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  • You know, one thing about paintings is there’s no set time to how long you look at them, that you can… you bring the time to it yourself so, you know, you can literally see a room at a glance, or you can spend your whole life looking at just one thing.

    Obviously as a painter one hopes people will spend a lot of time looking at things, and I think inevitably, you know, you get more out of something the longer you look at it. In my own work I try and actually play on that. That almost becomes part of the subject; that the more you look, the more you will get and that it’s… there’s a slowness to it.

    This painting’s perfect example of this for me because I’ve been looking at it for over 20 years. One thing that fascinates me about this painting is that Degas kept it all his life, and that it was in his studio and I think he worked on it over many, many years. He had it around and perhaps reworked it a couple of times, over decades, but it’s a painting that I’ve always been drawn back to, again and again and found… always find more. So I was really fascinated that he kept it and almost as a
    leitmotif, I think.

    The composition is so extraordinary of, you know, the girls on one side, the boys on the other. It’s very mysterious, what exactly they’re doing. Okay, so it says they’re sparring, but it almost seems to be a coming-of-age painting. It’s very much, you know, youths on the verge of adulthood. I was struck by how timeless it was when I was even in the park last summer, and I was thinking about this painting.

    I’d been looking at it in the... a reproduction in the studio and I saw these bunch of teenagers mucking about and the girls sort of going up and hitting the boys and running away and I thought, it’s just the Young Spartans, 21st Century. It is hard to explain a group of naked pre-teens in the landscape. I mean, in a way, you feel like that’s what the classical figures in the middle are doing. They really put it at a polite distance, almost, by saying, this isn’t now and this happened a long time ago, therefore it’s not risqué. But I also feel that there’s such a tension between the boys ad girls that you do feel it’s the girls that make the boys seem straight. The thrust of her pulling the action into the centre of the painting and the boys, their faces, the range of expressions is extraordinary. They’ve always reminded me of the angels in the Piero della Francesca Nativity; that sort of slack jaw, open mouth, this almost erotic expression on the second boy’s face. But there’s almost this sort of faux arrogance. You feel that it really captures that, you know, boys that… they’re trying to be more confident than they really feel. You know, they’re sort of, they’re mocking, but you feel that they’re actually intimidated in that way that boys are with girls around that age. There always seem to me to be too many legs for the number of figures.

    You know, there are ghosts of legs, there are extra legs, they’re faded, they’re drawn over each other; you know, the sense of this scuffle going on. You know, there’s a possible fifth figure in there. I just love this… the suggestiveness of it and the way that… you know, this feeling of not quite knowing what you’re looking at.

    I still find it completely compelling and that, you know, you go away from something and come back and with the passing of time, you know, I’ve changed but the painting also seems to change.

    Cecily Brown on 'Young Spartans Exercising' by Hilaire-Germain-Edgar Degas

    Following their discussion at the 2012 Frieze Masters, National Gallery Director Nicholas Penny invited artist Cecily Brown to the Gallery to talk about some of her favourite paintings from the Collection.

    Here she talks about Degas's 'Young Spartans Exercising.' Find out why Brown has been coming back to the painting for more than 20 years and still finds it 'completely compelling'.

    British-born painter Cecily Brown has gained international acclaim for her gestural reworking of traditional imagery and subject matter. Brown has held solo shows at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington and the Museum of Contemporary Art, The Hague, amongst others.

    Following their discussion at the 2012 Frieze Masters, National Gallery Director Nicholas Penny invited artist Cecily Brown to the Gallery to talk about some of her favourite paintings from the Collection.

    Here she talks about Degas's 'Young Spartans Exercising.' Find out why Brown has been coming back to the painting for more than 20 years and still finds it 'completely compelling'.

    British-born painter Cecily Brown has gained international acclaim for her gestural reworking of traditional imagery and subject matter. Brown has held solo shows at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington and the Museum of Contemporary Art, The Hague, amongst others.

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    Cecily Brown on 'Young Spartans Exercising' by Hilaire-Germain-Edgar Degas

    Movie
  • One of the problems of painting figures – and this had probably already started in Degas’s time – was where they are and what are they doing. I mean, a contemporary artist... that’s a big question always.

    If someone said tomorrow, you know, you’ve got to choose, you’re only allowed a couple of colours, this would be my palette. This is the palette I veer towards naturally and this palette seems to encompass everything that one wants to say, in a way. There’s just… even though it’s very hot, it feels like it’s… there’s a range of emotions and associations with it. There’s very, you know… the warmth of it, but also there’s a violence to it.

    Combing the hair was this fairly loaded subject, partly because you were never supposed to comb your hair in front of anybody. I mean, obviously it’s different when it’s a child having their hair combed, but it’s this really intimate act. But apparently, at the time, there were all sorts of ideas around combing the hair. They didn’t think you were supposed to wash your hair, so people would go out and air their hair. Ladies would go and comb their hair outside, which was supposed to be very healthy.

    There’s this tension under the surface of, not even really under the surface in this. I mean, the tension in the girl’s hand, you don’t really feel like it’s a sweet moment between a… I don’t know if it’s a mother and daughter but, or… I expect it’s probably the maid, but I feel that it hints at, sort of, sadism, the cruelty behind closed doors. There’s just a suggestion of something not quite right going on, the way she’s being pulled back, almost. You don’t really feel that there’s… it’s a particularly pleasant experience for the girl. One gets the feeling of the paint rushing to describe something, but sometimes, sort of, move too fast for what they’re describing, almost as if… I think it’s a very effective way of sort of capturing that sense of a glimpse of something, of trying to get that feeling of something seen quickly, and almost making physical that effort to see something and remember it
    and hold it, but it’s already gone.

    The use of the black is so extraordinary, of just echoing things at just the right moment. There seems just enough of it to bring it into focus. I always think her nostril… you know, talk about punctuation in a painting. That nostril is like a full stop. You know, I’ve often mentioned this thing of… idea of punctuation in paintings, but this almost makes it literal, for, starting with this sort of black on the left, these almost hieroglyphic marks.

    There’s this menace, this latent menace and violence, which I feel Degas is the king of that, actually, in sort of seemingly benign scenes. And I can’t look at it without thinking of Francis Bacon, I mean, I know he loved Degas.

    Cecily Brown on 'La Coiffure' by Hilaire-Germain-Edgar Degas

    Following their discussion at the 2012 Frieze Masters, National Gallery Director Nicholas Penny invited artist Cecily Brown to the Gallery to talk about some of her favourite paintings from the Collection.

    Here she talks about Degas's 'La Coiffure'. Find out why Brown feels the painting gives us a glimpse of something which is 'not quite right' in a seemingly benign scene.

    British-born painter Cecily Brown has gained international acclaim for her gestural reworking of traditional imagery and subject matter. Brown has held solo shows at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington and the Museum of Contemporary Art, The Hague, amongst others.

    Following their discussion at the 2012 Frieze Masters, National Gallery Director Nicholas Penny invited artist Cecily Brown to the Gallery to talk about some of her favourite paintings from the Collection.

    Here she talks about Degas's 'La Coiffure'. Find out why Brown feels the painting gives us a glimpse of something which is 'not quite right' in a seemingly benign scene.

    British-born painter Cecily Brown has gained international acclaim for her gestural reworking of traditional imagery and subject matter. Brown has held solo shows at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington and the Museum of Contemporary Art, The Hague, amongst others.

    Read More
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    Cecily Brown on 'La Coiffure' by Hilaire-Germain-Edgar Degas

    Movie