Interrogating the old masters

Glenn Brown, The Death of the Virgin, 2012. ©Glenn Brown

Upton House is hosting an exhibition of works by contemporary artist Glenn Brown, curated by Meadow Arts. Brown’s works are both uncompromisingly modern and extremely traditional. But then Brown’s conception of ‘tradition’ includes science fiction as well as old master paintings, kitsch as well as high modernism.

Pieter Brueghel the Elder, The Death of the Virgin, c 1564. ©National Trust Images/Angelo Hornak

This makes for a fascinating juxtaposition with the permanent collection at Upton. Walter Samuel, 2nd Viscount Bearsted and chairman of Shell, assembled important collections of paintings and porcelain during the first half of the 20th century, which were given to the National Trust together with the house in the late 1940s.

Glenn Brown, Cactus Land, 2012. ©Glenn Brown

The paintings Lord Bearsted collected range in date from the 14th to the 19th century and include major works by Hieronymus Bosch, Hans Memling, Pieter Brueghel the Elder, El Greco, Gabriel Metsu, Jacob van Ruisdael, Pieter Saenredam, Francesco Guardi, William Hogarth, George Romney, George Stubbs, Thomas Gainsborough and Sir Henry Raeburn.

Domenikos Theotocopoulos, known as El Greco, El Espolio (the Disrobing of Christ), 1570s. ©National Trust Images/John Hammond

Glenn Brown has explicitly engaged with one of these paintings, Pieter Brueghel the Elder’s Death of the Virgin, by painting his own version. But he has infused the religious scene with a strong dose of surrealist distortion and post-modern alienation.

Glenn Brown, Searched Hard for You and Your Special Ways, 1995. ©Glenn Brown

Brown approaches old master paintings without the reverence sometimes accorded to them. He analyses and interrogates them as a painter – peer to peer – noticing techniques and stylistic strategies, weaknesses and strengths. He interrogates high and low imagery, old and new art on an equal basis and feeds it all into his own work.

Jean-Baptiste Greuze, Head of a Girl, c 1790. ©National Trust Images

Another way in which Brown turns art history on its head is by by the way he applies the paint thinly and smoothly – referencing perhaps the slick detachment of the photographic surface – while creating the impression of thick and tempestuous ‘old master’ impasto.

Works by Glenn Brown in the exhibition gallery at Upton House, formerly a squash court. ©Meadow Arts

In other cases his no-nonsense approach rehabilitates art that is currently out of fashion, such as the sentimental and eroticised work of Jean-Baptiste Greuze. In the booklet that accompanies the exhibition Brown states his conviction that Greuze’s virtuoso technique and obvious enjoyment of the act of painting are so strong that they make his choice of subject matter of secondary importance.

15th- and 16th-century paintings in the Picture Gallery at Upton House. ©National Trust Images/Nadia Mackenzie

Not only has Brown been inspired by the Bearsted collection, but the old masters at Upton are equally benefiting from this exposure to contemporary art. I hope we will have many more such intelligent and searching encounters between old and new, high and low in the historic houses of the National Trust.

The exhibition is on until 6 January 2013.

13 Responses to “Interrogating the old masters”

  1. Susan Walter Says:

    Oooh! there seems to be a lot going on here. Without the artist’s blurb it would be impossible to interpret these images on the screen. I’d love to see the real thing and get a better idea of what he is aiming for.

  2. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Susan, yes I found them physically really beautiful and exhilarating, quite apart from their art-historical and intellectual resonances. Every so often people declare painting ‘dead’ but this work proves it is as alive as ever.

  3. Bec Says:

    I was blown away when I saw the exhibition itself, rather than reproduced images. There is a physicality to the paintings that is quite astonishing when you realise how very flat the surfaces actually are. The exhibition really merits a visit, to see it ‘in person’ and Upton House’s own collections are wonderful too: not one to be missed!

    the exhibition ends on 6th Jan 2013.

  4. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Bec, I totally agree with you: the visceral beauty of Brown’s paintings is difficult to capture in reproduction.

  5. SirVelo Says:

    This has been driving me mad! Can someone please tell me who and what is the original of “Cactus Land” ?

  6. Hels Says:

    Love it!

    All the paintings and ceramics that Lord Bearsted loved were traditionally popular with collectors, at the time they were collecting. So I am never surprised when artists go in and out of popularity – taste never stands still.

    I am only a bit surprised about the El Greco. My students examined The Disrobing of Christ this very week, and we decided the painting was very much of its time (1570s) and place. Yet Lord Bearsted clearly loved it. Good on him!

  7. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    SirVelo, I don’t know, but I will ask the people at Meadow Arts. The figure looks a bit like a baroque saint or a Joseph in a nativity. I wonder, too, how the title relates to the image.

