Critics’ Picks

View of “Cecily Brown,” 2020-21.

View of “Cecily Brown,” 2020-21.


Cecily Brown

Blenheim Art Foundation
Blenheim Palace, Woodstock, Oxfordshire
September 17, 2020–February 7, 2021

Cecily Brown is the first British contemporary artist commissioned by Blenheim Art Foundation to create a site-specific body of work for Blenheim Palace, an English country home built in the eighteenth century to reward the military success of the first Duke of Marlborough. Through this timely exhibition of paintings, drawings, monotypes, and a new textile, Brown addresses the portrayal and conservation of British ruling class heritage through images of soldierly valour and pastoral leisure.

Examining traditional genres, namely battle and hunting scenes, from the Spencer-Churchill family’s English collections, the artist’s charged reinterpretations of a once-exalted Britishness arrive at a particularly poignant moment, as the UK departs the European Union. In Dog is Life, 2019, writhing horses and hounds, rendered with rapid strokes, convey the anguish and violence these creatures endure for sport. The work is part of a series of hunt paintings, whose harrowing landscapes nest the horrific within the bucolic, mirroring the theatre of war in Battles were meant to be painted, 2019, where twisted bodies and blood-stained vistas give voice to animal suffering and counter the glorification of combat. In The Triumph of Death, 2019, a skeleton charges on horseback, trampling everything in its path—animals, local folk—while partying aristocrats remain oblivious to the approaching menace. With her signature gestural bravura, Brown captures a persistent struggle between the preservation of a nostalgic past and the critical disillusionment required to come to terms, not just with our history, but with our future.