Twombly&Poussin @ Dulwich

This summer saw the somewhat unlikely coupling of Cy Twombly and Nicolas Poussin sharing an exhibition at the Dulwich Picture Gallery.

The exhibition which was built on Twombly’s quote: ‘I would have liked to be Poussin, if I’d had a choice, in another time’, showcases 21st century expressionism alongside classicism from the 17th century. Both artists settled in Rome, however the distinct contrast between the two epoch creates a dividing line in their portrayal and inspiration of Rome. They were living in a very different time and city, and this is apparent in their work. The piece which stood out the most to me was Twombly’s Hero and Leander (To Christopher Marlowe). Having read some of Marlowe’s work previously this year, albeit not the same text, I can sympathise with Twombly’s apparent admiration for the Elizabethan writer. Hero and Leander is a story of lovers drowning and the way Twombly has allowed the paint to drip down the page reflects this. To me, it almost reflects the sadness of this tragedy like tears with the pinks and purples culminating at the bottom of the page as though, in my personal interpretation it were blood and heartache.

However this passion thrown into the painting, mirroring that of Marlowe’s writing, doesn’t appear to sit comfortably alongside Poussin’s more refined classical style. While critics have previously questioned the childish marks made by Twombly, a raw emotion does come through, which does too, in the paintings by Poussin. Many are of biblical stories, however Poussin has controlled his feelings in a way that Twombly has not. It is almost as though Poussin’s classical style has hindered him in expressing himself through his paintings in the same way as Twombly. Poussin’s paintings, whilst undeniably beautiful don’t stand out in the way that Twombly’s do. The abstract colours alongside Poussin’s more refined traditional french painting stand out, particularly in a gallery where there does not appear to be any other sign of 21st century work. The powdery shades of blues and pinks on Twombly’s off white backgrounds are a stark contrast to the rich, luxurious colours favoured by Poussin. Yet, at the same time, this difference between the artists does highlight their individual strengths, which could easily be missed in a more conventional exhibition where very similar artworks shown side by side can sometimes seem to blend into one.

In short, to sum up, while this was dubbed to be an exhibition about arcadian painters, there appears to be few similarities between the artists, bar them both settling in Rome. Even to those like myself, who were previously ill acquainted with both Poussin and Twombly, it is hard to gage why such different artists were shown together in the same exhibition. For me, Twombly stole the show, for such an exhibition to held in a very traditional gallery, the splash of a different kind of colour from the 21st century stood out from the crowd.


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Lizzy Vartanian Collier is a London-based writer and curator. She runs the Gallery Girl blog and has written for After Nyne, Arteviste, Canvas Magazine, Harper's Bazaar Arabia, Ibraaz, Jdeed Magazine, ReOrient and Suitcase Magazine. Lizzy recently curated Perpetual Movement as part of Arab Women Artists Now (AWAN) Festival 2018 in London, which was featured in Vogue Arabia and The Art Newspaper.

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