Arts and Entertainment

Intersections of Youth, Mortality, and Art History: Unraveling Cecily Brown’s Death and the Maid Exhibition

Exploring the intertwined worlds of life and death: a review of Cecily Brown’s exhibition, Death and the Maid.

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As visitors step into the immersive exhibition Cecily Brown: Death and the Maid, they are instantly engulfed by a sea of enigmatic and bewildering paintings. The exhibition contains a diverse collection of 50 paintings adorned with interconnected motifs of life, youth, and death.

Currently working and residing in New York City, Cecily Brown is a British contemporary painter. She was exposed to art in her youth through her father, prominent art critic and curator David Sylvester. She later attended the esteemed Slade School of Fine Art, where she was awarded First Class Honours and became the first-prize recipient in the National Competition for British Art Students.

Brown draws major inspiration from historical works of art and is known for basing many of her pieces on them; one notable example is her recreation of Carnival and Lent (2006-2008). Here, she sought inspiration from prominent 16th-century Dutch painter Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s The Fight Between Carnival and Lent (1559). This original rendition is a large panorama of a carnival scene set in the Middle Ages. The Fight Between Carnival and Lent creates a dichotomy between religious devotion and pleasure through its contrasting depictions of drunkards and religious figures, juxtaposing the annual Carnival (a time for commoners to party) and Lent (a Christian observance). Brown’s Carnival and Lent showcases a similarly chaotic scene that revolves around the same theme of comparing religious chastity and promiscuity in a Carnival setting. The large oil painting contains gestural brushstrokes with body parts entangled in a mix of chaotic swirls and brightly-pigmented blurs. The painting’s frenzy contains sexually explicit imagery, such as promiscuous curves that resemble a woman’s spread legs. Most of her artworks throughout this exhibition maintain the same style of disordered brushwork that comes together to encapsulate a chaotic panoramic scene.

The duality of youth and death is explored multiple times as a major theme in Brown’s artwork. One example is Aujourd'hui Rose (2005), a piece depicting a skull with its eye sockets aligned with two young girls’ heads. This piece takes inspiration from the famous Charles Allan Gilbert’s All is Vanity (1902) painting, which presents the same duality of vitality and death. These illustrations are examples of Vanitas Art, a genre that uses symbolism to depict the certainty of death and the transience of life. Inspired by this style, Brown’s painting depicts the young girls’ youth through white and pink ruffled dresses. Comparatively, the two girls are surrounded by a haunting skull painted in gray and brown hues, showing that death is always around the corner. This painting is Brown’s first of many to exhibit the double image memento mori—a Latin phrase meaning “remember you must die.”

Brown’s focus on youth and death defined her art in the early 2000s but was eventually abandoned in favor of other subject matters. However, during the COVID-19 pandemic, she revisited this theme. Brown reflected on her method of restoring works: “This new process of actually painting on reproductions of my own and now other’s images make so much sense after having copied them forever. It’s like doing a cover of someone else’s song.” In 2019, Brown painted Vanity, a reiteration of her past memento mori pieces. Re-exploring the same motif, this painting exhibits major development in her artistic style. The colors are much more coherent than her older pieces, with a simple revolving palette of vivid blues and peachy pinks. Her previous works make the skull much more obvious through high-contrast colors, but this painting has a broader focus on the maiden staring into the vanity mirror.

Cecily Brown’s work does artists of the past justice by reworking their themes into massive-sized canvases and captivating brushwork. As Brown continues to rise in the art world, her innovative approach to artistry will captivate audiences as she seamlessly merges historical references with her unique vision.