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‘Turner, Monet, Twombly: Later Paintings’, at Tate Liverpool

Cy Twombly, Hero and Leandro (Part I) (1984)
cytwombly.info

Exhibition Review by Louis Shadwick

On the announcement that Tate was to group these three artists from different eras together in a major show, it was perhaps too easy to be sceptical about the inclusion of Cy Twombly – his presence at first glance seeming somewhat overshadowed by, or simply disconnected from, two such major predecessors. Indeed, the suggested elevation of Twombly’s own status to that of a level with these modern ‘masters’ has proved hard to stomach for some of the more conservative art commentators, with the artist himself having only passed away last year and the nature of his legacy as yet unclear. Of course, we do not possess the luxury of seeing how Twombly’s work will age with time, or whether his current prominent position within the art historical canon will prove a long-term affair. Yet, what we do see throughout this thought-provoking exhibition – and, ultimately, what it represents – is surely something of a crucial moment in the positive identification of Twombly as a ‘master’ in his own right.

Curator Jeremy Lewison was clearly aware of the controversy implicit in Twombly’s inclusion, and presents a compelling explanation of this decision in the preface to the exhibition catalogue. Crucially, he notes how it was “important for the exhibition to suggest the continuation of an approach to painting rather than a terminus,” and thus how “Twombly would be the key to this show for he would provide a new context in which to understand Turner and Monet’s work.” Indeed, temporal distance between painters in this exhibition is presented as a traversable barrier, in that the narratives and relationships established constitute meditations that are themselves timeless. In this light, the show demonstrates, through specific painted moments of contemplation which focus on an experience of change, the very constants inherent in the relationship between each artist’s subjective temperament and the manner in which he finds this temperament reflected back in the natural world around him. More precisely, different styles of pictorial representation and distinct art historical groupings are breached in order to bring out the artists’ shared thematic preoccupations – with mortality, with the sensual, and with the sublime power of nature, to name but a few.

Several of these relationships are apparent from the outset, with little need for too much curatorial intervention to tease them out. But poignant chords are also struck between the works of these artists from entirely different eras by means of thematically organised rooms that are both sensitively and intelligently put together. These rooms are almost all large, open spaces, around which the dramatic atmospheres and vibrant colours upon each canvas seem to echo back and forth among each other.

J. M. W. Turner, Light and Colour (Goethe’s Theory) – the Morning after the Deluge – Moses Writing the Book of Genesis (exhibited 1843)
tate.org.uk

The very first room, for example, is a large exhibition space on the ground floor entitled Beauty, Power and Space, and is orientated around the concept of the Romantic sublime, defined by John Ruskin as “the effect of greatness upon feelings…whether of matter, space, power, virtue or beauty.” Such “greatness” here finds its focus in the overpowering force of the sea in relation to the relative insignificance of man. We find such sublime encounters encapsulated in Turner’s raging seascapes, such as his Light and Colour (Goethe’s Theory) – the Morning after the Deluge – Moses writing the book of Genesis (1843) which conveys – via a swirling vortex of intense yellows, crimsons, pale blues and whites – the ferocity of a storm at sea. The tiny translucent faces of indistinct figures can just be made out vanishing beneath the all-consuming wash.

These disorientating swirls of paint convey a sense of the painter locating himself at the heart of the experience – of the human senses being overwhelmed by forces beyond his control and understanding. Similarly, a fantastic four-piece by Cy Twombly, Hero and Leandro (1984-85), based on the myth that Turner also had addressed in an 1837 canvas, evokes the experience of the human form drowning amid the waves by means of vivid splashes of colour surrounded by a violent wash of turbulent greys and whites that threaten to consume them entirely. It is the sorrowful image of man losing his own battle against the power of the sea, in which the presence of blood-reds spattering the seascape in the first panel indicate Leandro’s vital presence and the impassioned sensual energy that drives him through the water. Ominously, these colours are slowly drained from Twombly’s palette and are replaced by dark greens and blacks, which are themselves soon overcome entirely, until a field of almost untainted white is all that remains in the sombre final panel.

Monet’s work seemed to me to ‘fit’ the least well into the general mood of the show. For, comparatively, Monet seems to be little engaged with the actual presence of the human temperament within the natural world; he is less directly concerned with the sensual and the inexplicable, sublime effects of nature relative to man. His work, instead, seems more firmly rooted in a worldly beauty, hardly allowing for personal angst or unfiltered emotion to intrude upon this world outside himself. As a result, his paintings, in the context of this exhibition, seem to lack the expressive intensity immediately recognisable in the work of Turner or Twombly. It often felt like the curators were trying a little too hard to find Monet’s ‘place’ within some of the spaces, with this very first room being a prime example.