    Helen, yes the history of taste is fascinating. The Picture Gallery at Upton is also very much of its time, as a kind of grand ‘Curzon Street baroque’ hybrid between an art gallery and a sitting room.

    Lord Bearsted’s taste as a collector was quite wide-ranging and included tapestries, furniture, French gold boxes, English silver, English miniatures, illuminated initials, oriental works of art and European porcelain.

    When collecting pictures it is notable that he seems to have been attracted to representations of people, in both portraits and genre scenes. There is also a story about how his picture buying accelerated to the extent that he had to hide new acquisitions under the bed in his dressing room, so that his less enthusiastic wife wouldn’t notice.

  8. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    SirVelo, in answer to your question, Louisa Mayor at Meadow Arts has told me the following:

    Cactus Land is based on a painting by an unknown painter that was bought at auction by Glenn Brown. The title comes from the T.S. Eliot poem The Hollow Men. However, this doesn’t necessarily have a direct connection with the subject.

    In a recent interview, Glenn Brown said that “When choosing a title I do not like it to be too narrative, too precise. They need to have a sort of a poetic resonance with the actual painting so any singular meaning isn’t too obvious. So it’s actually more complex than something that is simply descriptive. Maybe on different days or with different knowledge you’ll get different reading of the title. There’s sort of the process in which I made the paintings. It takes a very long time and there is nothing really left to chance within it. I don’t let the paint flow of it’s own accord, it’s all very controlled. Therefore with the title I suppose I like the viewer’s imagination to be left to chance to some degree.”

    • SirVelo Says:

      Thanks Louisa and Emile! I must confess I could have sworn that it was based on a representation of an old testament prophet, and an image which I thought I recognised.

  9. Andrew Says:

    Cactus Land seems to me to be a modern interpretation of a baroque St Peter – for example

    Or possibly Moses, but I am struggling to find a good example:

    The death of the Virgin is extraordinary. I see elements of Michaelangelo’s Pieta.

  10. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Andrew, where would we be without you? 🙂 Thanks very much for those instructive comparisons – yes the source for Cactus Land must be a painting like that. If Glenn Brown sees this he must be amused (or at least I hope he is) by this evidence of viewers grappling with his imagery 🙂

    I hadn’t noticed that likeness of Brown’s Death of the Virgin to Michelangelo’s Pietà (, but I agree with you that there seems to be a definite echo of it. Brown’s painting is of course very sculptural, which strengthens the connection to the Michelangelo. And it is rather poignant (as well as being knowingly post-modern) to combine works by two different ‘old masters’ in this new work, and moreover to combine a painting and a sculpture, and to combine references to the Virgin’s death and the death of Christ, her son. You have added a whole new layer of insight into this picture, Andrew!

    I read somewhere that Brown often obscures the eyes of his figures in some way, adding yet another layer of mystery and indirectness, as with his lateral titles.

  11. Andrew Says:

    Thanks! Other possible points of reference are Charlton Heston in The Ten Commandments (perhaps the modern archetype of an image of Moses), and Charles Darwin.

    No doubt you are aware that the small El Greco (a version of the painting in Toledo Cathedral – was owned by Delacroix!

    For some reason “Searched Hard for You and Your Special Ways” is not displaying for me –

    More on Glenn Brown at the Tate here –

    I particularly like him copying Bacon copying Velazquez in room 9. And now I now recall that a painting by Brown, inspired by John Martin and Dali, was in the Martin exhibition at the Tate about a year ago.

  12. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Andrew, I am sorry about that display problem with one of the images. I have deleted and reinserted it, perhaps that will help.

    Yes Charlton Heston would of course very much fit with Brown’s predilection for kitsch and popular culture 🙂 And one wonders what ‘old master’ sources Cecil B. DeMille and Arnold Friberg used to create the look of Heston as Moses in The Ten Commandments. (apparently paintings by Lawrence Alma-Tadema were among the sources).

    I hadn’t realised that the Upton El Greco once belonged to Delacroix – no doubt Brown would relish that provenance.

    Thanks for the link to the Brown exhibition at Tate Liverpool. I love that Velazquez/Bacon/Brown painting, it is yet another really interesting ‘conversation’ between painters.

    Turning the image upside down and taking the Pope’s throne away are yet further conscious displacement strategies, similar to the ones we discussed above, obscuring the image’s earlier meaning, rendering it weightless and disembodied and emphasising its surface and colour. And it appears Brown has added some Baconesque ‘wounds’ to the Pope’s skirts, which is both scary and comical.

    And the strange thing is that in spite of all those ‘undermining’ strategies Brown has somehow managed to channel and even augment the uncanny power of both the Velazquez and the Bacon. I think we are getting close to one of the essential qualities of art here: its ability to turn something into its opposite.

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