Cy Twombly once said that if he could have been any other artist, he would have been Poussin. The Dulwich Picture Gallery in South London has used this odd declaration as a jumping off point for a new exhibit, curated by Nicholas Cullinan of the Tate Modern, which brings the two painters together across a gulf of three hundred years under the heading of “Arcadian Painters.”
Both painters—Poussin, the high priest of French Classicism and Twombly, the lost boy of the Abstract Expressionists—were loners of a sort. At least both knew how to disappear for long enough to give their work a chance to grow. After he moved from Paris to Rome in 1624 at the age of thirty, Poussin worked mostly alone, surrounding himself with poets and antiquarians and dispatching canvases back to his patrons in France by courier. The precise, logical style with which he painted scenes from mythology and the Bible put him at odds with the rest of the Baroque, and by shifting his attention from the foreground of his paintings to the background, he helped to invent the genre of landscape painting.
For a few years in his twenties, Twombly lived in the heart of the post-war art world, first at Black Mountain College, then in New York with his friends and co-conspirators Bob Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns. Just as the three of them started to gain recognition, Twombly packed up everything and moved to Gaeta in southern Italy. He brought with him a mature style, part scribbling, part writing, part doodle, meandering over huge canvases as if they were pages in an exercise book. The elements of this style—calligraphic loops, scrawled names, white spaces, smears of thickly applied color—would recur in one form or another throughout Twombly’s career. He died just as the Dulwich show was opening this June, of cancer at the age of eighty-three.
Despite Twombly’s wish, the pairing of the two artists seems at first to be ill-conceived: clever in theory, but off-kilter in practice. Poussin comes off worse in the encounter. His hushed, exquisitely composed allegories are too self-consciously antique to ever speak above a whisper. Next to Twombly’s exuberance, such restraint starts to feel suffocating. A bacchanalian revel looks sedate; an attempt at seduction is strangely demure. Everywhere, your eye is drawn away from the main scene to the details, such as the meticulous selection of historically appropriate party paraphernalia, or the alternating colors of the togas on the shepherds encountering death in an Arcadian grove.
Gradually though, the juxtaposition yields up its rewards. Despite their contradictory temperaments, Twombly and Poussin share an intellectual kinship—a love of poetry, myth, literary allusion and high-toned mystery. Twombly moved in Poussin’s footsteps for almost the whole of his adult life—to Rome in his twenties, painting at Bolsena Lake, doing a commission for the Louvre. He incorporated a reproduction of Poussin’s sketch for The Triumph of Pan into his own Bacchus and painted his own versions of many of Poussin’s paintings, including the Death of Holofornes, Herodiade, Empire of Flora, Bacchanalia, Four Seasons and, most crucially, The Arcadian Shepherds.
Poussin painted two versions of The Arcadian Shepherds, once in 1627, and again in 1638. The Dulwich Gallery has the first version, in which four figures—two shepherds, a bare-breasted nymph and a pensive river god—gather in a grove at the base of a cliff. The shepherds (are they shepherds? —they look like wrestlers, or philosophers) are struggling to read the inscription on an antique tomb, sounding it out letter by letter. The implication of Et in Arcadia Ego is that death is present even here in their utopia—but you get the sense from Poussin that the message is going to die on the wind.
The Arcadian Shepherds shares a room with Cy Twombly’s 1994 sculpture Pasargade, a miniature ziggurat covered in a thin coat of white paint. This becomes instantly recognizable as the tomb from Poussin’s painting. More generally, the juxtaposition reveals something about the funereal quality of all of Twombly’s sculptures. In the next room, his Cycnus, a palm leaf elegantly folded around a wooden block, pays homage to the Trojan hero who was turned into a swan. Most of Twombly’s sculptures consist of a few found objects bound together with his signature whitewash, which he called “my marble.” That whiteness works like the clarity of Parian marble or the brightness of Moroccan saints’ tombs; it pulls their component parts out of secular time and into a realm of silence and stillness. They are like impromptu grave markers, what you would get if you had to make a funeral stele out of things you found washed ashore on a beach—which is why the ideal occasions for his sculptures would have been the deaths of Icarus, Shelley or Jan of Jan and Dean—and in Twombly’s real life, the passing of a lime-green python.
Unlike the sculptures, and unlike Poussin’s works, Twombly’s paintings dwell defiantly in the present. Possibly that is because they are more about sex than death—even when they are about both, like in the great Hero and Leandro, the blood on the water speaks of lust more than mortality. The exhibition showcases Twombly’s skill throughout his career at going back to the most sober source material and finding the sex under the petticoats. He distills Poussin’s Bacchanalia into a furious brown-black smear, incorporating a drawing of the original under a sheet of tracing paper as a chaste pendant. That smear, part stain and part eruption, shows up again and again in his work. It is a late-period counterpart to the squiggled line of the early works; one seems born of erotic daydreaming and the other functions as the material condensation of frenzy.
But then, I may be putting words in Twombly’s mouth. For a long time, we have been warned not to take Twombly’s words too seriously—neither his classicizing titles nor the many proper names and scraps of verse scribbled on the canvases themselves. Instead, we are instructed to pay attention to the gesture behind them—its ease, freedom or indolence in the early work, its athleticism and violence in the last paintings. In short, look at the mark, not the sign. It was Roland Barthes brilliant suggestion that while Twombly’s words suggest, conjure and connect, they do not denote. Twombly’s drawings to Virgil consist of “nothing but the Name.” They may call up a world—beautifully conjured by Barthes as “an era of bygone, calm, leisurely, even decadent studies: English preparatory schools, Latin verses, desks, lamps, tiny pencil annotations”—but they do not depict it.
But it may be time to give up this vision of Twombly as trickster saint, subverting the pretensions of his abstract expressionist godparents with his own brand of heroic dandyism, which sustains it. This is not to say that it was never true—just that it can’t make sense of the whole of his career. In his final twenty years, Twombly’s work became increasingly monumental, with the vast series dedicated to the Battle of Lepanto, the Coronation of Sesostris, Bacchus, Peonies and Roses. These are paintings of flowers and boats, burnings ships and barges headed for the underworld, gorgeous ruins, frenzied dances and unfolding disasters. They happen after: after the cities have burned, after the gods have fled, after the lovers drowned, after the poets died.
At the Dulwich the late paintings are represented by The Four Seasons (the version from the Tate Modern; there’s another at MOMA): four 10 foot-high canvases, one for each season. The first impression they give is of overpowering color. Bright daubs of vermillion and yellow dominate their centers. Flowers, phalluses, imperial barges, tree limbs, and multiple suns hang on an off-white stew of a background, covered in layers of text, some of it legible and some deliberately obscured. As a group they are at once immense and intimate, a combination of fresco and palimpsest. From a distance they seem like an allegorical cycle from a ducal villa, and thus close cousins to Poussin’s own Seasons cycle, in which each period of the year is illustrated by a fitting Biblical citation. Up close though, they look like a lover’s notebook; the painting’s surface becomes a record of vanished spaces and errant desires, written in a register of self-exposure Poussin would never dare to attempt.
Nonetheless, the Dulwich show makes it plain that Poussin has always been there for Twombly, furnishing the groves of his imagination and pointing out the trail of his ambition. In the process, he becomes Twombly’s ideal reader. At the time of the Thirty Years War, Poussin remarked that it was a pleasure to live through such events “provided one can take shelter in some little corner and watch the play in comfort.” That little corner is the Arcadia of Twombly’s final works. They are a shelter high on the riverbank, perfect for observing the fall of empires and the ruin of kings.