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Get to the Dulwich Picture Gallery this weekend for the last days of "Twombly and Poussin" + Interview with Dulwich's curator: Dr. Xavier Bray

Posted: 23/09/2011 00:00

If you're looking for something to do this weekend and are in the London area, may I politely recommend that you get yourself down to the Dulwich Picture Gallery for the last days of Twombly and Poussin: Arcadian Painters (closes Sunday the 25th of September). In fact, remove the "politely recommend" from the last sentence and substitute with "insist".

The exhibition places works of Old Master Nicolas Poussin (1594 - 1665) next those of the late contemporary artist Cy Twombly (1928-2011). Now I know the concept of pitting contemporary art works against old masters isn't exactly new (Twombly himself is pitted in a rather aesthetically simplified way against Turner and Monet in an exhibition in Stockholm next month) - some have raised the objection that it could devalue the artworks of one or both artists. But I found that the pairing of Twombly with Poussin allows new readings of both artists and allows new interpretations of the work.

Aesthetically, Twombly's paintings and sculptures allowed me to experience the sculptural aspect of Poussin's artwork. The 17th Century Classicist used light boxes and wax models to understand how light fell on fabric and skin, and the physicality of Twombly's work - especially the thick paint of Hero and Leandro (To Christopher Marlowe) (1995) and the uneasy physicality of sculptures like Cycnus (1975) - brings this to the fore. I found myself admiring the weight of the classical paintings such as The Arcadian Shepherds (c. 1628-1629) (most of them rendered matt for the exhibition) and the incredibly advanced way that Poussin has of creating a transcendent situation by understanding how perfectly to place his figures. Twombly's (somewhat more scattered) understanding of this placement is also shown in works such as Apollo (1975), where the work creates a sort of ordering by listing (in Twombly's trademark untidy calligraphy) all the names of Apollo, and animals and plants that were "sacred to" him (as Twombly writes) under the name "APOLLO" on a canvas.

Jonathan Jones in The Guardian calls the relationship between the artists "uneasy". For him, Twombly is "a Romantic" and Poussin "a classicist" - Twombly, he says, "lets it all hang out" and "Poussin keeps it all reined in", but these stark definitions don't do justice to the sheer energy that crackle through Poussin's situations. Poussin's work at its best "lets it all hang out" with the immense wash of spirituality created by imposing a rigidity and then, necessarily subverting and transcending that stiffness through sheer placement of figures to give a sense of the ethereal and the divine. If that's not proto-"Romantic", I'm not sure what is.

The connection between Twombly and Poussin is not simply a visceral one, but rather one of intellectual influence. Most reviews of the show (including this indignant one in The Daily Telegraph) ignored the fact that Poussin and Twombly do share more than the fact that they were artists living in Rome. In the Bacchanalia (1977) series, the younger artist directly referred to his predecessor through a "footnote" (a photocopy of a Poussin affixed to the surface of his own), and he once said that, if he could have been any painter, he would have been Poussin. His work is flush with references to the older painter that help us understand the shifting terrain upon which Twombly locates himself, in some cases just as much as the rich tapestry of Graeco-Roman mythology.

The exhibition is subtitled "Arcadian Artists", and the examination of the use of the idea of "Arcadia" in each is integral to the show. This is a theme that spans both the Classical and the Romantic, and is essential to the reading of both artists' work. The Arcadian ideal - a rugged but beautiful pastoral, where Death is also (Et in Arcadia Ego) - precedes the ordered, Apollinian Georgic and allows for multiplicity and chaos. Their paintings both inhabit this Dionysian space - a space of myth, dream and possibility, but in very different ways. This comparison allows not only a new view of Poussin, but also of Twombly. The former allows one to understand the ordering in the latter's work, the fencing of the différance of the Arcadian world and the mapping he is subjecting this world to. Without Poussin it is very hard to understand how this Arcadian world works in Twombly.

Exiting the show past Tacita Dean's moving video portrait of a day in Twombly's life, I realised I had learned something about both painters, the history and mythology they were engaging with and the very similar world in which they located themselves. Despite their vast and noted differences, Twombly and Poussin work incredibly well together (especially in Dulwich's wonderfully lighted halls) and allow us to see new things in the work of both - a spiritual and intellectual transcendence in Poussin and the sense of order and a created space in Twombly.

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The exhibition was the brainchild of Nicholas Culliman, a Twombly expert from the Tate, with the help of the experts at Dulwich. For more information, I telephoned Dr. Xavier Bray, Chief Curator at the Dulwich Picture Gallery, a Poussin expert, who assisted Culliman in putting the show together, to find out a bit more.

