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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.