Some thoughts on ‘Twombly and Poussin: Arcadian Painters’ at the Dulwich Picture Gallery.
(This essay was mostly written just before the death of Twombly, and whilst I have no wish to speak ill of the recently deceased, it was going after something other than the artist himself; so let it stand.)
“Novelty in painting does not consist above all in choosing a subject that has never been seen before, but upon a good and novel arrangement and expression, thanks to which the subject, though in itself ordinary and worn, becomes new and singular.”
Nicholas Poussin, from ‘Della Novità’
Quite so, quite so. Why then does Nicholas Cullinan, the Tate curator seconded to Dulwich to hang ‘Twombly and Poussin: Arcadian Painters’, base his whole exposition upon the literary correspondences of the two artists’ subject matter and the incidental parallels of their life stories? Why, despite opening his catalogue essay with this very quote, does he so studiously ignore all manner of ‘good and novel arrangement and expression’?
In the second paragraph of his catalogue essay, Cullinan highlights ‘the most pressing questions raised by this exhibition, namely, what is the discursive relationship between a title, an image and an annotated inscription in the work of Twombly and, more broadly, how might meaning be conveyed through abstraction as opposed to figuration? In the fraught relationship between an abstract painting and its title, where might subject matter be located and fixed?’
Where to start? Well, I could suggest that abstract paintings, though often having titles, don’t have a subject matter. Or that an ‘annotated inscription’ on a canvas hardly constitutes an abstract painting by any definition that I can see: since when was writing (or even scribbling artistically and semi-illegibly) abstract? But more; there is something deeply complacent in the conceit of an exhibition which chooses to ignore what is plain to see – that Poussin is a very great painter, and that a comparison with Twombly rapidly exposes the latter to pictorial humiliation, whilst simultaneously doing the former no favours either. For example, I stood in the first room of this exhibition attempting to look at one of the best paintings in the country, Poussin’s ‘Roman Road’, a spatial structure so lucid it is rarely equalled, trying to blot out from my peripheral vision the gruesome Twombly panels either side (Bassano in Teverina, 1985). Their sheer blackened boorishness meant that I failed.
Where is the sense in this? It is not in the looking, since it is impossible to make proper comparisons between the pictorial form of Poussin (not that I think Poussin is a formalist) and the literal gestures of Twombly. In order to devise reasons for putting these two painters together, Cullinan has had to close his eyes to the visual for the sake of the literary. By contrast, the meaningful visual dialogues between paintings in the exhibition ‘Cézanne and Poussin: the Classical Vision of Landscape’ in Edinburgh, 1990, remain still vivid and significant twenty-one years later.
Like all great visual art, Poussin’s painting is founded upon what he modestly describes as ‘a good and novel arrangement and expression’, by which of course he means intelligent and inventive visual form, made ‘new and singular’. And like all such examples in art, there is a good degree of abstract-ness about this. Let’s take Poussin’s ‘Venus and Mercury’ in the present show. Now I don’t want to discount the human interest, or the story, or the allegory, or the eroticism even, as insisted upon by the catalogue, but there is so much more at work here than those things, so much more that is visual and revelatory, so much more to be gained from the visible fact of the painting, as opposed to interpretation or backstory. For starters, there is the shape of Venus’s body. I know ‘shape’ is not a good word here, but I mean it in a three-dimensional sense. Look at how her body turns in space, from the slant of her hips, the turn of her waist, the ‘address’ of Mercury with her breasts (OK, it is erotic), the turn of her head away from him, to us, then the glance away of her eyes. Then the attitude of her arm, the turn of his head to her, the space created by his leg, occupied by the arm and pointing hand. And all of that works on us, together at once, as a relational entity, as an intensely interlinked visual construct. There is no name for all this stuff, seen together in such a specific visual conjunction; it exists overwhelmingly as visual form; its outcome is first and foremost felt in its affecting ‘abstract-ness’.
But I want to straight away distance myself from the odious analytical impositions of some modern art theory which divide up figurative painting from the past into lines of force, sections, triangles and other geometries (see Bridget Riley at the National, for example), in the hope of establishing historic validity for the most boring kinds of flat, or designed, so-called ‘abstract’ composition. We should be wary of making such retrospective impediments to seeing the freely plastic and spatial achievements of figurative painting of the past for what they are. What we are seeing, in our example at hand, in the abstract-ness of Poussin, is altogether a fuller and more three-dimensional sense of imaginative plastic and spatial form. You can see the effort – physical, intellectual and emotional – that went into this inventive visual creation. This is what I love about Poussin, the striving always for a marriage of intellect and sensibility. Even when I don’t like the painting – which I admit is quite often – I love the ambition.
Let’s look at another Poussin, ‘Rinaldo and Armida’. OK, again, there is eroticism here too, the space is erotic. Look at those arms. The left arm covering his right hand, resting on his head, then right across the space to the withheld arm with the dagger. Awesome. Taken in by us in an instant, this space/time drama unfolds before we can start to think about titles, stories etc. We see it, it’s real. I definitely like these two paintings.
So what has Mr. Cullinan given us as companion to these two great works? Twombly’s ‘Hero and Leandro’. This is actually one of the better Twombly’s in the show – at least it is painted rather than written – but what possible comparison is there to be drawn when we stand and look between this work and the two Poussins? All the connections are literary, so why even have them in the same room? Even when Twombly is painting freely, his manner is so arch that the most physical gesture seems like a conceptual conceit. A brush stroke remains a brush stroke, a drip is a literal drip, anything else is romanticised wishful thinking. As I have written elsewhere, a smudge of paint is ‘a smudge of paint’ and no more abstract than a smudge of ketchup, until and unless it becomes part of a meaningful new form.
So Twombly for me is not really very abstract at all, my reasoning being that his literal-ness is the opposite of Poussin’s abstract-ness. It means I lose interest, because it means he is not really visual. As such, that doesn’t matter, he can be as figurative or as literal or as conceptual as he likes, and that’s his business. What rankles here is the demonstration yet again of a misunderstanding on the part of some of our foremost curators and art institutions of the real value and nature of the paintings in their care. How else would they be able to mount a show of such disingenuousness in its professed insights into painting? How else would they be able to show together works which have such a negative effect upon one another?
I know it is a bad moment to say so and very much against the grain of Twombly’s rising acclaim, but I don’t think he was very good. I also know that not many people get on too well with Poussin, and I would have to admit he is often difficult. But Twombly, to his credit, seems to have revered him, and is quoted as saying he would have liked ’to have been Poussin’. I suspect Poussin would have been horrified at the thought of being Twombly. My surmise is that beyond some shared literary interests and life-story coincidences they had little in common; I’m in no doubt at all they have absolutely nothing mutual as painters.