Cecily Brown - 20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale in Association with Poly Auction Hong Kong Tuesday, June 8, 2021 | Phillips

Create your first list.

Select an existing list or create a new list to share and manage lots you follow.

  • “I have always wanted to make paintings that are impossible to walk past, paintings that grab and hold your attention. The more you look at them, the more satisfying they become for the viewer.” 
    — Cecily Brown

    One of the most important artists of her generation, the British-born Cecily Brown is an art world phenomenon, famous for her dynamic, vividly gestural works that shift between the figurative and the abstract. Declaring herself to be a figurative artist first, Brown’s works nevertheless feature the enigmatic, energetic brushwork typical of abstraction in the creation of her fantastical scenes exploring the themes of desire, life and death.


    The End is a spectacular work from the artist’s oeuvre, in which forms and figures emerge and evolve in a state of flux, revealing the conclusion of a raucous dinner party, plates and glasses strewn in disarray, the heeled foot of a woman emerging from the billowing table cloth to suggest the presence of figures underneath. The End, grand in scale and teeming with ravishing imagery, was included in the artist’s major solo retrospective at the Museum of Fine Art in Boston in late 2006 just after its creation, testament to the significance of the work.


    Drawing on the works of the Old Masters but in a style that is distinctly her own, Brown has recently been honoured with a solo exhibition at Blenheim Palace (17 September 2020 - 7 February 2021), the first exhibition at the palace to ever feature contemporary painting, and an incredible feat for the artist, her work situated amongst the very precedents that inspire her.

    Aristocratic Exploits


    “I hadn’t looked at my Hogarth drawings for many years, and when I went back to look at them in preparation [for the Drawing Centre show], I was struck by how completely I’ve ripped off Hogarth’s compositions over and over.”
    — Cecily Brown


    Cecily Brown, Hollyhocks that aim too high, 2013


    Brown’s visceral, enigmatic images of loosely defined figures and sweeping brushwork have attracted comparisons to the Old Masters, who she often references in her work. Brown has discussed her assimilation of images and ideas of renowned artists from the Western canon of art history, including but not limited to the Old Masters of Rubens, Velázquez, Delacroix, and Degas, and the more contemporary influences of de Kooning and Bacon.


    Her adopted imagery is often explicit, as seen for example in her lusciously chaotic, Hollyhocks that aim too high (2013) in which Brown incorporates the crossing limbs and body language of the figures of Degas’s iconic Young Spartans Exercising (circa 1860), in her unique visual language. Here in The End, we see the sure influence of 18th Century English painter, William Hogarth, made famous for his series of paintings and engravings on ‘modern and moral subjects’, often disseminated through print and read by a wide audience. In particular, we see the reference to Hogarth’s series, Marriage à-la-Mode: 2, the tête à tête (circa 1743), which features the same knocked-over chair, detailed in red, that is depicted in The End



    William Hogarth, Marriage à-la-Mode: 2, the tête à tête, circa 1743
    Collection of the National Gallery, London



    In Marriage à-la-Mode: 2, the tête à tête, Hogarth delves into the sexual exploits of the aristocracy, depicting the consequences of marrying for money rather than love and exploring wider themes regarding marriage and morals. Brown’s choice of Hogarth, or indeed the subconscious impact of his work on her own, is apt, both artists commenting on life and desire through the medium of oil on canvas. The End and Marriage à-la-Mode: 2, the tête à tête are each imbued with a theatricality and an air of the melodramatic, the tipped chair indicative of chaos and calamity. Contrasting with her slumped husband, the central character of the woman of leisure in Marriage à-la-Mode: 2, the tête à tête appears in a state of animated satisfaction, legs spread wide and gesturing to someone out of view, waving a pocket mirror. This and the chair on the floor suggest her lover has had to make a quick exit, perhaps interrupted in the act of love-making. The chair motif is thus highly suggestive in the work of Brown, urging the viewer to contemplate as to what may be happening under the thick white tablecloth that possibly conceals the forms of lovers. 



