High endnote for Cy Twombly in show with Poussin at Dulwich Picture Gallery

By Mark Sheerin | 22 July 2011
An abstract painting in shades of cream, pink and light blue
Cy Twombly, Hero and Leandro, 1985© © The Estate of Cy Twombly. Private Collection, Courtesy Thomas Ammann Fine Art AG, Zurich,
Exhibition: Twombly and Poussin: Arcadian Painters, Dulwich Picture Gallery, London, until September 25 2011

It's a given that no one draws like Poussin these days. Joshua's Victory over the Armorites is a battle scene both fought and depicted at close quarters. It boasts a frieze-like array of stony muscle and a daunting tangle of limbs. To even compose such a thing with stick men would be difficult.

Twombly on the other hand draws like the proverbial 3-year old. Two Untitled works on paper flank the classical melee. They may be more complex, but these have been scribbled with a pencil. Both are fluid, well-spaced and no doubt fiendishly difficult in their turn. Only, they don't look it.

Both artists were classicists, as the show clearly demonstrates. And at times it lends support to the ancient Greek belief that the human race was once composed of heroes, but that we are getting weaker by the generation. The immortal Poussin must have been a throwback.

The decision to show both painters side by side looks, at first, based on mere coincidence. Twombly and Poussin both lived in Rome some four centuries apart. But what emerges from the work here is that residence in the Eternal City is a state of mind. In terms of their interests in myth and nature these artists might as well be contemporaries.

Style is another matter. The 17th century French artist can paint a couple wrestling a goat for a baby to suckle and in the Nurture of Jupiter make the wild scene look harmonious. The American emigré will take a decorous, literary theme and in The Second Part of the Return from Parnassus make the quest for order look hopeless; numbering the blots and crayon-like scrawls is a joke.

But two scenes of drunken revels also suggest the older artist was not quite so good at letting his hair down. Despite the debauchery in his Triumph of Pan, which includes another goat, not one of the figures escapes the sober precision of his eye and the party feels as staged as a state birthday.

An ink drawing of a populous scene of a drunken revel in a woodland setting
Nicolas Poussin, The Triumph of Pan, c. 1636© Lent by Her Majesty the Queen. The Royal Collection © 2011 Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II
Twombly's Bacchanalia: Fall (5 Days in November) has got so out of hand it could almost have been painted with bodily waste. There's no doubting which painting is more visceral and as if to make the point it also contains a photographic reproduction of the aforementioned Triumph. This too is now a bit of a blur, covered as it is by tracing paper.

And in a room presided over by Eros, Poussin looks even more reined in. Not one of his efforts is quite so overwhelming as Twombly's Hero and Leander in which the visitor could drown just like the male protagonist in that sad tale. This monumental work demonstrates that pink is at once the most romantic and suffocating of colours.

Indeed, anyone prone to the syndrome of feinting in the presence of beauty had best turn back at this point. Because the show concludes with an even more epic display of exhuberance. In a room with seeming perfect proportions, Twombly's Quattro Stagioni take the visitor through four bright, textured and joyous seasons. Only the rivers of excess paint running down the canvas may remind you that summers never last.

Since the opening of this show at the end of June, Cy Twombly passed away. There is no less reason to enjoy the more celebratory works in this exhibition. But you will indeed hear Poussin’s warning about the realm both artists evoke so well. Death was always already here; Et in Arcadia Ego.
  • Admission £9(£8). Open 10am-5pm Tuesday to Sunday.
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