Claude Monet, Les Rochers de Belle-île, la côte sauvage (1886)
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Amid the compelling and vigorous tones of Turner and Twombly’s paintings – with their provocative visual stimuli and the suggested narratives they elicit in the viewer – the four Monet canvases selected for this room seem unable to live up to the promise of an artist engaging with the sublime power of nature. While the exhibition pamphlet does its best to ally Monet with such ideas – namely via the recounting of the story where Monet was knocked down by a wave while painting in “increasingly isolated and perilous places” – the pictures themselves seem devoid of a sense of the artist’s relating himself to the scene before him. Instead, they appear driven toward a painterly evocation of place itself, revolving around colour, light and vivid descriptions of visually engaging landscapes. Les rochers de Belle-Ile, la Cote sauvage (1886) for example, is unmistakably powerful in that it is aesthetically intense, but it is so solely in that rather remote Impressionistic manner that keeps it at a remove from the expressive context – and content – of this first room. All of the works featured seem to be included due to their entailing an ‘encounter with the sea’. But, aside from subject matter, Monet’s work ends up seeming a little isolated from that of his counterparts who operate with such an overwhelmingly immersive visual aesthetic.

This problem of trying to find Monet’s place in the exhibition is at its most apparent in the fourth room, entitled The Vital Force, which is focused on the ‘sensual’ and the ‘sexual’ – characteristics that are difficult enough to draw out of Turner’s work withoutany prompting, let alone Monet’s. The justification for the presence of this room in the show at all seems to be the overbearing eroticism of much of Twombly’s later work, demonstrated most strongly by the fiercely sensual Camino Real (II) (2010).

Cy Twombly, Camino Real (II) (2010)
cytwombly.info

However, apart from the record of Turner’s sketchbooks, in which his interest in erotic imagery can be sourced, and works such as Glaucus and Scylla (1841) in which the subject matter ‘hints’ at the erotic, there is little about Turner’s painterly style to realistically engage the viewer with the sensual as an atmosphere such as he delivers in his expressions of the natural sublime. But it is Monet’s place within this room that is even less credible. The artist was – if anything – disinterested in the erotic, and the presence of a series of Monet’s paintings of Japanese Bridges in which colour is described – again, in the exhibition booklet – as a “sensual paint surface, dripping and lubricious…a womb-like space” seems to be a rather transparent case of clutching at straws. This statement is subsequently defended: “it would be wrong to insist on a consciousness of this on Monet’s part”. And yet, the text still goes on to assert, “the combination of water, nearly always symbolic of femininity, and the hair-like reflections, is redolent of vaginal imagery”, bringing us to the conclusion that these works may have been angled in a manner that is both forced and possibly even inaccurate. In a rather clumsy clash of artistic interests, we are first directed to find the sensual within the synaesthetic style of Twombly’s canvases, next within the ambiguous subject matter of Turner’s, and finally in both the vibrant brushstrokes and the subject matter of Monet’s – despite neither of the latter’s qualities convincingly relating to Twombly nor Turner’s ‘sensual’ interests.

Of course, this is not to say that points of intersection are not there – the connections between Turner and Monet are long established. Monet greatly admired his predecessor’s work, in particular his sunsets and his focus on the Thames as a recurring motif. Monet even attempted to imitate and surpass Turner in several wonderful images, such as the famous Impression, Sunrise (1873). Critics at the time, moreover, were quick to notice the marked influence of Turner upon both Monet and Impressionism as a whole. This influence is perhaps most apparent in the second and third rooms, labelled Atmosphere and Fire and Water respectively. Here we see Monet at his very best in majestic works such as Morning on the Seine, Giverny (1897) and two pictures from his Waterloo Bridge series. For, away from the context of the sublime, and hung next to Turner’s views of Venice and the Thames, Monet’s works take on a brilliant new life through an accentuation of their purely sensory qualities – the masterful rendition of the vivid effects of sunlight upon water. Turner was undoubtedly the primary inspiration for such scenes, his The Thames above Waterloo Bridge (c.1830-35) drawing attention to its own unfinishedness through a play upon appearing and disappearing structures through smoke and fog. Silhouettes of buildings, bridges and vehicles seem to shift in and out of focus through the haze of the air around them. Monet’s Waterloo Bridge (1902) similarly shows the subject of the painting fading into obscurity through the haze of an early morning mist, the red glow of the sun stirring the composition through its suggestions of time passing, warmth and an overbearing meditative silence.

