- Cecily Brown
- The Circus Animals' Desertion
- signed and dated 2014-15 on the reverse
- oil on canvas
Private Collection, Asia
Acquired from the above by the present owner
The present work takes its title from one of the final poems written by William Butler Yeats. Published in 1939 in his final volume, Last Poems, Yeats’ ‘The Circus Animals’ Desertion’ is a lamentation on ageing and the act of contemplation itself. Written in five stanzas, this deeply reflective last work takes a look back on Yeats’ Romantic beginnings and ends with a stark confrontation of the here and now. As made explicit in the last stanza:
Those masterful images because complete
Grew in pure mind but out of what began?
A mound of refuse or the sweepings of a street,
Old kettles, old bottles, old rags, that raving slut
Who keeps the till. Now that my ladder’s gone
I must lie down where all the ladders start
In the foul rag and bone shop of the heart.
Approaching the end of his fifty-year literary career, Yeats’ perceived lack of inspiration is laid bare by the poem’s self-conscious inability to transcend the base commonality of everyday life. His use of the titular ‘circus animals’ acts as an analogy for his own waning powers of imagination; where in his youth these circus animals used to perform freely and dazzle, Yeats has become a spectator to their absence, able only to repeat, recycle, or critique the celebrated themes of his earlier work. In searching for a new form of creativity through a self-referential analysis of the poet's back-catalogue – which Yeats describes as ‘the foul rag and bone shop of the heart’ – this poem is widely considered a masterpiece of proto post-modernist literature.
By borrowing the title from this famous poem, Brown’s painting responds to the unadorned mound of ‘old rags’, ‘refuse’, and ‘sweepings of a street’ that Yeats’ poetic imagination cannot overcome. In referring to this, Brown seems to be making a comment on her own cyclical creative practice, in which new paintings are made as much in response to previous work as they are to a new idea or source of inspiration. As art historian Jan Tumlir has explained, Brown’s formal trajectory “is marked by a continual return and recapitulation as much as by an overarching progression” (Jan Tumlir cited in: Suzanne Cotter, ‘Seeing Double’ in: Exh. Cat., Oxford, Modern Art Oxford, Cecily Brown: Paintings, 2005, p. 41).
Rendered in typically sensuous pink, red and black, a panoramic sweep of fleshy brushwork and scattered forms is punctuated by rifts of blue, green, and yellow. Background and foreground coalesce, sandwiched between layers of serpentine and rhythmic staccato brushstrokes. In its varied colour scheme, this work invokes the Bacchanalian landscape particular to the Poussin-inspired works of the early 2000s, while the swiftness of implied movement echoes the fliting rabbit-like forms used as provocative human surrogates in works from the mid-1990s. However, it is the deliberate turning away from explicit reference in this painting that places it in dialogue with pieces such as Funny Cry Happy (2002); in 2005 Brown cited this work as the only truly abstract painting she had ever made (Cecily Brown cited in: Caoimhín Mac Giolla Léith, ‘Painting Sensation’ in: ibid., p. 54). In searching The Circus Animals’ Desertion for identifiable figurative allusions, the viewer is utterly thwarted. And yet, while this abstract schema is kaleidoscopically rich and compositionally dense, Brown maintains the fluidity of intangible bodily experience and presence that runs like a red thread throughout her production. Indeed, such is the fluency of Brown’s painterly ability that figurative visual anchors are not required for the work to maintain its figural essence. For what she is doing is not looking to represent, but instead make viscerally explicit the physical sensation of painting itself.