Last but not least

It is a marker of the status of contemporary painting, of the seriousness with which it is treated, that a major European touring exhibition featuring two of the greatest artists in history, Turner and Monet, gains energy, interest and depth by showcasing them alongside a third, Cy Twombly, who died last summer and whose reputation is still being evaluated.

In 2005, Tate Britain’s Turner Monet Whistler looked like the last word on the continuum linking romanticism and impressionism with the dawn of modern art. But Tate Liverpool’s Turner Monet Twombly: Later Paintings brings the story up to date, recasts each artist’s role by focusing on his final decades, and offers a more nuanced, personal and very moving interpretation of painterly creation.

Recklessness, a retreat from the world of reality into an inner life of the imagination and a reduction to essentials, tending to abstraction, are the overriding characteristics of late painting from Titian to Matisse. Combined with the assurance of technical virtuosity, plus a compulsion to experiment while there is still time, these qualities produce in the most original artists radical masterpieces that are at once a coda to earlier work while heralding breakthroughs often not fully understood until after their deaths.

Sparkling examples here span a century and a half, beginning with the dissolving contours in Turner’s pared-down, mist-suffused study of light on water “Venice with the Salute”, where the city is barely discernible, and near-monochrome canvases such as “Calm Sea with Distant Grey Clouds”. Ridiculed in the 1840s, these works are now acknowledged as precursors of both impressionism and abstraction.

Turner’s ‘St Benedetto, looking towards Fusina’ (exhibited 1843)

“It seems to me that we are all descended from the Englishman Turner,” noted Pissarro, while Matisse noted between Turner and Monet particularly “a close relationship in the construction of works using colour”. Late, abstracting Monet has special affinity with Turner, and a highlight here is half a dozen examples of the monumental paintings created between 1916 and 1922 – including New York’s Museum of Modern Art’s “The Japanese Footbridge”, the Musée Marmottan’s “The Path under the Rose Arches” and the Fondation Beyeler’s tumbling, vertical “Nympheas” – which take their motifs from the garden at Giverny that Monet constructed for his own inspiration.

Water lilies, the most famous motif, are an old symbol of mourning and memory; Proust was writing at the same period of lilies on the river Vivonne unlocking childhood recollections. Monet withdrew from society to Giverny after the deaths of his second wife and eldest son in 1911 and 1914; painting his giant decorative schemes there during the first world war, he wrote, “I am slightly ashamed of thinking of my minor research into forms and colours when so many young people suffer and die for us.” Yet the series, an elegy for nature, the flow of time and wartime destruction, transformed ideas about the architectural scope of painting and resonated through the 20th century.

The largest example here is the National Gallery’s “Water Lilies”, a harmony in green, blue and pink depicting the surface of the pond under the shadows of overhanging trees. In a magnificent face-off, this muted piece hangs opposite Twombly’s clotted-yet-looping, aggressively sensual five-metre painting “Blooming: A Scatter of Blossoms” (2007), where giant, saturated crimson flowers against a garish yellow ground appear to open, unfold, bloom, fade, diminish, all at once, in frenzied, desperate, almost random marks.

“I take liberties I wouldn’t have taken before,” Twombly admitted in an 80th-birthday interview in 2008. “I work in an impatient way.”

For late painting is not only about time, it is also painted against time – with an urgency that intensifies themes of transience and melancholy to richly expressive effect. In particular, the blur and hovering between figuration and abstraction by all three artists, with fractured, loose, spontaneous marks that only coalesce at a distance, so that images emerge out of accreted layers of paint and through veils of colour, produce compositions that exist in a mysterious, tremulous, thrilling state of becoming: visions of temporality.

Cy Twombly’s ‘Quattro Stagioni: Autumno’ (1993-95)

The cascades of reds, golds, purples, of spring, summer, autumn, slip into sorrowful winter grisaille in Twombly’s “Quattro Stagioni”: the downward-coursing marks mirror life’s waning and falling, as well as nature’s cycle. In Turner’s “Sun Setting over a Lake”, a hazy golden glow envelops space, is reflected in water, then weakens as the light declines. “Morning over the Seine” depicts a view revealed gradually as Monet sat in his studio boat observing the lifting mist; waiting at the Savoy Hotel for fog to coat what he called “the ghostly magnificence of London”, he melted the city’s solid landmarks into the ephemeral: “Houses of Parliament, Burst of Sunlight in the Fog”; “Waterloo Bridge at Sunset”.

“Atmosphere is my style, indistinctness my fault,” Turner said. When he came of age, narrative scenes depended on precision and detail; by the end of his life, he had repositioned landscape as history painting, as in the swirling nocturne “The Parting of Hero and Leander”, shown here with the vortex-like “Shade and Darkness – the Evening of the Deluge” and “Light and Colour (Goethe’s Theory) – the Morning after the Deluge”. Alongside hangs Twombly’s version of “Hero and Leandro”: smeared, encrusted, splattered, dripping, liquid green-white-pink abstract surfaces evoke first stormy waves and blood, desire and drowning, then a flattened sea washing away all traces of the lovers, followed by a final, almost blank work, a painting of absence, inscribed, in Twombly’s graffiti scrawl, “He’s gone, up bubbles all his amorous breath”.

“I’m not an abstractionist completely. There has to be history behind the thought,” Twombly explained. He too re-invented history painting – as abstraction. And he shares with Turner an obsession with classical myth and ruin as emblematic of a modernity adrift from ancient culture and learning. Both artists are romantics, equating beauty with loss and death; both distilled that pessimism in an innovative formal language.

One of the show’s most surprising juxtapositions is Turner’s “Peace – Burial at Sea”, a composition dominated by the central ship’s deep black sails (“I only wish I had any colour to make them blacker,” Turner replied when these were criticised as unrealistic) and the funereal gondolas of “St Benedetto, looking towards Fusina”, with Twombly’s white-painted bronze boat sculptures “Winter’s Passage: Luxor” and “By the Ionian Sea”.

Boats here allude to death: Turner’s black gondola recalls the Greek ferryman Charon transporting dead souls across the Styx; Twombly derived his abstracted boat forms from Egyptian funerary sculpture. And then, as Francesco Clemente remarked of his friend, in old age he “sailed away from history into geography” – uniting myth and landscape: a classical artist recalling Turner and Monet, who in turn look every inch his contemporaries in this stimulating show.

‘Turner Monet Twombly: Later Paintings’ Tate Liverpool, to October 28

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