    The Cacophony of Carnage 



    William Hogarth, The Banquet, 1754-55



    Brown’s works are in a constant state of flux, figures and forms appearing and disintegrating as the viewer is sucked deeper into the painting. At first, the viewer is confronted with the image of a table-top in a complete state of disarray—a raucous dinner party has come to its end. Recalling the lavish banquet still-lifes of the 17th and 18th Century, Brown litters her image with discarded forks, knocked over water glasses, dirty plates and the fleshy forms of pink meat. Perhaps an empty can of Coca Cola, as suggested by its crimson exterior, or a small piece of meat on the bone, the allusion to the soft drink brings this painting into the 21st Century, despite the Rococo form of the chair and the style of the shoe jutting out from the table that is evocative of those worn by Hogarth’s female protagonist in Marriage à-la-Mode: 2, the tête à tête. 


    Detail of the present lot



    “I think that painting is a kind of alchemy,..., The paint is transformed into image, and paint and image transform themselves into a third and new thing.”
    — Cecily Brown


    But at the same time, an interesting reference to note is that of Heinrich Hoffmann’s The Story of Fidgety Philip, a story written and illustrated by the German physician that forms part of the Struwwelpeter (1845) collection of rhymed tales. Each story has a clear moral that demonstrates the consequences of misbehaviour in an exaggerated way. And as Dr. Hoffman was the founder of the first psychiatric hospital in Frankfurt, some researchers have since viewed his stories as illustrations of the various psychiatric disorders we now know about today - particularly so as he both sought to improve public perceptions of mental illness, and would use his illustrations to reach out to his young patients.


    “Where is Philip, where is he?
    Fairly covered up you see!
    Cloth and all are lying on him;
    He has pulled down all upon him.
    What a terrible to-do!
    Dishes, glasses, snapt in two!
    Here a knife, and there a fork!
    Philip, this is cruel work.
    Table all so bare, and ah!
    Poor Papa, and poor Mamma
    Look quite cross, and wonder how
    They shall have their dinner now.”
    — Heinrich Hoffmann, The Story of Fidgety Philip, 1845


    The Story of Fidgety Philip is thought to be one of the earliest descriptions of the symptoms of ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder). In the tale, the young boy wriggles and giggles and infuriates his parents by fidgeting, tugging the tablecloth. Eventually, he tilts his chair so much that it topples over and the whole meal comes crashing down, much to his parents' great displeasure. The illustrations for the story share distinct similarities with the present work, which too, features the abstract rendering of a tilted chair, and plates and crockery which are tumbling down. 




    Illustration from Heinrich Hoffmann, The Story of Fidgety Philip, 1845


    The End is alive with a palpable energy, Brown's dynamic brushwork arousing the visual of glasses

    falling, liquid spilling, plates crashing and food slipping off the earthenware. The artist is able to capture a certain immediacy in The End, and the painting is simultaneously a scene of a banquet that is in the midst of anarchy, chaos unfolding in front of the viewer’s probing eyes, and an image of a dinner party that has already come to an end. Indeed, Brown’s non-linear approach to painting fosters the spontaneity of her work, often working on several canvases at the same time, allowing for a distinct freshness and her intuition to shine through. Further, the artist’s expressive use of oil paint, seemingly both liquid and solid on the canvas, perfectly arouses the sights, sounds and feels of the rambunctious meal. This can be seen in the way Brown smears a sickly ochre paint from a tipping plate, and smudges the once-white tablecloth with splattered patches that could be anything from pools of gravy to the maroon stains of a rich red wine. 



    Under the Table 


    “I have always been drawn to dramatic subjects, battles, shipwrecks, the more sexual earlier paintings, warfare and conflict. As the sex got less depicted and carried the energy without painting people having sex, I am trying to get it across without going into detail.”
    — Cecily Brown



    The End is saturated with what Rachel Wetzler has described a ‘latent eroticism’, in her interview with the artist for Apollo Magazine in 2018, not as overtly sexualised as Brown’s earlier works but still fraught with a carnal, erotic energy.i  As discussed, the legs of a chair that has been knocked down, and the heeled foot of a well-to-do woman who is hidden in the scene are suggestive of a concealed dalliance under the layers of white table cloth. The longer the viewer looks at the canvas, the more forms materialise that hint at limbs, such as the possible boot that rises from beneath the table at the top of the painting, and the muscular shape of an arm that reaches up and grasps the edge of the dinner table. Perhaps the cause of this chaos, the flying silverware and tumbling vessels, is an undisclosed encounter under the table’s surface. The depiction of desire is augmented by Brown’s flesh-like, sensuous application of paint and provocative visual lexicon of pink, corpulent meat and various orifices. 