Underlining this influence further, the following room presents the viewer with a stunning range of well-known Turner and Monet sunsets, including the latter’s enduringly impressive London, Houses of Parliament. Burst of Sunlight in the Fog (1904) and San Giorgio Maggiore by Twilight (1908). The sheer intensity of colour employed in Turner’s sunsets, such as his Sun Setting Over a Lake (c.1840), is given more compositional and descriptive focus by Monet. For Turner’s work is looser, more freely experimental and conveys a more distorted notion of an ‘impression’ via sensation. Nonetheless, this series of works surely presents us with the most vibrant use of colour in Monet’s oeuvre. Twombly’s sunsets, on the other hand, sit rather uncomfortably within the space – and not because of their quality, for on their own the works remain marvellously dynamic, gripping experiments with colour. But they do seem to fit awkwardly onto the end of a suggested chain of influence that so naturally develops between Turner and Monet. It is the one moment in the show where Twombly seems to become the ‘odd one out’. Indeed, as an abstract symbolist, Twombly’s introduction into the mix could be seen to derail the apparent trajectory of Turner’s influence upon modernism via Monet and Impressionism. Monet simply does not provide the ‘stepping stone’ from Turner to Twombly, and instead we are presented with the reality of two very different relationships between Turner and each of his painterly successors.

J. M. W. Turner, Sun Setting over a Lake (c.1840)
tate.org.uk

The impact of Turner upon Twombly, as well as being seen in the spontaneous aesthetic intensity that they both share, is seen in their shared interest in myths, symbols and metaphors. Twombly uses scrawled words and lines of verse across the canvas to imply narratives or epics, often taking up large proportions of his canvases with almost illegible scrawl. Yet while this interest in the mythical past unites Turner and Twombly thematically, their means of alluding to it stylistically divides them. Indeed, Twombly’s contemporary twist upon the work of art itself was to subvert the traditional use of space and material upon the canvas – to challenge the traditional power of the painted canvas that someone like Turner could be seen as a chief proponent of. Twombly’s use of mixed media undermines the canvas’ traditional sense of grandeur, for despite the ‘epic’ sizes of many of his canvases, many come across instead as a series of scattered elements – an artist’s enormous ‘thought board’ united only by concept. Interested in contemporary graffiti and calligraphy, Twombly essentially wished to separate himself from American abstract expressionism by means of a type of ‘anti-painting’ that rested upon the use of scrawled words and verse as much as it did upon the effects of colour or paint. Moreover, his continuous allusion to classical themes and narratives was partly employed in direct opposition to the increasingly self-conscious presentation of ‘modernity’ throughout American art during the latter half of the twentieth century. We begin to see, therefore, how despite clear thematic crossover in the subjects of these works, each artist’s concerns were rather separate – as to be expected, each artist was first and foremost engaged in reaction to and progression of the art of their time.

Now, this seems to be where the ‘later paintings’ concept of the show’s title fits nicely into the exhibition model. “This is not an exhibition about late style,” Jeremy Lewison writes in the catalogue, “but late preoccupations. How do artists deal with the aging process, the increasing awareness of mortality, the debility attendant upon old age?” This theme, while not being fully established until the latter half of the exhibition, is both a convincing and poignant lens through which to view the work of these three artists in the same space. And while such themes rely on the viewer’s appreciation of a little autobiographical context in some cases, witnessing side-by-side each artist’s take on their subjective understanding of mortality and melancholy in old age is an enriching and fascinating experience.

Cy Twombly, By the Ionian Sea (1988)
cytwombly.info

The boat becomes a poignant symbol for all three artists in the fifth room, Naught So Sweet as Melancholy. Turner’s Peace – Burial at Sea (1842), for example commemorates the painter Sir David Wilkie, who had passed away during a voyage, via the funereal symbol of a boat with black sails. Twombly’s boats, too, have an air of life passing. For him, they  represent the passage of time. His sculpture, By The Ionian Sea (1988), is a skeletal form that resembles a shipwreck, apparently stained by the weight of history and an era long gone.

