In my appreciation of Robert Hughes the other day, I quoted Hughes as maintaining that the purpose of art is:

To be beautiful. To manifest beauty. People need beauty.  There’s a hunger for it.

Well, there’s plenty of beauty on show at Tate Liverpool’s exhibition Turner Monet Twombly: Later Paintings, and, judging by the throngs filing through the rooms, a great deal of hunger for it, too.

This is a truly impressive show, awash with brilliant Turners and featuring a selection of Monets that will probably not be seen again together in the UK for many a year (there are five of his water lily paintings, two of which haven’t been in this country before).  Indeed, as someone remarked (I can’t remember where I read it), it’s like a very good Monet exhibition constantly interrupted by Turners and Twomblys. I’m not sure I agree – I think Turner gives Monet a pretty good run for his money here.  But Twombly?  I admit that before this exhibition I knew next to nothing about Twombly, so the title had a kind of falling to bathetic sound, especially having seen Turner Whistler Monet at Tate Britain in 2005 which had a decidedly more convincing ring to it.

I’ll admit, too, that my reaction at first on seeing the first Twombly of the exhibition – Untitled 1992, a canvas splattered with dabs, doodles, and lines scrawled in a childish hand – was probably akin to the hostile scepticism  that greeted many of the Monets present here when they were first exhibited, with expletives added.

But, though I still didn’t leave the exhibition wholly convinced about Twombly – at least up against Turner and Monet – I did begin to have an understanding of his technique and his intentions – and of the thinking behind the show.  The Tate describes the exhibition as a centuries long conversation between the three painters, ‘questioning and challenging each other as though each were present in the same room at the same time’ and demonstrating that these artists, for different, often very personal reasons, continually returned to the same themes and techniques:

Through the juxtaposition of their work, the exhibition also aims to underline the modernity and undiminished relevance of Turner’s and Monet’s work while simultaneously revealing the strong classical traits in Twombly’s paintings and sculptures.

The hanging is austere: there are no information panels. If you want to understand the exhibition’s logic you will need to read the gallery guide or pick up an audio guide. Otherwise you will be faced with a succession of startling visual juxtapositions, for the arrangement is not chronological, but thematic.

The exhibition begins on the ground floor with a room devoted to the first of seven organising ideas.  In ‘Beauty, Power, Space’ the aim is to show how each of these three artists have expressed the sublime. Edmund Burke defined the sublime as anything that excites ideas of terror, pain or peril in the mind of a person who is safe in the knowledge that they are not in fact subjected to danger, while Ruskin declared the sublime to be ‘the effect of greatness upon feelings… whether of matter, space, power, virtue or beauty’.  So here, on one wall, is Turner’s The Parting of Hero and Leander, while  displayed directly opposite is Twombly’s painting of the same name. In the myth, Leander drowns as he swims across the Hellespont to visit his lover, Hero, and the paintings in this room are an expression of awe or terror when faced with the sublime power and beauty of the sea.

There’s another strand of the conversation at work here, too.  This pairing reveals that both Turner and Twombly  engaged with history and mythology. The epic themes addressed by Turner include the stories of Dido and Ulysses, whilst Twombly’s works include allusions to the myths of Bacchus and Orpheus.  And, just as Twombly adds handwritten words on his canvases to complement the visual references, so Turner also incorporated text in the form of verse which he exhibited alongside some of his paintings.

Jeremy Lewison, the curator of the exhibition, explained the concept in the Tate magazine:

Quoting the German poet Rainer Maria Rilke, Twombly inscribes Untitled 1992 with the words ‘outside, an Amazing Space on the other Side of AIR’, suggesting the vastness of the universe beyond the air that we breathe. This large-scale painting, in which a highly inflected surface of white and grey with touches of red and blue evokes sky and sea, seems to take up where Turner left off in a painting such as Rockets and Blue Lights (close at Hand) to warn Steam-Boats of Shoal-Water, where the evident power of nature is pitted against a foundering sailing boat. Both artists suggest the immensity of nature and the inconsequence of man before it. At the top of Twombly’s painting is an inscription from Charles Baudelaire’s Journaux intimes, ‘I have felt the wings of the wind of madness,’ which, in the original source, follows hard on a passage where Baudelaire discusses his fear of the void.

The next theme to be examined is ‘Atmosphere’: Turner once said, ‘Atmosphere is my style and indistinctness is my fault’.  When Turner died in 1851 he left several unfinished paintings in his studio. With the hindsight gained from Impressionism, these paintings have come to be appreciated as highly as his finished works – appreciated, indeed, as if they are finished works.

