Abstract Critical

Turner, Monet, Twombly: Later Paintings, Tate Liverpool

Written by Gary Wragg

Joseph Mallord William Turner, St Benedetto looking towards Fusina, exh1843, Tate, 2011

A painting determines how you move in relation to it in order to see it, how you adjust to it, sometimes apparently in a random way or with a more conscious series of mental or physical adjustments. Time is needed to fine-tune, to just look, essential to make a genuine contact. In turn your temperament, mind and emotions determine how you relate to the paintings, which of your nuances respond to those in the paintings, as you look at the points of ignition within the exhibition. When they are good, as are many examples in this fabulous exhibition, you can be riveted to the spot, transformed to a state of stillness, manifesting movement within stillness, in which a sense of a man and his times, both vast and miniscule, materialises. The link between stillness and movement is the essence of the life and opens up when immersed in the simplicity and complexity of looking.

How lucky that in Jeremy Lewison we have a curator who can organise such an exceptionally beautiful show as this at Tate Liverpool. The excellence of the hang  provides the context, without interruption from the crowds who mill around as at Tate Modern. According to Lewinson, the exhibition is about the late preoccupations of J.M.W Turner (1775-1851), Claude Monet (1840-1926) and Cy Twombly (1928-2011). He raises issues such as what constitutes old age, how painters deal with that predicament and the changes involved, how the late work of all three artists surmounted infirmity, decline of health and bereavement. The evolution of the work of these three painters in this context has been superbly spotted by the curator. He emphasises and links the timelessness of concerns which, in different guises and to varying levels of success, evoke the profound, the spiritual and the sublime.

Cy Twombly, Untitled 2007 © Cy Twombly Foundation

I had some initial misgivings and apprehension of Twombly. In the past I have not been a fan and I had preferred his earlier paintings, those before the cool handwriting blackboard scrawls of the mid-sixties and seventies. Yet, however good they are Turner and Monet are both somewhat over-familiar and the inclusion of Twombly’s energy opens up the exhibition, so that great paintings can become new and fresh again. All three painters have in common a sensitivity to light – Turner’s dying words were ‘The Sun is God’ – and a conflation of touch, memory and transience. It is Twombly’s mark-making that makes him a worthy addition, where his place could have been taken by Rothko. Having said that, relatively speaking there were a few duff Monets and Twomblys.


Landscape and Light

Turner and Monet were great landscape painters. Turner learnt a great deal from Claude as shown by the National Gallery hanging Claude’s Embarkation of St Ursula, (1648) and Turner’s Dido Building Carthage (1815) together. Monet in turn was influenced by Turner. Both share the yellow-blue polarity which is a distinct and constant element in French landscape painting. Turner experimented a lot with mediums and oils, in particular meglip and, before Cezanne, shifted his watercolour transparencies into his oil paintings and oil effects into his watercolours. Turner and Monet’s exceptional feeling for tonal nuances, both subtle and dramatic, were earned through great effort and by extensive working in the landscape. Their eyes were attuned to weather, changing skies and light, and there are extensive accounts of their trials and tribulations with wind, rivers, mountains and seas. Turner had himself strapped to the mast of the Ariel, and Monet was blown into the sea at the remote beach by the Manneporte at Étretat, easel, painting materials and all. This dicing with nature and the elements placed the sublime at the core of their best works, even when their paintings were completed, from memory, in the studio. I agree with Ruskin that the sublime in painting is the ‘effect of greatness upon feelings… whether of matter, space, power, virtue or beauty’. Twombly in comparison was a city painter. His sense of the sublime, though not as great as Rothko’s, is, like Rothko’s filtered through an urban viewpoint. Twombly’s tones are more limited as with most city painters, yet he shares with Turner and Monet a preoccupation with light. His two works called Untitled (Sunset) (both 1986) make good use of empty white paper, as do many of his canvases, yet the effect is more brittle than the light in Turner and Monet, his tones harsher.

Hero and Learndo, 1984, (A Panting in Four Parts), Part I, 1984, oil, housepain, paint-stick on canvas, 167 x 200cm. Framed caption: ‘He’s gone / up bubbles / all his amorous breath’ (c) Cy Twombly. Under fair use from the Cy Twombly Foundation.