The culmination of this theme can be seen in the final two rooms of the exhibition, and it is Twombly’s enormous four-piece Quattro Stagioni (1993-95) that both opens this last section and dominates it. For me, the strongest work conceptually, and the most personally affecting piece within the entire show, Quattro Stagioni demonstrates the cyclical nature of life and death via the enduring motif of the seasons. Steeped in metaphor, symbolism and a highly intelligent conceptual employment of paint – both in terms of colour and brushstroke – the works seem to encapsulate the bittersweet spirit of the exhibition in its double-edged celebration of the beauty inherent in both life and death.

Cy Twombly, Quattro stagioni, Part III: Autunno (1993-94)
cytwombly.info

Twombly had agreed just prior to his passing that the Seasons should be hung beginning with Autunno – a telling decision in its denial of any sense of definitive beginning or end to the cyclical process of bloom and decay. Instead, it evokes a sense of the process as perpetual motion. The deep autumnal purples and greens of the plant-like splashes of paint in this first canvas seem heavy and swollen, while simultaneously trickling away down the painting in thin lines of paint that seem suspended in time. The intense and  passionate crimsons he uses are steeped in allusion to the transience of romance and the sensual, hovering on the brink of their inevitable disappearance at the onset of winter, demonstrated in the next work Inverno. Here, frozen white structures interlace dense patches of darkness, reminiscent of shadowy patches of woodland and of the passing of life, hovering ominously amid the static chill of the winter air. Primavera subsequently encapsulates the moment of bloom and emergence of colour as spring begins, via jubilant strokes that announce themselves prominently upon the bleak white background behind them. Finally, Estate encapsulates the brief intensity of summer heat. In three small yet pronounced sun-dappled yellow patches that appear both stained upon the surface and as though they have leaked downwards to the foot of the painting, Twombly evokes the brevity of youth, and the swift passing of life at its prime. Reflecting the dualities inherent in the experience of human mortality via the aesthetic power of the ever-changing natural world, Twombly delivers a contemporary masterpiece of epic proportions.

Turner and Monet, too, retain their rightful places within these closing spaces, with the seventh and final room, A Floating World, featuring the former’s melancholy The Lake, Petworth, Sunset; Sample Study (c.1827-8) and several of the latter’s enduringly captivating Water Lilies series, painted during and after the First World War. These works by Monet remain, to me, one of the very few examples in which a sense of the artist’s own temperament is vividly suggested through his focused interest in the natural world. The still, meditative calm of each of these works – each painted in different lights – is imbued with a mix of touchingly human sensitivity and profound, disciplined concentration. As Lewison suggests, “Monet created his own consoling world, removed from the reality of painful external events, to heal the psychic pain of loss and bereavement.” Although this may be a slightly overcooked reading, one certainly gains a sense of Monet’s own refuge in this particular motif, and of the personal resolve and strength with which he painted toward the end of his life.

Despite the initial niggling doubts as to how to fully reconcile the place of each artist in relation to one another throughout the exhibition, one leaves this show soaked in the resonant atmosphere of these paintings, and with an overwhelming sense that Tate Liverpool has succeeded in presenting an undeniably powerful and pertinent combination in the grouping of Turner, Monet and Twombly. Jonathan Jones questioned in his own review for The Guardian, “is it wise to short-circuit art history like this, blithely assuming that a famous name of our own time can hang alongside hallowed giants?” My simple answer to this question is yes. The very assertion that such an exhibition ‘short-circuits’ art history, in fact, testifies to an unnecessary separation and preservation of such ‘masters’ upon their own distinct pedestals – an attitude that this exhibition should hopefully serve to at least momentarily destabilise.

For what the show so successfully achieves through its inclusion of Twombly’s work is the bringing back down to earth of such art historical ‘masters’, whose overwhelming status has in itself often distracted from the immense quality of the works that gave them their names in the first place. In this respect, both Monet and Turner’s work can be appreciated in a new light, being both challenged and becoming challenging once again in reaction. Moreover, we are shown how absorbingly relevant such works remain in relation to the art of our own time. As such, the importance of Twombly’s work is undoubtedly elevated – and rightly so. In commanding our attention and dominating the atmosphere of rooms in which world-famous works are hung alongside them, his canvases more than prove their staying power, as well as their rich relationship with the art historical canon. In breaking the mould and exhibiting proto-modernist, modernist and contemporary work in such open conversation with one another, Tate Liverpool offers the viewing public a landmark exhibition that is an absolute must-see.

‘Turner, Monet, Twombly: Later Paintings’ at Tate Liverpool runs until October 28th 2012.

For a full programme of events and exhibitions, follow the link: http://www.tate.org.uk/whats-on

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