Twombly and Poussin: Arcadian Painters at Dulwich Picture Gallery By Alan O’Cain
The recently announced death at age 83 of American artist Cy Twombly adds incredible poignancy to the new exhibition at Dulwich Picture Gallery, which is just a 12-minute train journey south from London and the country’s oldest dedicated art space.
To mark the gallery’s 200th Anniversary, exciting young curator Nicholas Cullinan has followed up the work he did for Tate’s 2008 Cy Twombly retrospective by staging an intimate exploration of the influence of Nicholas Poussin (1594-1665) on a legend of American art. “I would’ve liked to have been Poussin, if I’d had a choice, in another time,” Twombly has stated. Through six rooms Cullinan places works by American abstract artist Cy Twombly alongside key Poussin paintings (from Dulwich Picture Gallery’s own extensive collection and elsewhere). The effect is breathtaking. Twombly’s spare and runic visual expanses somehow lead us to consider Poussin’s formal classical compositions in a new light (a southern, Mediterranean, Italian light it could be said), whilst Poussin’s mythological, biblical and allegorical subject-matter sends us back to Twombly in search of shared narrative and textual themes. The sum is more than the parts; and more art from diverse periods and genres should be shown like this. Each painting, drawing and sculpture has a stronger individual identity because of its place in the symbiosis.
In the centre of the exhibition, resting alone in the astonishingly atmospheric Mausoleum, is a sculpture from Twombly’s personal collection never before publicly displayed: That Which I Should Have Done,I Did not Do. The work is a simple wooden box wrapped in velvet, topped by a stone found by Twombly in Italy, upon which lies a black-coloured bronze cast of a plastic rose. The title, taken from an Ivan Albright painting Twombly admired, is etched on a brass plate screwed into the wood. Here, in one piece cleverly displayed, is the wit and melancholy that characterizes Twombly’s take on life, and his place in the scheme of things and the history of art.
As though radiating from it, works in the other rooms by both artists trade in tragedy, lust and passion. Twombly uses graphic marks, words and splashes and dribbles of colour in contrast to Poussin’s measured figurative arrangements, but both exhibit classical stateliness, balance and symbolism. Twombly and Poussin each moved to Rome aged thirty, and each painted versions of The Four Seasons in their mid-60s. These landmark moments bookend the exhibition. Twombly’s Quattro Stagioni (A Painting in Four Parts) makes a superb finale to the show: four huge portrait-format interpretations dominate the small last room (Poussin’s equivalents sadly forbidden to travel from The Louvre). A mesmerizing and moving coda is provided by Tacita Dean’s 16mm film portrait of Twombly, Edwin Parker (2011), projected with immense presence on a screen suspended in a darkened, adjacent, Old Master-hung Dulwich gallery space.
This is a small, beautifully-formed exhibition that invites us to look at cleverly selected works in depth, draw our own conclusions, and savour with new vision the emotional intensity in both artists’ passionate creations. It is a fitting tribute to Twombly and a perfect symbol of the upliftingly ceaseless progression of art across generations past and still to come.
By Alan O’Cain (professional artist and freelance art historian – www.aoart.co.uk)
Exhibition runs until 25 September 2011