    “This idea comes from Francis Bacon; the sense of a figure without really describing it is something I always wanted to do. It is absurd to paint a figure when everything has already been done, but I still want a presence and am not that interested by abstract painting.”
    — Cecily Brown


    Willem de Kooning, Woman I., 1950-52
    Collection of the Museum of Modern Art, New York



    Walking the line between figuration and abstraction, Brown’s images continuously shift and change in what she has discussed as a state of becoming, in a manner evocative of British figurative painter, Francis Bacon and Dutch-American abstract expressionist, Willem de Kooning. Like Bacon, Brown is master at conjuring the sense of a figure without fully delineating concrete human forms. Bacon’s ectoplasmic figures in work such as Two Figures with a Monkey (1973) elicit the corporeality of the human form and the sensation of movement, with a distinct rawness that Brown came to harness in her own figurative paintings.


    Further, Brown’s handling of paint recalls the abstract expressionist works of de Kooning, who once declared, ‘flesh is the reason oil paint was invented’,ii  manipulating the medium in his monstrous expressions of the human form, applying layers of loose paint in a tonal, patchy evocation of skin and flesh. For example, in Woman I. (1950-52), the form of a wide-eyed woman emerges, directly confronting the viewer amidst a chaotic scene of smeared and smudged paint. The figure is outlined in a thick black paint that has been left to drip and streak, intermingling with the artist’s storm of brushstrokes to form a holistic image. Overall, having stated that, ‘not everything is for kids. Art should be disturbing’,iii  the grotesque precedents of Bacon and de Kooning marvelously mingle in the work of Brown, mesmerising the viewer with her swirling scenes of limbs and brazen brushstrokes. 



    Francis Bacon, Two Figures with a Monkey, 1973



    Collector’s Digest 


    Not long after her move to New York in the early 1990s, Cecily Brown infatuated the art world with her large-scale paintings of frenzied brushtstrokes and fleshy forms, imbued with an erotic energy. Her early representation by Gagosian gallery catapulted the artist’s career to new heights, becoming one of the handful of female artists whose works would sell for more than US$ 1 million.


    Since leaving Gagosian in 2014, recognition and praise for her work continues to grow, and the artist has been honoured with numerous solo exhibitions at institutions including the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington DC; and Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia, Madrid. In 2018-2019, the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, Humblaek, Denmark, presented an overview of the artist’s career, and the same year, Brown became the first artist since Marc Chagall in 1966 to be invited to display her works at the Metropolitan Opera in New York. This year, the artist’s work was displayed at the historically significant Blenheim Palace, Oxfordshire, England, the first contemporary painter to be bestowed with the honour. 


     i Rachel Wetzler, ‘Now I can steal from myself as much as from other artists’ - an interview with Cecily Brown’, Apollo The International Art Magazine, 3 November 2018, online
    ii Willem de Kooning; Woman I., 1950-52’, MoMA, online
    iii ‘Cecily Brown’, Alain Elkann Interviews., 24 February 2019, online

    • Provenance

      Gagosian Gallery, New York
      Private Collection, Los Angeles
      Private Collection, New York
      Private Collection, Hong Kong
      Phillips, Hong Kong, 26 November 2017, lot 21
      Acquired at the above sale by the present owner

    • Exhibited

      Boston, Museum of Fine Art Boston, Cecily Brown, 18 October 2006 - 15 January 2007

    • Literature

      Dore Ashton, Cecily Brown, New York, 2008, p. 225 (illustrated)


The End

oil on linen
216.2 x 226.4 cm. (85 1/8 x 89 1/8 in.)
Painted in 2006.

Full Cataloguing

HK$4,500,000 - 6,000,000 

Sold for HK$8,599,000

Contact Specialist

Charlotte Raybaud
Head of Evening Sale, 20th Century & Contemporary Art

20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale in Association with Poly Auction

Hong Kong Auction 8 June 2021