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We live in gloriously art-abundant, paradoxical times. You could spend an entire day at the Venice Biennale in the Giardini and Arsenale among pavilions packed with ideas, words and sounds, and believe that painting had mostly disappeared. But meander along the Grand Canal, and palazzo after palazzo drips with painting shows of supreme quality, their sensuous colour and luminosity enhanced by the watery setting, their ambition anchored by resonance with history.
The most exciting new work in Venice is by Peter Doig at the light-drenched Palazzetto Tito. The paintings are assured and texturally varied: delicate distemper on linen, richly stained lathered surfaces, patches of stencilling to distance definition, spiky drawing into wet paint with the end of a brush. They continue Trinidadian motifs from Doig’s 2013 exhibition in Edinburgh, but with remarkable differences.
As you would expect from an artist based in Trinidad, there are lush, saturated colours of turquoise sea and cobalt skies, and dreamily floating figures — a Day-Glo orange fisherman and sultry hooded companion in a cropped kayak in “Spearfishing” — that fit the Venetian setting. Trinidad, though, is no longer merely Doig’s tropical paradise; it has become an often urban backcloth spurring formal investigations into space and composition.
From the precisely balanced “House in Clouds” — a misty pinkish seascape weighted by the grid of a balcony, the strict vertical of an orchid-draped pole and enigmatic peripheral figures — to the towering “Speaker/Girl”, where a shadowy nude leans against a ziggurat of loudspeakers climbing Caribbean hills, these architectural paintings look terrific in Palazzetto Tito’s elegantly proportioned decorative interiors.
Some retain Doig’s familiar tripartite structure of sky, boat and sea, but with confusions. Others play with perspective, pictorial expectations and storytelling. “Rain in the Port of Spain (White Oak)” transforms the outside yellow brick wall of Trinidad’s jail into the inside of a lion’s cage; the animal — inspired by the Rastafarian Lion of Judah, but in Venice evoking St Mark’s lions — paces while a barely outlined jailer turning a corner leads the eye down a dizzying, upended side street to a lighthouse and sugar cane train. Spatial ambiguity (and the engine) reference a celebrated de Chirico cityscape.
With multiple converging sources and disrupted fictions, Doig has long grappled with Modernism’s legacies and how to sustain them in the iPad age. In this context, “Night Studio” is significant. Beneath fantastically enlarged, drooping almond leaves, a self-portrait of the artist, working at night seemingly in a trance, is set within his studio, a former rum factory partly used as a cinema club, cordoned off by a rusty wire grid, and depicted as so many receding paintings within paintings. It is a masterpiece of interiority.
“I have felt the wings of the wind of madness,” Cy Twombly scrawled on an untitled work from 1992. Its thick crimson-and-yellow blotches anticipated the “Quattro Stagioni” suite, and its flirting with figuration in the form of two purple boats — evoking funereal gondolas and final journeys — inaugurated the artist’s late, rapturous, death-haunted period.
From works lent mainly by the Cy Twombly Foundation, many displayed for the first time, Philip Larratt-Smith and Julie Sylvester have curated Cy Twombly: Paradise at Ca’ Pesaro to emphasise the artist’s “wilder side”. Twombly’s freedom of thought and gesture are marvellously on show from the start in untitled early scatological collages in pencil scribbles and flecked gold (1959), and minimalist drawings with strokes like long, bending grasses (1971).
Seen in light filtered through huge leaded windows, beautiful fragmented surfaces and decrepit splendour hold sway. There are works monumental in scale, such as the massive, splashed, streaked graffiti panels in oil, pencil and wax crayon “Ilium (One Morning Ten Years Later)”, and a disorderly retelling of the Trojan war, on which Twombly worked for four decades.
Others have a small-scale intimacy: in “Leda and the Swan”, a suite of six paintings shown for the first time, eroticism becomes a swoop of grey feathers and looming, irregular forms that burst into white stains of sperm and red pinpricks hinting at violence, then dwindle into unreadable marks of memory and trauma. This is narrative pushed to the limit of abstraction.
The show has the intensity of a condensed retrospective and broadly dramatises how, as Italian artist Francesco Clemente suggested, Twombly, rooted in classical myth, eventually “sailed away from history into geography”. Among the best are “Paesaggio”, rushing liquid verdigris paintings that resemble waterfalls, a reference to Twombly’s home in Gaeta, central Italy.
Other highlights are late works that post-date Tate’s 2008 survey. These include four giant panels, “The Rose”: luscious, monstrous blooms unfolding, over-ripening and fading, compressing time, life and death into pulsing moments. Elsewhere are the baroque gestural scrolls in yellow, red and orange over glowing margarita-lime grounds in “Camino Real” (2011), on which the artist was engaged at his death.
More sumptuously than before, Twombly’s last paintings unravel their making. The artist extended the reach of his brushes by attaching them to long poles, so that marks seem wilful, alive, out of control. The line “is not described”, Twombly said. “It’s happening. The line is the feeling.”
Born in the US, Twombly naturalised Abstract Expressionism in Europe. How his looping marks evolved from Jackson Pollock’s skeins of paint can be traced by visiting the Pollock show at the Venice Guggenheim. Doig similarly connects — in terms of tropical artifice — with another strong historical painting show here, the Palazzo Ducale’s Henri Rousseau. A third exhibition, Sean Scully: Land Sea at Palazzo Falier, hangs intriguingly between American large-scale abstraction and European chromatic tradition.
It opens with the “Doric” series — “Doric Ascending”, “Doric Black”, “Doric Hera”. Chequerboard patterns of gradated greys, silvers, velvet blacks, creams, dirty whites in vertical and horizontal blocks on aluminium surfaces, they are as austere and uncompromising as classical columns. In contrast, Scully’s “Landline” paintings are looser, febrile: thick bands of subtly modulated blues, greys and greens lean into each other. “Landline Pink” fixes a moment between sunset and darkness; “Landline Sea”, “Landline Green Sea” and “Landline Blue Black Cream” trace effects of splashes of light on water.
Scully too is an artist of interiority — but not a storyteller. A minimalist in expressive clothing, he takes his formal model from the grid to create banked up walls of emotion. His bricks of colour in visible strokes and numerous layers carry a dark internal pressure, offset by luminosity of paint in crevices between slabs and stripes. “I am trying to turn stone into light,” he says.
He, Doig and Twombly have never looked better than among the stones of Venice.
‘Peter Doig’, Palazzetto Tito, to October 4; ‘Cy Twombly: Paradise’, Ca’ Pesaro, to September 13; ‘Sean Scully: Land Sea’, Palazzo Falier, to November 22
Photographs: Courtesy of Peter Doig and Michael Werner Gallery New York & London; Cy Twombly Foundation; Courtesy of Sean Scully
This article has been amended since its initial publication