An Arcadian Modernist

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This is no radical statement: on surface appearances there is no correlation between Nicholas Poussin – the 17th century classicist, and Cy Twombly – the 20th century abstract expressionist. Poussin created the rules, which to him were righteous, rigid and robust, while Twombly consistently broke them, favouring a more spontaneous approach. Twombly’s art is unleashed onto canvas one explosion after another. Poussin’s line is laid out one-by-one – his structure forming a foundation for the painting’s meaning. Yet, Twombly declared he wanted to be Poussin, and this is what the exhibition at the Dulwich Picture Gallery ‘Twombly and Poussin: Arcadian Painters’ explores – how these two artists provide (in hindsight) great insight into the other.

The grounding of comparison for this exhibition is their subject matter – Arcadia. Classic themes rooting from the ancient civilisations, had become the fad in Renaissance Italy, and Poussin – a Frenchman living in Rome – carried these motifs into his own genre of Heroic landscapes a century later. It transpires that Twombly too lived and worked in Rome – at a crucial part of his career – where he fell under the influence of the Golden Age: a paradise, pre urbanisation when nature was at peace with people. Both, then, by choosing to illustrate tales from Virgil, Homer and the Classicists that followed, are storytellers, or history painters.

By far the loudest speaking piece of the Twombly exhibits (and I would argue of the Poussins too) is ‘Hero and Leandro (To Christopher Marlowe)’  – a painting that makes pink transformed from tainted and limp, to crisp and all-together commanding. It is love in all its stages and aspects. It is physical, as then art on this topic should surely be: Handprints grab, defining intimacy; drips drop of tears and of blood commemorating loss, and markings form scars of pains that won’t past, they will only rise to the surface as exposing impasto. The explosions of colour are erotic, while washes of tinted whites are serene and fantastical. All the emotions caused by Hero drowning and Leandro’s heart breaking, surface as Christopher Marlowe told; and the art is as poetic as the original text.

A comparison of two artists as the thesis of an exhibition could (I admit myself) appear like the driest reaches of art history. But what has been produced is far from that – it’s an intelligent, insightful and well-researched study of the two art giants that raises a plethora of questions about the other. The danger of course of comparison is competition, and the exhibition suggests a favour towards Twombly. Exemplified by his ‘Four Seasons’ quartet that is the triumph in the final overture, while Poussin’s ‘Four Seasons’ on A4 prints are mounted only as a reference point. It is in this last room that we reach the superbly-timed climax of our understanding of Twombly’s oeuvre, the climax of how the two artistes’ work are in fact a complimentary paradox, but the anticlimax of what Poussin’s contribution to the canon of art history was.

Poussin is mainly seen in this exhibition to facilitate our appreciation of Twombly. Even in the first room, his unfortunately faded heroic landscapes, dreary and plainer looking than every before, only illuminate Twombly’s art as fresh and alert. Admittedly, Poussin’s part in art history is too giant to narrate fully in an exhibition of this size (- comfortably small). Furthermore, since Twombly’s death is early July, visitors such as myself, have come to expect a tribute to the modern artist. (Of course, the Dulwich Picture Gallery didn’t know what was to come when they planned the exhibition to open in June, so this is only ‘good fortune.’)

Are we more appreciative of something once it’s gone? The beauty of a creative being is we still have what they have made after they have gone, and ‘Hero and Leandro’ and the Four Seasons are five particularly compelling specimens of the artist’s pre-eminence in 20th and early 21st century art.

 

http://www.dulwichpicturegallery.org.uk/exhibitions/now_on_show/twombly_and_poussin.aspx

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