Q: How do Twombly and Poussin interact in a show like this?

A: The more I think about it, Twombly uses Poussin almost like a framework, a frame of reference. Poussin is an artist who is trying to go back to the emotional self, for example in the Extreme Unction (1644), but the way he works on it is by reconstructing, by providing a composition which is so perfect that you're not just witnessing it visually, but also intellectually. And Twombly's quite fascinated by that, but he does it in a very different way - he likes to break it down to an instinctive abstraction of the Dionysian moment. I'm wondering if one can apply logic to Twombly (which is sometimes worth not doing at all and letting the visual take over). But the way he uses that drawing in his composition of Bacchanalia (1977) - it's a photocopy of a [Poussin] drawing which he puts graph paper in front of - he almost attempts to give it a structure by squaring it out, like the traditional artist's technique where you square everything out to see how it fits. There's a sense of using that graph paper to give a bit of structure and contrast it with that stampede-like paint underneath it that looks like mud that's been stamped on in a Dionysian moment. With Twombly there is a real return to instinctive painting - he was always trying to do that by drawing with his left hand, by drawing at night to get him into the right mood to come out with these kind of pictures and I think referring to Poussin would be a very good jumping-board.

Q: Are exhibitions like this useful excercises?

A: I think they are because they make you question things - a lot of people are saying that they rediscovered Poussin and seen him in a different light and likewise with Twombly. [These] are exhibitions that try and make you think about things and make you think about style, make you think about composition, make you think about the individuality of the artist. Twombly and Poussin are very different and yet they share similar fascinations and interests. I think it's a very good thing to do and it depends on your public. I think the public likes to sometimes see what it is used to, but other publics are more inquisitive and like to compare and contrast and find their own way.

Q: How have the public reacted to this show?

A: I think this is quite a difficult show - not a blockbuster as such, but what's been really nice for Dulwich is that it's attracted a lot of artists - a lot of student artists, but also a lot of well-established artists, it's attracted a young audience as well and it's attracted those who like Poussin. The artist Leon Kossof, for example, who visited yesterday, did not look once at Cy Twombly, but he was fascinated by Poussin, so you sometimes get people coming to see one artist or another...

Q: I came wanting to see the Poussins and ended up appreciating Cy Twombly more than I did previously...

A: I think that can happen - normally you see Twombly in a very sterile or very clean-cut architectural space on his own. I think this is probably very good for those who want to push Twombly into the limelight as well because you're showing him next to one of the great Old Masters, but I think you have to be selected, you have to curate it. I think this had to be a curated show, it's not a show that the artist, Twombly, would have put on himself, and it's probably thanks to the friendship he had wit the curator that it ever happened. Some artists refuse to be seen next to a great old master, because they're petrified to do so and others are more confidant, like Lucien Freud - we had a Freud show once in the gallery and his work was interspersed in the space - you'd be looking at an Old Master and suddenly Freud would pop out on the wall, so there are different ways of doing it. The reason I liked the Twombly / Poussin exhibition was that it wasn't an obvious visual connection and therefore you had to really search longer and the rewards were greater, where maybe with Turner and Twombly it's visually more obvious and though it may be very beautiful at first, it may get repetitive, whereas with Poussin it was surprisingly rich. What was so good about this exhibition was that they both had these themes that they worked on throughout their careers.

Q: Which for you was the most interesting juxtaposition and why?

A: Coming in, I love seeing Twombly's sculpture next to the Poussin's Landscape With Travellers Resting: A Roman Road (1648), where you've got blocks of stone in the composition. Poussin was interested in using shapes and orifices and space as a way of expressing something. There's something very funerary in Poussin's compositions - it's a very spiritual painting, even though it's just a landscape with a road and people on the side of it. There's something very special about that picture and seeing the sculpture by Twombly (Pasargarde (1994)) next to it brought out aspects of that painting that worked for me.

Q: Finally, which was your "top Twombly" and what was your "top Poussin" in the show?

A: My favourite Cy Twombly painting was by far the Hero and Leandro, which I found very sensual - the pinks he uses are very feminine as well and there's a sense of being washed away as well through the movement of the painting you can feel Leander being pulled away and drowning - the narrative is there, even if it's being treated in a very abstract way. And tha'st in front of our two sensual Poussins that are about Love (Rinaldo and Armida (1628-30) and Venus and Mercury (1626-27)) - where Poussin is trying to explain what Love is in his composition. I think that's one of the nicest rooms, actually.

 

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