The Arcadia connection

Despite soaring prices, proliferating collectors, noisy exhibitions and a flood of new museums devoted to it, contemporary art continues to leave a good proportion of educated gallery-goers distrustful, uncomprehending or indifferent. It is to them, surely, that Dulwich’s brave, provocative, intelligent, small summer exhibition, Twombly and Poussin: Arcadian Painters, is primarily directed, although for Twombly’s London fans too this show, following Tate’s 2008 retrospective, is a delicious windfall.

Dulwich, celebrating its bicentenary this year, is London’s oldest museum and attracts an audience favouring tradition. Twombly and Poussin introduces a blaze of sensual colour and unruly, raw, frenetic mark-making into galleries dominated by sober, darkish, precisely constructed Old Masters; the museum owns several important Poussins and has borrowed more. The contrast is stunning, but the persuasive argument is about continuity: that the painterliness and concerns with landscape and history that connect Nicolas Poussin, born 1594, and Cy Twombly, born 1928, are stronger than their differences – of figuration versus abstraction, harmony versus fragmentation, narrative unity versus introspection.

Painting is always painting, this show says – and, moreover, pioneering iconoclasts cannot help looking to the past. Decadent and transgressive, Twombly’s “Bacchanalia: Fall (5 days in November)”, for instance, is a collage of brown, umber and cloudy white painted smears, stains and spurts, with handwritten letters scrawling the painting’s title alongside a half-obscured reproduction, ripped from a book, of Poussin’s own exquisitely orchestrated bacchanal “The Triumph of Pan” (1636); the original, borrowed from the National Gallery, hangs opposite here.

Similarly, the whitewashed sculptures of found objects – a palm frond tethered to a square of discarded wood, a pan pipe formed from dishevelled scraps of wooden rods and cloth – which so brighten these rooms reference classical archaeology as well as minimalism and the fading grandeur of the neo-classical white architecture prevalent in America’s Deep South. “White paint is my marble,” Twombly has joked.

Poussin – from Normandy via Paris – and Twombly – from Virginia via New York – were both 30 years old when they arrived in Rome as eager provincials intoxicated with the antique; both remained there – Twombly eventually settling at the nearby coastal town of Gaeta – for most of their lives. “The Arcadian Shepherds”, one of Poussin’s early Roman works, distils not only his classical learning but also the classical sense of balance and rigour that would determine his oeuvre. Set in an idyllic Arcadian landscape as described by Virgil, it shows two young, half-naked shepherds and a shepherdess, elegantly posed in white, coming across a tombstone topped with a skull and attempting to decipher its inscription: “Et in Arcadia Ego” – “I [Death] am even in Arcadia”.

Pouring a vase of water (the passage of time), the river god Alpheus watches as the shepherds’ expressions – alert, expectant, melancholy – animate this calm pastoral into an existential drama: the impossibility of death in the mind of someone living. It is juxtaposed with Twombly’s “Arcadia”, created months after his arrival: a luminous surface, resembling the weathered marble walls of Rome’s monuments, marked with barely legible letters that seem to drift and float away, but include the word “Arcadia”. The old and new city, its ancient carvings and contemporary graffiti, timeless grace and modern energy, pressure of history but gift of freedom to a young American emancipating himself from abstract expressionism, are condensed here, while the misty/mercurial quality of the paint recalls Twombly’s first letter home: “This is a pale day. The Palatine & Colloseum [sic] are in a blue silver vapour.”

Across six focused rooms, curator Nicholas Cullinan has devised similarly enlightening, often witty pairings on motifs recurring in both artists’ work. The milk-and-honey harmony of Poussin’s “The Nurture of Jupiter”, with its juicy details of sticky honey pouring from the tree to feed the infant god, is answered by Twombly’s pastoral lamentation “Aristaeus Mourning the Loss of his Bees”: a wispy fog of pale green paint, suggesting the cool river valley where Virgil set the story, superimposed on a dense tangle of pencil. Poussin’s sombre allegory of spiritual over sacred love, “Venus and Mercury”, is challenged by the slipping erotic forms – pink heart shapes so engorged that they become ruddy buttocks, a pencil-drawn cartoon phallus inscribed “Adonis” – of Twombly’s “Venus and Adonis”, and by his creamy-pink masterpiece “Hero and Leander (To Christopher Marlowe)”, evoking the story of the drowned lovers through waves of rising, evanescent brushstrokes forming a convulsive surface like the frothing white sea.

Twombly’s gestural, crude approach makes all his landscapes and seascapes wild, violent, catastrophic; Poussin by contrast gives logical, architectonic form to the disorder of nature. The artist Francesco Clemente noted that in later life Twombly has “sailed away from history into geography”; Poussin too turned late to pure landscape painting. “Landscape is one of my favourite things,” Twombly says. “Any kind of landscape stimulates me ... I would’ve liked to have been Poussin, if I’d had a choice, in another time.”

Both artists were in their 60s when they tackled the theme of “The Four Seasons”. Poussin’s great series in the Louvre cannot be lent, but small-scale reproductions, for reference, are displayed here alongside Twombly’s iconic 1993-95 series, borrowed from Tate. I was worried this would look cramped in Dulwich, but the context only enhances these magnificent meditations on time and landscape, and emphasises the half-century of experience – in the sheer handling of clotted, dripped, daubed, scraped, splattered paint, as well as emotionally and in terms of scholarship – that underlies their elan.

Poussin portrays each season as a biblical scene, but narrative is subsumed into a simplified tonal vision – leaf-green spring, the golden wheat of summer, cool blue autumn, the grey rain of winter – which is somehow impersonal because, as Hazlitt wrote of Poussin’s landscapes, “they denote a foregone conclusion”.

Although some motifs recalling Poussin’s series are discernible, such as grapes and a boat, everything about Twombly’s “Four Seasons” – the bursting crimson forms, maybe phallic, maybe floral, in “Autumn”; the translucent white haze breaking up the yellow flares of “Winter”; the shaky disappearing lines from lyric poetry – is ambivalent, uncertain. In “Spring” Twombly quotes Rilke: “And you who have always thought/of happiness flowing would feel the/emotion that almost overwhelms/when happiness falls.” His lifetime’s achievement has been to fix that tremulous sensibility of disquiet and doubt in paint, showcased the more superbly here in dialogue with the solid conviction of Poussin.

‘Twombly and Poussin: Arcadian Painters’, Dulwich Picture Gallery, London SE21, to September 25,

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