Twombly’s triptych of Hero and Leandro (1981-84) is beautifully placed in front of you as you enter the ground floor gallery. On the is left Turner’s The Parting of Hero and Leandro (1837). A glimpse of a disappearing sunset at the left of his canvas is offset by the light source of an exquisitely and flatly painted diagonal half moon with halo. This is a masterly example of how a small warm-cool accent can electrify a whole work. The moonlight is reflected in the water as Leandro swims from the Hellspont towards Hero, his lover high priestess, only to be hurled against the rocks and a tragic end beneath the waves. In the first of Twombly’s three canvases, amidst the sensuous whites, green, alizarin, black and carmine, is a scrawled, messy lettering of Leandro, evoking his blood and disappearance in the waves. On the second canvas the transition away from the violence of drowning to the calm or helplessness of loss is shown by a white-green light with an accent of black trace at the bottom centre and a small mark of emerald green. The third canvas has an even, calm and vacuous white-grey light. Footnoting the triptych is fourth small written panel of a quote from Keats. Across the three canvases there is a very poetic sinking feeling from up to down, down and down. The transition of mood is tangible, and for all my initial misgivings about Twombly, I have to admit that the tonal nuances of light he creates are quite spectacular. This is also the case in the adjacent canvas for Christopher Marlow, of carmen pinks, grey, white and orange tints. All of these paintings by Twombly have relatively small brush marks for contemporary painting. Similar in size to Monet’s Water-Lilly brushing, they do not have Monet’s generosity, but are rather more pinched. All of the three paintings in the ground floor gallery, those by Twombly are naturally the most obviously physical.

Claude Monet, Waterlillies (Nymphéas) 1916-19, Oil on canvas, 2000 x 1800 mm. Courtesy Fondation Beyeler, Riehen, Basel. Photo by Robert Bayer, Basel

In the far corner of the same first room, hangs Turner’s Rockets and Blue Light (1840). It is a most enigmatic and mysterious painting, with a modest and superb group of bystanders at the bottom left. One of the very best of Turner’s small figure groups, it has an atmosphere of natural-ness and simplicity, and contrary to much opinion, is evidence of how good he could be with small groups of figures. In the big wedge of white sky Turner has probably moved the paint around with a rag as well as brushes; the effect is very tactile. Where Monet and Twombly create passages, Turner meshes his transparencies in drifts, areas, zones. An obvious difference with Twombly is his lack of underlying structure. The placement of his marks is more random and tentatively relational, with his control of the paintings coming from shifts in scale, making varying sensations of closeness paramount. In contrast Turner and Monet, even with the most diaphanous and atmospheric veils of paint and medium, compose their paintings and sublimate underlying structures. The Monet seascapes in this first gallery are good, not some of his best, a little dull and tentative in handling and light, but still beautiful. Of the three painters here, Monet probably reworked, ruined and burnt more paintings, particularly in his late period, because of his dissatisfaction and sense of failure and bereavement in his last years. These late works generated much interest amongst twentieth century painters, particularly the mid-century New York School, which Twombly grew out of.

As you enter the 2nd floor gallery, you see immediately a panorama of wonder. The first painting on the right is Turner’s blazing red-orange Sun Setting Over a Lake of 1840-45. Its array of cadmium red, lemon yellow and cerulean blue and white is sensitively placed on a pea green wall. One small dab of white yellow over ochre, green, red on a golden intersection just sings and makes the whole painting. Continuing along there are four riveting small greyish oil paintings painted on board and paper that incredibly look like his watercolours. They are particularly  striking as precursors for the reductive developments that would occur over the next three centuries. A few paces on there are the translucent thin glazes and light dissolving in a lemon white sky of his The Pont Torri of 1840-45; this was possibly a model for Twombly’s Quartro Staglioni: Estate (1993-95) shown in the third and last gallery. The most pearly white light Turner is the absolutely magical Venice with a Salute (1840-5). Here, as with Rockets and Blue Light, you can feel Turner moving the paint and mediums around to achieve the painting’s veiled presence; the sensuality and tactility of this movement is the essence of his plasticity. Nearby is Monet’s Houses of Parliament, Burst of Sunlight in the Fog (1904) which is a mass of close-toned green and blue enclosing a big orange-white-pink patch of reflected light on the Thames. Waterloo Bridge (1902) is equally superb with a similar depth of tonality and close-toned colour. Its closed passages of pinks and greys contrasts with two paintings hung nearby; Waterloo Bridge, London (1904) and a View of Rouen (1892) are mostly open marked pinks and greys, blues and greens of amazing delicacy and subtlety but robust and firm in touch.

