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Cy Twombly and Poussin

Opposites in revealing juxtaposition

6 August 2011

12:00 AM

6 August 2011

12:00 AM

When a major artist dies while an exhibition of his or her work is up and running, there is inevitably a surge in visitor numbers. Consequently, the death of Cy Twombly at the beginning of last month has sent along to Dulwich a number of people who didn’t know his work to find out what all the fuss was about. Others, the long-standing admirers of Twombly, will visit Dulwich with sadness in their hearts that this delightful and surprising artist, this genius of the wayward mark, will make no more new work. Dulwich is not the easiest of London galleries to get to, but I recommend this show, not just for its quota of Twomblys, but also for the added bonus of Poussin, seen here in great glory. Their juxtaposition is a stimulating one.

For the uninitiated, it is an unexpected and perhaps perplexing encounter. Poussin, the fount of French classicism, and Twombly, the wild child of abstract expressionism, don’t at first seem to have much in common. But as the realist painter Anthony Eyton points out, the meeting of two such seemingly opposite painters is in itself exciting; and actually their shared concerns are greater than expected. As Eyton says, ‘It is the air or space in their pictures which unites (and enhances) them, aided by the sensitive gallery lighting and white walls.’ He says he has never before seen so much air in Poussin — and Eyton is an artist with a lifelong admiration of this particular Old Master.

My habit on first entering an exhibition is to walk through to the end in order to gauge the extent and layout of the rooms. Even when you know the galleries this can be useful, and nowhere more so than in this new show. The last room, which is devoted to Twombly’s ‘Four Seasons (A Painting in Four Parts)’, 1993–5, from the Tate’s collection, gives an excellent introduction to his work, and for those familiar with this artist, offers a supreme pleasure. The temporary exhibition galleries at Dulwich are not spacious, sometimes being unkindly likened to an elaborate corridor, but the last room shows off this magnificent Twombly polyptych rather well, though it’s still impossible to look at the paintings from any distance.

If you study them in close-up, you can see the way the paint has been massaged into the canvas in soft explosions of colour, with minimal figurative imagery, the emphasis on writing, and much freedom given to the paint in long vertical runs and crosscurrents. The marks in ‘Spring’ are pointed and thrusting, surging with red and yellow energy (sap/blood + sun); ‘Summer’ is the palest and most tremulous, full of heat-haze, bleached out apart from three drenching sunbursts breaking in an upward diagonal across the central space; ‘Autumn’, my favourite, is more rounded and sensual; ‘Winter’ is darkest, the yellow moving into green and then the black of decomposition. I recommend starting here and then moving backwards through the exhibition to obtain a real sense of what Twombly could do.

In the next room, Twombly’s ‘Pan’ collage, with its smeared paint, writing and crossed stems of chard or beet, makes a tremendous contrast to Poussin’s great frieze-like ‘Triumph of Pan’ painting. The exquisite pen drawing for it is further contrasted with Twombly’s white-painted pan-pipe sculpture. The sculptures (which the poet Frank O’Hara described as ‘witty and funereal’) are one of the chief delights of the show, and will not necessarily be familiar even to those who know Twombly’s paintings. The Apollo room, which contains a lovely Twombly painting ‘The Second Part of the Return from Parnassus’, its imagery ranging from the sexual to the trigonometric, also has ‘Cycnus’, a palm frond sculpture, symbolic of both life and death.

‘Venus and Eros’ is a key room in the exhibition, dominated by Twombly’s luscious ‘Hero and Leandro (To Christopher Marlowe)’ painting, a stormy sea of pigment with his trademark pink worked heavily into the impasto, drizzled with white. Opposite is ‘Rinaldo and Armida’, one of Poussin’s most passionate pictures. Compare the provocative wall of drawings in the next room: two Twomblys flanking a Poussin, raising the whole question of what drawing is or does.

Script, graffiti, language — all play an important and interlinked role in Twombly’s art. Words, or their scribbled equivalent, feature prominently, but this artist’s written and rewritten words are often so messy that school teachers would be appalled. That’s when you have to dislocate what you see from what you expect, and instead of reading these marks just as words, allow them to be images as well. Then the fact that a word has been gone over or crossed out assumes a different meaning: as an image whose contour lines have been redrawn — a commonplace of experimental draughtsmanship. At the same time, the meaning of words remains important. As Twombly said, ‘I never really separated painting and literature because I’ve always used reference.’

There are some interesting parallels between Twombly and Poussin. Both are thought to be ‘difficult’ artists (in other words, their work is more intellectually demanding than a lot of the visual wallpaper that’s counted as art these days), both arrived in Rome as foreigners aged around 30, both were obsessed with classical mythology and both painted versions of the ‘Four Seasons’ at the age of 64. Although Poussin was classically methodical and Twombly was romantically mercurial, the correspondences between them are perhaps closer than their work suggests. And Twombly is famously quoted as saying, ‘I would’ve liked to have been Poussin, if I’d had a choice, in another time.’ Both had an undeniable gift for mingling grandeur and simplicity.

There are additional Poussins to be seen at Dulwich, including the five remaining paintings from his first series of the ‘Seven Sacraments’, lent by the Duke of Rutland’s Trustees. And Tacita Dean’s new 16mm film of Twombly is showing in another room. I always find it slightly distressing that museum visitors seem prepared to spend more time reading information boards and looking at films than they do in front of the actual art. In this case, Dean’s defiantly subtle film portrait may be too much for even the most determined, dwelling lovingly as it does on the textures of Twombly’s tweed jacket and stubbly chin. The best moments are beautifully composed still-life shots of the contents of the studio, a crammed, cramped and outwardly uninspiring space in Lexington, Virginia. Once again, Twombly’s sculptures come to the fore. And in the end, it is his work we are left with — an incomparably rich inheritance.

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