In The Thames above Waterloo Bridge c.1830–5, Turner shrouds the river in a blanket of pollution, with chimneys belching out smoke. In their late works, both Turner and Monet played with simultaneously obscuring and revealing the image. In Turner’s unfinished view of Venice with the Salute 1840–5, the city can barely be distinguished as it emerges from the delicate shimmer of a morning mist.

Similarly, Waterloo Bridge, Monet’s painting of 1902, depicts the bridge as hardly visible in the dense London fog, a splash of pink late afternoon sunlight illuminating the Thames before it.  Monet painted London in the winter specifically to capture the visual effects of the city’s polluted air. Waterloo Bridge Pink Effect is as pure a study of the fall of light on cloud, stone and water as you will ever encounter.

Challengingly, these works are displayed alongside Twombly’s Orpheus (1979), the exhibition guide noting that ‘the mist obscures the name of the eponymous hero who, in the Orphic myth, travelled to the underworld to retrieve his wife Eurydice, who is perhaps also alluded to here by the small letters ‘eu’.

Twombly’s Paesaggio 1986 (below) is positioned with Monet’s Morning on the Seine, Giverny 1897 (top), encouraging us to see how both contrast woodland and water and explore effects of light.

The ‘Fire and Water’ section gathers paintings – several of sunrise and sunset – that reflect the artists’ attempts to capture the mood evoked by a particular quality of light.  In Houses of Parliament, Sun Breaking Through Fog, 1904, Monet reveals the how sunlight reflected on the surface of the Thames is refracted by the morning mist. He’s reacting to Turner’s own similar attempts and later Twombly (who included a Monet exhibition catalogue amongst his prized possession) continues the experiment.

Monet is known to have seen Turner’s paintings in the London galleries with Camille Pissarro during their stay in 1871, and then on subsequent visits over the following decades.  Monet shared Turner’s fascination with light and the effects of the elements, though his interest was motivated less by drama and romanticism than a desire to capture nature as he experienced it. He observed and recorded his subject matter systematically and objectively, often returning to the same motif again and again to paint it in different atmospheric conditions (for example, the façade of Rouen cathedral – a couple of studies of which are in this exhibition).

The drama and romanticism of Turner’s approach is revealed in the crashing surf, burst of white rockets and glow of blue lights in Rockets and Blue Lights, which, like so many of Turner’s late paintings – such as Rough Sea painted in the early 1840s – represents the elemental forces of nature.

Breakers on a Flat Beach (below) derives from the late 1820s, the period when Turner made regular visits to the then-fashionable resort of Margate.  There, he particularly prized the coastal light, claiming that the skies over the Isle of Thanet were the most beautiful in Europe.

Similarly, Monet had an intense and long-lasting relationship with the Normandy coast.  The canvases he
painted at Fécamp, Pourville, Varengeville and Etretat between 1881 and 1886 came to form a major part of his output. In these locations, he positioned himself as the solitary explorer, face to face with the elements, his canvases increasingly preoccupied with the fleeting effects of weather and atmosphere. Many of his visits were out of season enabling him to record more hostile weather conditions and rougher seas.  The Sea at Fécamp places the viewer close to an overhanging rock face where the sea pounds the cliff. Curving brushstrokes of blue, green and white build to form the lines of waves moving towards the cliff. The spray is a flurry of lighter, more tangled marks as the water breaks over the more densely painted rock.

Opposite, is a wall on which are displayed five small oil paintings by Turner from the 1840s.  These paintings, as delicate and ethereal as watercolours, are exquisite.   Their titles, when listed, read like lines of a poem:

sea and sky
ship in a storm
red sky over a beach
shore with breaking waves
calm sea with distant grey clouds

In the section entitled ‘Naught so Sweet as Melancholy’, the curators have brought together some of Turner’s late Venetian paintings, executed after his final trip to Venice in 1840, with Monet’s paintings of the same city, begun on a trip with his second wife Alice in 1908.  Many of Monet’s canvases were only finished after the death of Alice in 1911, when Monet returned to them as a way to come to terms with his loss.

The centrepiece of ‘The Seasons’ is Twombly’s Quattro Stagioni, painted 1993–5.  These four panels were where I began to appreciate Twombly. I liked these paintings with their echoes of Chinese landscapes, and their colours reflecting emotion.  In this sequence Twombly mourns the passing of time and youth, but celebrates life.  Like many poets and painters before him Twombly links the progress of the year with the life cycle, each season representing a different stage in life.

