RA Magazine Summer 2011
Issue Number: 111
Where myth meets paint
As Dulwich Picture Gallery brings together paintings by Poussin and Cy Twombly, Ian McKeever RA reflects on how these artists illuminate the nature of painting.
The pairing of seventeenth-century French painter Nicolas Poussin with contemporary American painter and Honorary RA Cy Twombly in the forthcoming exhibition at Dulwich Picture Gallery is intriguing and challenging. On the surface there are immediate connections between the two: both were drawn to Rome, subsequently settling there, and both deal with the big themes of history painting. They appear to speak the same language, yet as painters they could not be more different.
Nicolas Poussin, 'The Triumph of Pan' 1636 © 2011 The National Gallery. Poussin is the quintessential history painter, depicting the great themes of Greek and Roman mythology and the Old Testament in immaculate tableaux. In his paintings the figures are idealised, the classical world stands proud and, even in apparent turmoil, remains majestic. Embracing couples appear timeless, divested of the corrupting nature of the flesh, detailed and connected yet somehow not quite touching. Like figures carved out of a Greek frieze, they are held in what Henry Fuseli RA referred to as ‘apposition’, their perfect state untainted by human sensation. It is painting fastidiously composed in pursuit of an Arcadian ideal.
Twombly, on the other hand, has none of this clinical veneer. His paintings are sensuous and messy, often beguilingly so. His references to the classical world are reduced to an almost indolent scrawl as he writes ‘Virgil’, ‘Mars’, or ‘Bacchanalia’ across the surface of the canvas. Twombly emerged as an artist after Abstract Expressionists such as Pollock, Newman and Rothko. They pushed romantic painting to the extreme, declaring the ‘self’ as subject matter, while at the same time in their writings and statements alluding to the great classical ideals.
Other painters of Twombly’s generation, such as Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg, cast off the weight of their predecessors by turning towards recognisable popular imagery, such as the American flag. Twombly, however, was different, and virtually unique, in that he dug deeper into the classical world while also staying with gestural abstract painting.
Cy Twombly, Hon RA, 'Bacchanalia-Fall (5 Days in November)' 1977 © Cy Twombly If Poussin could literally depict the great myths, then Twombly suggests that to engage with such classical subject matter now as a painter, one must start again, at the very beginning, thus avoiding clichés. Hence his marks and daubs of paint appear like simple utterances, attempts at speech to articulate the grand themes with the directness of first-hand experience. For the painter can only feel this historical connection to the past, touch it, with the blunt gesture of a paint brush, bringing it into the world as nothing more than a residual stain. In that sense Twombly is not a history painter in the straightforward manner of Poussin. Instead his position is to ritualise the act of painting, whereby painting itself is given the possibility to become mythical.
Twombly and Poussin: Arcadian Painters Dulwich Picture Gallery, London, www.dulwichpicturegallery.org.uk, 020 8693 5254 , 9 June–25 Sep
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