Christopher Le Brun at Marlborough Chelsea

British artist Christopher Le Brun comes two hundred years late to the Romantic Revival.

I say that with regret because Le Brun is a painter of singular power, fully and beautifully in possession of his craft. Exhibited world-wide in major museum surveys of the 80's, Le Brun’s career has been illustrious and influential. Elected to the Royal Academy four years ago, he has been a trustee of the Tate, of London’s National Gallery, and of other established art institutions. But no exhibition should be seen through the distorting lens of credentials and prestigious appointments. Viewed straight up, the paintings here are disappointing. Only the loveliness of the paint itself and its tonal harmonies rescue them from inconsequence.

The River

Le Brun manipulates his surfaces with a near-erotic blend of intensity and sensitivity. Such sublime scumbling, glazing, knifed impastos and delicate stroking. You want to lean into the brushwork and rest your cheek against it. But something goes wrong between the corporality of the paint and the insubstantiality of watery renderings of foredated motifs. We could be looking at lame illustrations for Walter Scott’s “Lay of the Last Minstrel.”

Twenty years ago, Le Brun produced an exhilarating body of work centered on the winged Pegasus. Passionately engaged with the rigors of abstract painting, he created a thundering horse of Jove for the twentieth century. His current turn away from abstraction toward more literal representation deprives similar motifs of the iconic status they achieved previously.

The animal that was once high, courageous and wild is tamed, a horse without qualities. Le Brun’s 1983 evocation of the legendary Roman Marcus Curtius, blood-red and furious, has dwindled into a pale rider in curaisse and plumed helmet. The heightened specificity of the image alters the balance between the mythic and the merely anachronistic and theatrical. If it is not Brad Pitt as Achilles, then ’tis young Lochinvar come out of the West.

Instead of a grand gallop in the uplands, Le Brun meanders through graceful, composite landscapes under trees reminiscent of J.M.W. Turner’s watercolors and German romantic Caspar David Friedrich’s blasted branches. Beneath the luscious skies of “The Morning Watch” (2001-04), a red-headed angel, well-winged and dominant in the foreground, guards a distant mounted knight. Both are messengers of unconsummated allegorical yearning.

“A Letter to Puvis,” (2000-04), trades on its title. In the only work on view that ignores representational space, an armed knight floats parallel to a disembodied wing, one of Le Brun’s trademark images in the 80’s. They occupy the same plane as arbitrary, aggressive spills of pure color; Redonesque vines wind over the surface. Le Brun is claiming his place on the art historical timeline running from Pierre Puvis de Chevannes, patriarch of modern art and an early influence on Picasso, to the present. It is an academician’s confident statement of self-regard.

“The Eye’s Castle” (1996-2004) is a large impressive painting, one that comes closest to the heroic vigor of his earlier motifs. Yet even here, heightened delineation of the scene, laden with chivalric pageantry, short circuits potential emotional response. Unaware of Eye as a real city (a once-thriving center in Suffolk and site of a major World War II airfield, now an industrial park) the viewer sees only an emblem of the Middle Ages, its protagonist off to a tournament as easily as war. Eye’s poignance as a symbol of lost empire and military might is smothered by pseudo-historical costume drama.

Resonant with Pre-Raphaelite disenchantment with modernity added to Symbolist portentiousness, the exhibition aspires to the “metaphysical” enigmas of the Italian Moderns. That is a plateful. In addition, the recurring plumed helmet, a military metaphor older than the ancient Praetorians, summons more associations than the paintings can bear. Where to start?

One inescapable point of reference is Rembrandt’s “Polish Rider.” That fellow was likely on his way to battle the Turks. Le Brun’s warrior, in medieval parade dress, wanders the woods only to gaze at a rectangular tower that, in two variants, rises from water like The Lady of the Lake. Inadvertent comedy lurks behind façades painted with abstract designs that look wonderfully like Le Brun’s own paintings. Technical delicacy aside, this is close to Monty Python territory.

The dim horseman of “The River” (2001-03) or the watercolor version of “The Given,” (2004) appears to have fed on Looking-glass cakes. An element of parody—however unintended—recalls John Tenniel’s White Knight, modeled on Cervantes’ dreamy Don Quixote. Is Le Brun tilting at abstraction? If only it were so. But the weight of Wagnerian libretto that hangs over the show argues against it.

Although Le Brun acknowledges the influence of Giorgio de Chirico’s writings, what we see on canvas is eerily indebted [TO] Carlo Carrá: repeated renditions of rectangular structures; the horse and rider; the lone sail against an empty sky. Le Brun’s “Road, Red and Green” (2001-03) is the compositional mirror image of Carrá’s “Soldato a Cavallo.” His conceit of the plumed rider gives us Carrá’s Cavalier of the West suited up for Dungeons & Dragons. Carrá abstracted from the Italian landscape ( Look up “Il Mulino di Sant’ Anna” or “Casa Abbandonata,” among others.); Le Brun, by contrast, applies an abstraction to imaginary landscapes reconstructed from various antecedents. The difference has consequences.

Le Brun is a gifted conjuror, not a story teller. As a pictorial effort at mythopoetic narrative, the exhibition over-reaches. It neither unifies disparate visual sources nor makes the literary ones comprehensible in visual terms. Instead, it displays a mélange of influences struggling to resuscitate the semantic force of earlier painters and movements.

Le Brun has made a manner of his own muse. We can hope it is only temporary.


“The Given” at Marlborough Chelsea (211 West 19 Street; 212.463.8634).

©2004 Maureen Mullarkey

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