"I would've liked to have been Poussin, if I'd a choice, in another time," the recently deceased Cy Twombly said once. Now the Dulwich Picture Gallery's exhibition "Twombly and Poussin: Arcadian Painters" — one of the last projects the American artist worked on before his death on July 5 — sees out the meaning behind those words, exploring the resonances between France's most Italian neoclassicist and the Abstract Expressionist who left New York for the Eternal City.
Separated by three centuries, the artists could not have more divergent pictorial styles. Twombly's wild scribbles and drippings are worlds apart from Poussin's cerebral compositions, but the convergences abound. On a biographical level, for one: both Poussin and Twombly went to Rome aged 30 and stayed there most of their lives. Both painted their "Four Seasons" opuses at age 64 (sadly, only Twombly's version is on display in this show), and, more importantly, both artists drew extensively on Greco-Roman iconography. But what is a stake here is more than a game of similarities. The exhibition investigates how comparable thematic concerns might be expressed through figuration and abstraction, and how the emotions triggered by Twombly's hasty crayon lines can so closely relate to the ones engendered by Poussin's clinically precise brushstrokes.
These questions are dissected throughout seven rooms in the exhibition, acting as so many case studies along thematic lines: Arcadia and the Pastoral, Anxiety and Theatricality, Venus and Eros, Apollo, Parnassus and Poetry, Pan and the Bacchanalia, and the Four Seasons. From the first room onwards, the answer is obvious: Twombly extracts the very essence of Poussin's explorations, turning them into raw pictorial gestures. The lush, dark green trees reflected in the mirror-like pools of Poussin's "Landscape with Travelers Resting" (1648), re-emerge untamed in Twombly's 1985 series "Untitled (Basano in Teverina)" with its somber jades and fluid whites. In his 1978 "Venus + Adonis," the names of the mythical lovers hang over a throbbing vaginal red heart, intensifying the eroticism of Poussin's version, in which the goddess gazes amorously at her mortal companion. "To my mind once does not put oneself in place of the past," said Twombly, "one only adds a new link."
"Twombly and Poussin: Arcadian Painters" is built on the idea that Western art history is a continuous line stretching unbroken from antiquity to the present. Like the story of Venus and Adonis, this continuity is a constructed myth, serving the belief, as Thomas McEvilley writes, that art history "expresses the self-realizing tendency of Universal Spirit." Far from addressing, and questioning, this fallacious foundation, Twombly reinforced the myth by inscribing himself in the lineage, in the very same way Poussin did in the 17th century, by actualizing antique themes. The exhibition basks in a reassuring, if flawed, feeling of permanence.
This doesn't mean that Poussin and Twombly are unable to stir intense reactions. Last Sunday, Poussin's "The Adoration of the Golden Calf" (1634), together with another smaller painting, were defaced in London's National Gallery by an unnamed 57-year-old man, who sprayed the biblical scene with dark red paint. His act is still unexplained — the vandal was perhaps inspired by Rosicrucian theories that Poussin's paintings hold secret codes, the Guardian's Jonathan Jones has ventured. Four years ago, self-proclaimed French artist Rindy Sam kissed the white expanse of Twombly's "Phaedrus" displayed at the Collection Lambert in Avignon, leaving a red lipstick mark on the painting, estimated then at $2 million. "I just gave a kiss," Sam said at the time. "It was a gesture of love." Even in the conflicted passions Poussin and Twombly's works inspire chime in unison.