Claude Monet, Japanese Footbridge 1920-22, Image © Scala

Also in the second gallery are Monet’s Water Lilies of 1907. A canvas of primarily green, yellow and white it is striking that it was painted in the same year as Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon. Here too are Monet’s Giverney paintings Pathway (1920-22) and Japanese Footbridge (1920-22), which are all very close tones and contrasts with freedom and emotive rush. The Water Lilies of 1916 (see above) is a work of deep blues, dark greens, purples and red; the painting’s vertical streaks of lemon-white and lilac almost seem clawed onto the surface, as if by the gropings of a blind-man (given Monet’s failing eyesight this was almost literally the case). The variable blues and greens of the lily pad motifs stop and hold each other like simultaneous accents and chords. It is a painting of compelling emotional strength. Looking at Turner’s modestly sized Bacchus and Ariadne (1840) I was reminded of the looping huge red marks of Twombly’s  Bacchus series at Tate Modern. The Turner has a swirling vortex composition, reminiscent of the Taoist yin/yang symbol, whilst the small figures are directly transcribed from Titian’s painting in the National Gallery, emphasising for Turner the greater importance of landscape over the history painting. In contrast for Twombly literature and history painting dominated over landscape.

A very striking Twombly at the far left side of the second gallery is the last, and for me the best, of the paintings of the Camino Real series, Camino Real 2, which is a very distinctive tribal attack of moto perpetuo gushing, brushed with marks in width and scale reminiscent of many of de Kooning’s 70’s paintings.

Joseph Mallord William Turner, The Lake, Petworth, Sunset c1827-8, Tate, 2011

The key paintings of the third gallery for me were the Petworth Turner landscapes that were presented on a monastral blue wall. This resonated surprisingly well, and somehow felt in keeping with the spirit of Turner. There were also the National Gallery’s Water-Lilies, and those from the Musée Marmottan Monet and the Foundation Beyeler, all after 1916. The value of paintings is in what you feel and no words matter. In this group I am drawn to their intimate atmosphere, which is created through clusters of marks which seem to disperse or gather together within the man-sized height and width of the paintings. There is also a vast red and yellow, punchy and panoramic Untitled Twombly from 2007 (see above) which has in past reviews been equated with the water-lilies. Though for me it is not quite so sustaining as the Monets, it nevertheless has a very upfront energy that I like.



It is well known how Ruskin lost his court case when he accused Whistler of “flinging a pot of paint in the publics face” with a painting of a firework display called Nocturne in Black and Gold of 1875. Even now, we come across similar taunts: “infantile exuberance… the ill-tempered daubing of the dotard with no time to spare… sheer incompetence as a painter and the illiterate writing of the idiot” was aimed at Twombly’s paintings in a review of this show. I lost count of the times that I heard “it’s like a child’s painting” at Tate Liverpool. Yet this is part of his sensibility. Like so many other 20thcentury painters he used child art, the directness, enjoyment of handling and putting on of paint, its movement and uncluttered freedom. Its open vision was also the inspiration for many of the great twentieth century artists, including Cézanne, Matisse, Picasso, Miro, Klee, Kandinsky, Dubuffet, de Kooning, Pollock, Mitchell and Aboriginal painters like Kame Kngwarreye. All strove to reunite themselves with the merits of primal creativity and the freedom of mark-making, drawing, colour, tactile manipulation of paint and movement.

Cy Twombly, Quattro Stagionia: Autunno, 1993-5 © Cy Twombly

Part of the same impulse was the use of a tribal, collectively expressed and primal emotion. This has been a necessary cultural force, a balancing mechanism throughout the history of the human race, and continues in the technological and digital society that we live in, evident throughout much of the world we all inhabit in music, theatre, performance, art, football and life in general and visible too in this exhibition. Like a meteorite unstoppable, it is an antagonistic movement which overrides doubt and acts against society’s constraints. From Turner, Monet and Cézanne, this tribal force continued with Les Fauves, Matisse’s Dance and Music, and Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, and continued through to much of the mid-twentieth century with Pollock’s Totem paintings, de Kooning’s Women paintings; and in other works by the Abstract Expressionists. I feel there is a genuine reality about Twombly’s fetishistic paintings and sculpture. His vast repetitive scrawls, his body and arm movements emphasise the chase, linking movement force and pulse and exude a vitality that springs out at you. His paintings develop a distinct openness, and an outward-going-ness that follows from with his continuous impatient graffiti that strews its across the canvas without composition. His use of graphite is reminiscent of the graffiti ubiquitous in dilapidated swimming pool changing cubicles or public lavatories of the sixties. Again, this is not a criticism, but simply his sensibility.


