Driving down to Dulwich earlier today, I decided to rely on the brain power of my sat-nav to guide the way. I thought it was a fairly safe decision to use a gadget designed for navigating to help me on my way but here I was mistaken. Admittedly, I was treated to a delightfully scenic tour of London before happening on Dulwich but I got there in the end.
The Dulwich Picture Gallery, as always, is worth a visit for the sheer beauty of Soane’s architecture (I have a thing for Soane since one of my first ever work placements was at the Sir John Soane Museum) and its impressive permanent collection.
Dulwich Picture Gallery. Own photograph.
Twombly and Poussin: Arcadian Painters attempts to combine the works of Cy Twombly and Nicolas Poussin. Both artists moved to Rome aged 30 and found their lifelong subject matter in this amazing city, inspired by the worlds of Classical antiquities.
Nicolas Poussin, The Nurture of Jupiter, mid-1630s. Image via www.guardian.co.uk.
There is no doubt that both these artists are great and that there is a link but I don’t think this bold idea quite pulls through.
Poussin’s paintings are detailed canvases which draw the viewer into his Classical narratives. Although Twombly’s works draw you in, they draw you into a space where you often feel displaced and overwhelmed. This hazy sea of paint is what we may expect from an Abstract Expressionist and it delights us as we try to understand and read these canvases. The effects both artists achieve are very different and why shouldn’t they be. After all, they are two very different artists.
Cy Twombly, Bacchanalia-Fall (5 Days in November), 1977. Image via www.guardian.co.uk.
Twombly and Poussin approach their subjects in dissimilar ways. For Poussin, the Classical is both a motif and a form of critique. It is his sole subject that he explored in a figurative manner. His formal, yet dramatically powerful works are carefully planned compositions in which he removes himself, and his own feelings, from the equation. For Twombly, Classical antiquity is baffling; it is the allure of a romantic world expressed through his abstract palette that he makes his subject. The fluidity of his painting results in drips, splodges and near explosions of colour and expression. His works are infused with snippets of text, almost obliterated by heavy layers of textured paint and it is this romantic notion of hidden text that has appealed to writers throughout his career.
The artists may have studied the same subject matter (which is no coincidence) and Twombly may have idolised Poussin but they are poles apart. On paper, they may be connected but when seen side-by-side on the walls at Dulwich, I’m not sure that they really are. Although Twombly was inspired by Poussin and wanted to be Poussin (he once said ‘I would’ve liked to have been Poussin, if I’d had a choice, in another time’), he fell in love with a different Rome to that of his hero – a modern, vibrant and frenetic city.
Nicolas Poussin, The Triumph of Pan, c. 1636. Image via www.guardian.co.uk.
For me, one of the highlights was Twombly’s Hero and Leandro telling the classical legend of doomed lovers. The painting was executed after Twombly read Marlowe’s poem on the legend. Drowning is expressed by the turbulent waves of dripping paint, expressive brushstrokes and rippling textures across the surface. The work is entrancing; the mesmeric colours conjure up the passion and emotions of the myth.
Cy Twombly, Hero and Leandro, 1985. Image via www.guardian.co.uk.
So, what do Twombly and Poussin have in common? They both painted. They both painted in Rome about Classical antiquity.
In the exhibition’s defence, I don’t think it is attempting to compare and contrast the two artists. Yes, some of the pairings provoke comparisons but that is not necessarily the point. Rather it aims to show these artists journeying through a shared ambition, albeit in different centuries and in different styles. Actually, I think the wall labels confuse visitors here. Although they are brilliantly informative, for once, they are too detailed and almost imposing.
The final room consists of Twombly’s Four Seasons which are always spectacular to view – an all-encompassing journey of colour and time. Although Dulwich hasn’t been able to loan the Poussin ‘equivalents’ from the Louvre, they have included reproductions of the works so full marks to them for common sense. The show ends with Twombly and I think Twombly dominates the show. Poussin comes off a dull second which is ridiculous as he is obviously one of the greats but this just doesn’t work.
Cy Twombly, Quattro Stagioni, Autunno, 1993-5. Image via www.guardian.co.uk.
There is a special Poussin display in the main galleries showing the series of five Sacraments (held by the Duke of Rutland) mounted on green walls and, here, Poussin is able to shine rather than being overshadowed. On the Farrow & Ball white walls of the joint exhibition – clean, crisp and beautiful – Poussin is lost and his work diminished by the brash confidence of modernity.
Also on show is Tacita Dean’s film portrait of Twombly which unfortunately plunges the permanent collection of room 10 into darkness. The work offers glimpses into Twombly’s life and world. The suspension of a small screen creates a rather magical and intimate viewing experience and it is particularly poignant to see Twombly in action at the end of the show.
Tacita Dean, Edwin Parker, 2011. Image via www.artvehicle.com.
An In Memorian sign has been placed at the start as a mark of respect to Twombly who sadly passed away on 5th July this year, just after the exhibition had opened. This exhibition is a great testimony to his works and it is a suitable tribute that he is shown alongside his idol.
The exhibition is brave and, for that, I think Dulwich deserve credit but I’d have preferred to see the works apart and admire the two artists separately, giving them the individual attention they deserve. It does, however, give pause for thought and provoke us to reconsider our opinions on these two artists. You’ll never again be able to look at a Poussin without thinking of Twombly and you’ll never again be able to look at a Twombly without thinking of his idol.
Twombly and Poussin: Arcadian Painters is at the Dulwich Picture Gallery until 25th September 2011, www.dulwichpicturegallery.org.uk.