Cecily Brown - 20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale London Thursday, March 3, 2022 | Phillips

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  • 'I want to know how to paint, how to understand the trick and to figure out how to do it—something that old paintings reveal.' —Cecily Brown 

    Rich with art historical allusion and painterly exuberance, When Time Ran Out is a masterful example of the visual and referential complexity of British artist Cecily Brown’s most celebrated work. Executed in 2016, the work introduced a new, favourite motif for the painter – the shipwreck – one which allows her to explore her own, strikingly contemporary academism in relation to certain compositional, technical, and thematic elements of Old Master paintings. In its compositional arrangement and dramatic intensity When Time Ran Out draws directly on Jean-Louis Théodore Géricault’s 19th century masterwork, Le Radeau de la Méduse, highlighting Brown’s insatiable absorption of visual culture, and her unique ability to understand and internalise pictorial structure. Replacing the darker palette of Géricault’s iconic painting with bright hues and fleshy tones, Brown radically updates her art-historical reference point, while making a work entirely of her own. 


    Jean-Louis Théodore Géricault, La Balsa de la Medusa (Raft of the Medusa), 1819 – 19, Musée du Louvre, Paris. Image: akg-images
    Jean-Louis Théodore Géricault, Le Radeau de la Méduse (Raft of the Medusa), 1818 - 19, Musée du Louvre, Paris. Image: akg-images

     The Eye of the Strom 


    Executed on an enormous, over life-size scale, Géricault’s Le Radeau de la Méduse is a masterwork of French Romanticism, imbuing the long-established tradition of history painting with an emotional and dramatic intensity in its focus on extreme states of physical and psychological distress. Inspired by the 1816 naval disaster of the Méduse, which ran aground off the coast of Mauritania leaving its 147 strong crew and passengers to the mercy of the sea, Gericáult captures the fear and desperation endured by its cohort, left adrift on a makeshift raft for nearly two weeks before a rescue was finally made. Suffering unspeakable horrors and pushed to the very extremes of human existence, the fates of those who perished, and the knowledge of what those surviving 15 members had to undergo sparked an international scandal, quickly attaching itself to the deeper political unrest and public frustration with the French monarchy and ruling class that would ultimately end in violent revolution. 

    In depicting the moment when, after nearly two weeks adrift at sea, the remaining survivors catch sight of a ship in the distance, Gericáult charges his composition with a desperate rush of upward momentum, the waves beneath the makeshift raft echoing the outstretched limbs of the surviving crew, and starkly emphasising the bodies strewn limp and lifeless beneath them. Raw and unflinching in its depiction of human suffering, Gericáult is able to fully exploit the emotional intensity of his subject, generating incredible pathos and emotional range as we see the figures shift from desperation to delirium before their relief at the promise of rescue settles into profound grief at what they have survived. 


    Detail of the present work

    High Drama at Sea


    These tensions are masterfully amplified by Brown’s tempestuous composition, her vertiginous brushstrokes and singular ability to make paint appear to shift between solid and liquid states the perfect vehicle for the reinterpretation of this dramatic historical scene. Built up in layers of energetic, expressive brushwork, Brown’s exquisite skill in rendering a sense of taut and muscular human form is powerfully demonstrated here, pushing the compositional arrangement of the Old Master composition to its extremes. While Géricault employed a sombre palette accented with high contrast of light and shadow to emphasise the sculptural form of his contorted figures and to intensify the drama of the piece, Brown’s selection of saturated raw flesh tones shot through with energetic bursts of vibrant greens, orange tones, cobalt blues, and brilliant whites shatters the compositional clarity of the original image. 
    '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. The more time you give to the painting, the more you get back.'
    —Cecily Brown
    Disrupting distinctions between figure and ground within this restlessly shifting landscape of paint, strong compositional structures nevertheless re-emerge. Having deconstructed Géricault’s classical presentation of the scene, the density of Brown’s visceral, all-over treatment here exemplifies the kind of ‘slow looking’ that she asks of her viewers, her unique approach to a kind of figurative abstraction ensuring that her bodies appear to shift and merge before suddenly revealing themselves. Echoing Géricault’s rhythmic patterning of pyramidal forms, Brown’s densely packed figures and the robust nature of their rendering creates a remarkable sense of emotional and muscular strain here, emphasising the chaos and physical intensity of the scene. Animating the entire composition, Brown’s intuitive, expressive handling of paint in ‘upward-curving lines that convey a lurching, watery, gravitational pull’ charges When Time Ran Out with a raw immediacy and high drama that speaks both to her close study of these Old Master paintings, and her extension of the gestural physicality and bravura brushwork of post-war American artists such as Willem de Kooning.i  