Memory, Transience, Touch

For these painters the tactile connection of the brush, graphite or rag with the canvas, paper or board, executed in the studio or out-doors, was determined by the fleeting sensation of something seen, felt, remembered or imagined. Across their varying painting practices and within their paintings there is an ever-present relation between experience and the memory of experience. Turner and Monet spent much of their time outside in the landscape and worked in the studio from studies and memory. Twombly worked mostly in the studio working directly and from memory. What resulted in each case was a vision held, with the priority being the particularity of the light and with painterly attack emphasising the physical act and presence of the painter.

JMW Turner, Peace – Burial at Sea exh1842, Tate, 2011

The paintings shown here charge the space in front of the canvas, creating an energy-field which the spectator is immersed in; looking at them is a physical experience. The need for this sensation has grown over the course of the three centuries the exhibition surveys. All three painters display an intelligence in their developed powers of observation and selective plastic judgements, which combines with their varying degrees of opening in their approach to making. Powerful too is the robust ambition evident from the boldest to the most delicate manipulation of the paint. There is rhythm, movement and stillness in the application of paint, in its digging in, pulling off, smearing around, hands on, splashing, rubbing, layering, scratching and scraping off, imbuing a sensuous magic of the highest level.

I am fascinated by Twombly’s compulsion, shared with many recent and current painters, for urgency, here-ness, enveloping near-ness, and close-ness, beyond composition. Concomitant with science’s understanding of the expanding evolution and nature of the universe, I find it interesting to see how the mark-making of Turner, Monet and Twombly evolved successively bigger, nearer and more emphatically tactile from one to the other over the span of three centuries. Twombly’s application of paint is more splashy, gungy and physical than Monet’s, whereas Monet’s is more systematically flattened and emphasised across the surface than Turner’s. Nowadays bonkers erratic in your face scribblings and splashings or heightened-colour-flatness stems from a very real need for possession, for being thrown out, in and around, and gripped by a simultaneously  in out of kilter connectivity. The spectator becomes a magnet catching the memory of  fleeting sensations of being in the studio and has an empathy with the artist working directly with painting. The overriding power of making and resolution seems to arise in spirit as much as in feeling, in the hand; it is central to the experience of most of the paintings in this exhibition, that seem of their time yet as timeless as the first handprint in pigment on a cave wall, made forty seven thousand years ago.

  1. Ronald Boaks said…

    I very much enjoyed reading this. I wish that I had seen the show. As much as I revere Rothko, it seems to me that Twombly was a better choice for this. At the end Rothkos work exuded his depression and following suicide. Far better to have Twombly’s spirit evoke the vitality and express life and mortality. Ronald Boaks

  2. Stephen Chilton said…

    Your enjoyment and engagement at this exhibition is palpable in your writing Gregg – which is full of insight. I really enjoyed reading your reflections a year on from the exhibition. I agree I’d not felt convinced by Twombly’s work at an earlier show I’d been to, but I realised how confident his paintings became. “Hero and Leandro” – well, one could feel the mist appearing, the rain floating on the eddying wind. I agree with your comments, which show a keen and critical eye. Not all of Twombly’s work, worked (who’s could!), but masterpieces came and none more so than Camino Real II, painted at the age of 82 (approx.), which is so assured – the yin and yang of colour. It felt like there was no fear or anxiety in his body, it was painted with the absolute calm of a man at one with his profession. I loved it. And the show truly displayed the importance of today’s painter’s in embarking upon a lifetime’s commitment to a skill many nowadays equate to financial return. Thankfully, this exhibition showed the integrity of the artist’s who committed because art gives other values.

  3. John Bunker said…

    Many thanks for this beautiful piece of writing. I thought Twombly stood up really well in this show. Thanks to Gary’s marvellous piece- I now know why….. Great to read such a positive and insightful review. More please!