guarding the entrance and Brown’s revised history of this martial hall. It is an ironic and daring turn on the Marlborough heraldic standard, foreshadowing the tone for Brown’s resolute analysis to come.
Her works hang amidst countless portraits, tapestries, and antiques, but testament to the artist and the curators, the pieces disguise themselves in plain sight, only to leap out and offer moments of pause and reflection where a carefully narrated history of Blenheim palace and British aristocracy would otherwise stand. Using painting, Cecily Brown lends herself most organically to the palace’s environment. Here, accompanied by Singer Sargents, Snyders, and Knellers, Cecily Brown makes the palace her uncomfortable bedfellow.
If Brown’s colour palette recalls the nostalgia of Beano and Dandy comics of British childhoods, her context is far less forgiving, and lands with a weighty thud of realisation. At the heart of the message of her work lies a longing for Britain of yore (There’ll be bluebirds, 2019) but a recognition of the hypocrisy that has cosily made this island’s upper echelons its home (Dog is Life, 2019; The Children of the Fourth Duke, 2019; Battles were meant to be painted, 2019).
Her message culminates in her behemoth piece, The Triumph of Death (2019), where we encounter a summation of Brown’s painterly journey in the Long Library. We see a stage set with protagonists in each of the piece’s four corners. Bucolic England takes the upper third with revellers draped in fox furs fondling lapdogs and toasting champagne in the lower quarter. Meanwhile, Death takes the spotlight arm aloft, relentless upon its skeletal horse, trailing behind it a path smeared, trodden shades of red: red of soldiers of Blenheim, of Ypres fields, and of hunt carcasses. The horseman fast approaches the lavish merrymakers, all blissfully ignorant of imminent carnage charging mercilessly ahead.
Brown’s work is meditative and affecting. It presents a prime environment allowing for one’s own reflections to emerge along this journey, seeped in surrounding history, but intermittently brought back to the present by each of the works. Brown’s creation has been prolific, amassing 24 paintings, 5 drawings, 2 monotypes, and a rug specifically for this exhibition.
When the palace was built, the European Union did not exist and the United States was but a British colony. But what can be said of our Great Britain in the 21st century? How has it changed, and what is its new direction?
As we greet 2021, after what can only be described as a sorrowful and harrowing year for most of us, Cecily Brown leaves these questions at our door. She has explored her part and expressed it with stern compassion in this beautiful, intimate collection.
The poet and writer, Rainer Maria Rilke said “perhaps, creating something is nothing but an act of profound remembrance”. Perhaps Cicely Brown and Blenheim Palace are granting us the space and freedom in which to remember our history, recognise our past, and choose to do better in our futures - something to hold onto for the new year.
A mere 15-minute drive from Oxford, this UNESCO World Heritage site is within easy reach and largely accessible. The scenic view of the Great Courtyard and building is at its best seen from the north-eastern side of the grounds.
The palace with its 200 rooms occupies approximately 7 acres of land, meticulously landscaped so as to be enjoyed at its absolute finest by all discerning visitors. There is something for everyone and of all ages - from playful, hidden ‘mice’ trails around the palace for children to find, to a comfortable restaurant and other spots to entertain your taste buds. The palace also hosts plenty of open-air events - from light shows in winter to al fresco cinema evenings in the summer. It’s guaranteed there will be something here for you.
A £28 ticket grants adult entry to the palace, exhibitions, and grounds. There are concessions too, and the website explains the pricing system well. The box office line is also very helpful.
At the time of print, the whole of England is once again in full lockdown. The irony isn’t lost on us either. The palace, however, has accommodated its access to follow government guidelines and has moved talks and tours online every Wednesday evening at a reasonably priced £5 a ticket.
Finally, a note of praise to Blenheim Palace’s wonderful staff. They are simply superb and by far some of the most helpful and friendly folk I’ve had the pleasure of encountering. All are extremely knowledgeable, and will happily reel off facts and anecdotes as if they have witnessed themselves the palace’s 400-year history. Please do say hello to them, I promise you will not be disappointed.
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An adland veteran, Beatriz is currently transitioning to the cultural sector and studying for her PGCert in Museums & Galleries Entrepreneurship at Goldsmiths (London, UK). Her particular areas of interest are in museum partnerships and co-creations, and exploring ways in which to better the visitor experience from a perspective of accessibility and interpretation.
You can find her on Twitter, and LinkedIn talking about art, innovation, and collaboration. Pronouns are she/ her.