Cecily Brown’s practice largely consists of reworking existing or well-known images in alternative media, scales and contexts. In her latest exhibition Shipwreck drawings she explores paintings that are simultaneously historical and topical. The viewer is encouraged to think about what kind of meaning the original paintings would have carried when they were made and what associations the same pictures might evoke today.
The drawings are based on two paintings by Eugène Delacroix; ‘The Shipwreck of Don Juan’ (1840) and ‘Christ Asleep During the Tempest’ (1853) as well as Théodore Géricault’s ‘The Raft of the Medusa’ (1819). Repetition is the key tool used in this series; are we seeing every study undertaken or were there many others not selected for the exhibition? Brown’s drawings suggest a working process, studies perhaps for a larger scale piece that either hasn’t been made or remains unannounced. It seems, however, that what Brown is aiming to convey here is not something for which a large single piece would be appropriate.
One is able to discern on which original painting each study is based but the angles taken are manifold. Certain details either focused on and carefully studied or left out completely. We are left to piece together our own picture, not necessarily of the original paintings, but – through the absence of the originals – of the real situations depicted. Of course the contemporary imagination can’t avoid reflecting on the well-documented cases of refugee boats being wrecked in the Mediterranean; of men, women and children drowned trying to make the crossing.
The days of the shipwreck being a regular occurrence for western vessels on the seas are long past but what Brown’s work seems to question is how long it might be until scenes such as those witnessed today off the Adriatic coast (overcrowded rubber lifeboats, drowned bodies washed up on the beaches) are viewed as a barbaric and regrettable thing of the past?
There also seems to be a subtle device at work here as the expressive and overtly un-refined style of the drawings along with the media used (watercolour, charcoal etc.) seem to suggest a child’s perspective. This makes perfect sense apropos of the number of children and infants who die or face extreme peril every year as their parents attempt to save them from civil war and persecution. The tragedy is palpable. There are no children depicted in any of the original paintings by Delacroix and Gericault, it was probably still unthinkable or at least extremely rare that a child would end up in such circumstances when these pieces were painted. Today however the infant death toll is well documented.
There is, therefore, a subtly horrific reminder of what is surely the most heart rending aspect of the current diaspora. In light of this the set of drawings as a whole appears to be some kind of incomplete, traumatised recollection of horrific events. Like a fragile, damaged mind attempting to come to terms with a nightmarish reality.
Cecily Brown: Shipwreck drawings, The Whitworth, Manchester.
17 November 2017 – 15 April 2018.
Robbie di Vito is a visual artist and writer based in Lancashire.