    Left: Eugène Delacroix, The Shipwreck of Don Juan, 1840, Musée du Louvre, Paris. Image: Josse / Scala, Florence
    Right: Willem de Kooning, The North Atlantic Light, 1977, Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam. Image: Art Resource/Scala, Florence, Artwork: © Willem de Kooning Revocable Trust/ARS, NY and DACS, London 2022

    'After I had drawn the Delacroix shipwreck a few times I Googled shipwreck paintings and the Gericault kept coming up. I tried to resist because it's much too famous, but then I thought what the hell. Once I started working it became the deepest drawing lesson ever. It's brilliantly composed.' —Cecily Brown  The theme of maritime tragedy clearly captures Brown’s imagination, and in 2018 she presented an exhibition of drawings with Thomas Dane Gallery entirely focused on these compositions and her painterly dialogue with the likes of Géricault and Delacroix. Included in Brown’s first exhibition with Paula Cooper Gallery in 2017 in New York, A Day! Help! Help! Another Day! , the present work marks a pivotal moment in Brown’s career, and in the evolution of her painterly language. Characteristic of Brown’s tendency to sample from a broad range of cultural references including film and literature, the title of the exhibition was borrowed from the Emily Dickinson poem A Day! Help! Help! Another Day! - an anxious plea that is at once a cry for help and a call to arms. Capturing the tension and immediacy that characterises the whole series, the titles of both When Time Ran Out and A Day! Help! Help! Another Day! draw particular attention to the juxtaposition of beauty and brutality so often set up in Brown’s painting. As the artist puts it: My favourite things are to paint movement, figures in motion, and then tension and violence, but excitement and colour’.ii 

    A Day! Help! Help! Another Day!
    Your prayers, oh Passer by!
    From such a common ball as this
    Might date a Victory!
    From marshallings as simple
    The flags of nations swang.
    Steady—my soul: What issues
    Upon thine arrow hang!


    Emily Dickinson, A Day! Help! Help! Another Day!



    Cecily Brown Interview: Totally Unaware 


    Collector’s Digest


    •    Coming to auction for the first time, When Time Ran Out is a preeminent example of Cecily Brown's celebrated group of shipwreck paintings first presented at Paula Cooper Gallery in 2017, the last time the present work has been seen in public. 


    •    Now based in New York, Cecily Brown was born in the UK and studied at the prestigious Slade School of Fine Art and is an internationally recognised and defining figure of contemporary art.


    •    The focus of solo exhibitions around the world, including the significant Where, When, How Often and with Whom held at the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, Humlebæk, Denmark in 2018 and the recent exhibition of new paintings installed in historic Blenheim Palace in 2021. 


    i Jason Rosenfeld, ‘Survey’, in Cecily Brown, London, 2020, p. 83. 
    ii Cecily Brown, quoted in “Cecily Brown: ‘No work by a living artist should be more than $1m”’, Financial Times, 10 April 2020, online.

    • Provenance

      Paula Cooper Gallery, New York
      Acquired from the above by the present owner

    • Exhibited

      New York, Paula Cooper Gallery, Cecily Brown: A Day! Help! Help! Another Day!, 27 October - 2 December 2017

    • Literature

      'Art In Conversation. Cecily Brown with Jason Rosenfeld,' Brooklyn Rail, December 2017, online (illustrated)

Ο ◆12

When Time Ran Out

signed and dated 'Cecily Brown 16' on the reverse
oil on linen
195.6 x 246.4 cm (77 x 97 in.)
Painted in 2016.

Full Cataloguing

£2,000,000 - 3,000,000 ‡ ♠

Sold for £3,168,500

Contact Specialist

Rosanna Widén
Senior Specialist, Head of Evening Sale
+ 44 20 7318 4060
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Olivia Thornton
Head of 20th Century & Contemporary Art, Europe
+ 44 20 7318 4099
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20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale

London Auction 3 March 2022