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Twombly and Poussin: Arcadian Painters – review

June 30, 2011

Romanticism is alive in Twombly’s impulsive blooms of colour, but the exhibition’s pairing with Poussin is uneasy

Cy Twombly, Hero and Leandro, 1985.
Death and desire … Cy Twombly’s Hero and Leandro, 1985. Photograph: Dulwich Picture Gallery, courtesy Thomas Ammann Fine Art and Cy Twombly

A sea of smeared and dripped white is weighed down by undertones of grey. The overall effect is misty and eerie. But what wrenches this painting by Cy Twombly into violent grandeur is the eruption of red, like a slaughtered whale’s exploding blood, in the lower left part of the canvas.

The painting, from 1985, is called Hero and Leandro (To Christopher Marlowe). Hero and Leandro (or Leander in English usage) were lovers in ancient Greek mythology who both drowned. When you discover that, it is easy to see that Twombly’s apparently abstract painting is a brilliant response to the tragic essence of these doomed lovers’ watery fate: it is an evocation of death at sea, and its smoky ambiguities suggest a heady cocktail of death and desire. The title invokes the Elizabethan writer Christopher Marlowe, who wrote about Hero and Leander and who was himself murdered close to the river Thames in Deptford; so this is also about the death of Marlowe. The mythical lovers drowned. Marlowe was stabbed. The blood in the painting is surely his.
It is a cliche that abstract art is distant from real life, impenetrable and remote.Twombly is an abstract painter who tells stories of love, longing and loss. His art is always tangy with experience – it drips life. Hero and Leandro is one of a fistful of works by Twombly that snag the imagination with their impulsive blooms of gory colour. This is a welcome visit by one of the world’s greatest living artists to a gallery that shares his belief in history and myth.
Dulwich Picture Gallery celebrates its 200th anniversary this year, and this exhibition is a fine way to assert the vitality of the traditions it upholds. It is essentially a gallery of Old Masters, where you can see masterpieces such as Venus, Mars and Cupid by Rubens. The joy of seeing Twombly here is that he proves there is still a place for emotional narrative depth and painterly beauty in the art of the 21st century.

The only mystery is why the exhibition insists on coupling him with just one master. Superficially there is a connection between Twombly and the 17th-century French painter Nicolas Poussin, because both emigrated from their homelands to the cultural paradise that is Rome. Poussin came from Normandy, Twombly from the American south, but both gravitated to Rome – caput mundi, or head of the world. Poussin, like Twombly, is a painter of myth and history: Dulwich has a fine collection of his works and has borrowed more including his gravely beautiful image of anxiety, The Arcadian Shepherds (c 1628-29), from Chatsworth House in Derbyshire. As a group of shepherds in the fabled pastoral kingdom of Arcadia struggle to read an inscription on a tomb, the recognition of mortality dawns on them and us.

Read more at: Dynamic duo – Twombly-Poussin

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