The daughter of celebrated art historian David Sylvester, Brown became transfixed by the work of Francis Bacon from a young age. As curator Rosella Siligato has explained, ‘Brown liberates Bacon. She overturns his psychic and mental obsessions, the private hells, the monstrosity he attempts to conceal and the suffering caused by the breaking of conventions. Everything is poured outward, brought to the fore, flooding in a wild, vital orgy’ (Rosella Siligato ‘Another Painting, Another Planet’ in: Exh. Cat., Rome, MACRO, Cecily Brown, June 2003, p. 66). It is here that we start to understand the deep undercurrent of eroticism that pervades Brown’s work. With its cacophony of sensually intertwined bodies, an orgy of shapes holds sway over the canvas. Traditional lines of perspective are disregarded in Brown’s trademark blend of cubistic abstraction that morphs into areas of perfect figural draughtsmanship.
If Bacon informed Brown’s interest in the body and its erotic, psychological potential, De Kooning taught her to paint. Talking on her experience of De Kooning as an art student, she noted “I distinctly remember looking at a catalogue of de Kooning’s work with some friends. Our game was to cover up the whole painting and look at just a detail, and marvel over the fact that even a detail would be an extraordinary painting... It was just realizing that every square inch of the canvas had a life, an energy and a strength. It was exhilarating to see somebody use paint in a way that appeared to be free, but obviously there was this great measure of control” (Cecily Brown cited in: ‘Willem De Kooning: Conversation with Cecily Brown’, Bordercrossings, 121, February 2012, online). The yellows that colour the vast expanse of canvas in Twenty Million Sweethearts are perhaps Brown’s greatest homage to De Kooning’s well-known love for the colour. Shining through particularly in his famous series of Women, it reflected a way for the artist to develop abstracted works while still retaining a sense of the flesh. This relationship between colour and flesh is enhanced by the richly textured virtuoso handling of paint by Brown, who has acknowledged the sensual, at times erotic quality of her relationship with the medium.
For all this emphasis on the heady ideals of the Abstract Expressionist movement, there is a healthy dose of post-modern irony in Twenty Million Sweethearts. While Bacon and De Kooning are undoubtedly her artistic north stars, she is well aware of the post-war – particularly the abstract expressionist – tendency towards painterly displays of overt machismo. In this, there is a strong feminist undercurrent to Brown’s paintings. Twenty Million Sweethearts, with its sarcastic title and the provocative nature of illicit imagery, is a testament to an artist unafraid to criticise the legacies of her artistic forefathers. Brown conception of paint as flesh as well as her “abject ideas about the body, the cheap and nasty” (Cecily Brown cited in: Gaby Wood, ‘I like cheap and nasty, The Guardian, 12 June 2005, online) finds commonality with other British female artists Jenny Saville’s candid portrayal of women and the cool ironic provocation of Sarah Lucas’s feminist sculptures. This is not to say that Brown is inherently associated with the YBA’s but her work and conceptual framework was forged from the same cultural melting pot.
London in the early to late 80’s was a cultural melting pot in which the figurative and painterly tradition was seen as deeply anachronistic. As Cecily Brown notes, “if one was painting then it was assumed that it was out of ignorance or from a stubborn refusal to notice that the world has changed. Particularly perverse was the desire to depict human beings, let alone wanting to do so using oil paint on canvas” (Cecily Brown, ‘Painting Epiphany’, Flash Art International, no. 200, 1998, online). It is against this historical climate that Cecily Brown’s achievements must be measured. A figurative painter at a time when painting figures was deeply unpopular, it is Brown’s unavoidable talent, her unmistakable style and the sheer power of her figurative vision that has captured the attention of curators, critic and collectors alike.
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