Here the seasons are hung in a different order, beginning with Autumn (above) to reflect the cyclical nature of life; this was a suggestion, the exhibition guide notes, that Twombly welcomed in discussions with the curator shortly before his death last year.  Autunno (Autumn), ‘drenched in the colours of harvested grapes, marks the moment of panic, when winter begins to draw in and mortality rears its head’. The reds and burgundies of Autumno, deep and saturated, suggest the season of ripeness and maturity.

Primavera (Spring) ‘conjures the energy of plants springing into life and is full of vigour’. Fiery Estate (Summer, above) is tinged with the knowledge that – in lines from George Seferis embedded in the paint – ‘youth is infinite and yet so brief’. Inverno (Winter) is sparse and cold, like evergreens in snow with ‘ forms and words dissolving in silvery tones’.  Twombly incorporates into these panels lines from Maria Rilke’s Duino Elegy, while in Estate, lines from George Seferis’s ‘Three Secret Poems’ have been altered by Twombly, with the words inked on the canvas in Twombly’s inimitable, childish scrawl:

the shard of white . . .
trembling with white light
with white flat sea
distant in memory
between the deluge of life
our dearest, our white youth
our white, our snow white youth
that is infinity . . .

Monet also recorded seasonal changes in his series of poplars in the 1890s, paintings imbued with a strong sense of time.

The final section, ‘A Floating World’, is dominated by Monet’s late paintings of the water lily pond in his garden at Giverny.The exhibition guide comments:

Painted during the First World War and after a period of intense mourning, a sense of human mortality pervades them by contrast with the everlasting endurance of nature. Time appears to stand still in these paintings although glints of sunlight reflected on the surface of the pond imply the time of day. Surrounded by paintings in his studio, Monet created his own consoling world, to heal the psychic pain of bereavement.

Here, too, are Turner’s studies for the commission by Lord Egremont, owner of Petworth House in Sussex.

They make little distinction between water and sky, as all dissolves in the diminishing glow of the sun. Trees and shrubs collapse into patches of paint and the whole becomes a liquefied mass. The Petworth paintings were begun either shortly before or shortly after his father’s death. Their emphasis on the setting sun may also express intimations of mortality. The final paintings have a certain air of despondency. These images remind the viewer once again of finality and provide another link to Twombly’s Quattro Stagioni, and its classical reference to death: ‘Et in Arcadia ego.’

Alongside these masterpieces we find Twombly’s monumental painting Untitled 2007, that appears to depict peonies, although Twombly apparently disclaimed the idea. The guide notes:

The peony is associated with Japanese Edo-period screen paintings and, like such a screen, Twombly’s painting is split into panels. The red paint trickles down the canvas, like blood or tears. Transience and regret are central themes in this work, but it is also a hymn to sunlight, sexuality, and regeneration. A Japanese haiku on the right evokes the erotic and the morbid, exuberance and joy.

On the panel, Twombly quotes Takarai Kikaku, whose haiku was inspired by the 14-century samurai Kusunoki Masashige:

Ah! The peonies
For which
Took off his armour

Presumably the beauty of nature, epitomized here by the wild peony, inspired a momentary pacifism in the warrior.

Jonathan Jones, in an article in The Guardian, commented on the dangers of positioning Twombly’s work within range of Monet’s:

The curator has hung some splashy, multicoloured splurges next to ravishing Monet garden scenes. Never work with children, animals, or Claude Monet. The quiet Frenchman is a great upstager. […]  Near Twombly’s Four Seasons hangs an utterly scintillating flower painting by Monet. It seems to have more colours in one spot of its surface than Twombly can muster across an entire epic. You do not need the Hellespont to drown in: Monet’s pond is deep enough.

Absolutely.  Having said that, I did leave with a higher appreciation of Twombly’s work.  I just don’t think it measures up to the other two, though.

Here’s a slideshow of the paintings I enjoyed most in the exhibition

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

See also

TateShots: Three Champions For Turner Monet Twombly

This film explores the parallels in their style and subject matter with Mike Leigh, who describes Turner as the world’s first modern painter, and who is in the process of developing a feature film on the artist; Fiona Rae, a painter herself, who reveals how astonishing Monet’s works were for their time; and Tate director Nicholas Serota, who considers why certain artists, on reaching the twilight of their careers, develop a new-found sense of freedom in their work.

There’s also a video on the Liverpool Daily Post website where Tate’s Assistant Curator, Eleanor Clayton, discusses the exhibition.


6 thoughts on “Turner Monet Twombly: To be beautiful

  1. I thought, let’s have a quick look in my Reader, and came upon your jewel of a post.
    It took me a while to appreciate Twombly, but the more I see the more appreciative I am; I just have to remember to engage my brain.
    And nice that you tagged AGD – he’s my favourite arty-type person by far.
    Really, I loved this.

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