Art review: Poussin meets Twombly

An exhilirating collision between ancient and modern at Dulwich Picture Gallery.

A provocative exhibition runs at Dulwich Picture Gallery until 25 September. It's the brainchild of Tate Modern curator, Nicholas Cullinan, who had of the novel idea of juxtaposing paintings, drawings and sculptures by Cy Twombly with paintings and drawings by Nicholas Poussin. The resulting show is called "Arcadian Painters". And this unusual, yet compelling, coupling is justified, says Cullinan, by the American Twombly's and Frenchman Poussin's mutual devotion to classical antiquity.

Twombly and Poussin are, in many ways, unlikely bedfellows of course. Poussin's restrained classical art is encrusted with the patina of time, seeming to belong on the walls of the discreetly lit, apparently conservative gallery in this leafy part of south London. Twombly's work, on the other hand, is a distant and unruly relation to Poussin's, with its Abstract Expressionist motifs and graffiti scrawls. But Cullinan has a canny eye and has used the rapprochement between the two painters to pull off a daring curatorial coup.

It was Twombly who claimed, "I would like to have been Poussin, if I'd had a choice, in another time". Both painters were to arrive in Rome at the age of 30, a city that would be Poussin's base until his death in 1665. After he'd become established there, his artistic production was to follow along tried and tested Italian guidelines. At Dulwich there is a sensuous and poetic Titianesque canvas by him, The Arcadian Shepherds, from 1628. Poussin's Arcadians, though, attend not to their flocks but to a tomb inscription. This picture provides a clue to the direction his art was to take, text being a constant undercurrent in his work, Poussin's "mute art" constituting a self-contained pictorial equivalent to his verbal thinking.

Three centuries later, Twombly was to arrive in Italy via that hotbed of the American avant garde, Black Mountain College, North Carolina, where he befriended the painter Robert Rauschenberg. Whilst he acknowledged his debts to both Pollock and de Kooning, Twombly's sweetly anarchic temperament drew him to to elements of surrealism and Jungian notions of "myth". The influence of the surrealists' "automatic writing" led him to let his hand run loose, resulting in the lyrical pencil arabesques that make up two sheets of drawings, from 1956, on display at Dulwich. Indeed, Twombly was to become something of a writers' painter: John Berger, for instance, enthused over the quotes in Twombly's work.

The histories and legends of Ancient Greece and Rome provided Poussin with a criterion against which he could gauge his own artistic ambitions. Conversely, for Twombly, his incessant quotations of the art and literature of the past was one of the reasons he was to find himself rehabilitated by post-modernist critics in the 1980s. He has remained centre-stage ever since.

The success of this exhibition can be seen by comparing two of the pictures on show: Poussin's The Triumph of Pan (1635) and Twombly's collage Pan (1975). Twombly is seen here feeling his way around classical subjects and his adopted terrain of Italy, whilst Poussin reveals himself to be one of the genuine greats of western art. Yet they're not offered to us as direct visual analogues for comparison, ancient and modern treatments of the same theme. Rather, Twombly's pictorial frisson and vitality riff playfully off Poussin's impeccable colour and robust composition, bringing out unexpected and fresh meanings in both. That's why this exhibition is such fun, allowing the viewer to join the dots for themselves.

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Women on the edge: new films Jackie and Christine are character studies of haunted women

With their claustrophobic close-ups and desolate wide shots, both films are stunning portraits of life on the brink.

Jacqueline Kennedy and Christine Chubbuck may not have had much in common in real life – the former briefly the US first lady, the latter a put-upon television news reporter in the early 1970s in Sarasota, Florida – but two new films named after them are cut resolutely from the same cloth. Jackie and Christine are character studies of haunted women in which the claustrophobic close-up and the desolate wide shot are the predominant forms of address.

Both films hinge on fatal gunshots to the head and both seek to express cinematically a state of mind that is internal: grief and loss in Jackie, which is set mainly in the hours and days after the assassination of President John F Kennedy; depression and paranoia in Christine. In this area, they rely heavily not only on hypnotically controlled performances from their lead actors but on music that describes the psychological contours of distress.

Even before we see anything in Jackie, we hear plunging chords like a string section falling down a lift shaft. This is the unmistakable work of the abrasive art rocker Mica Levi. Her score in Jackie closes in on the ears just as the tight compositions by the cinematographer Stéphane Fontaine exclude the majority of the outside world. The Chilean director Pablo Larraín knows a thing or two about sustaining intensity, as viewers of his earlier work, including his Pinochet-era trilogy (Tony Manero, Post Mortem and No), will attest. Though this is his first English-language film, there is no hint of any softening. The picture will frustrate anyone hoping for a panoramic historical drama, with Larraín and the screenwriter Noah Oppenheim irising intently in on Jackie, played with brittle calm by Natalie Portman, and finding the nation’s woes reflected in her face.

Bit-players come and go as the film jumbles up the past and present, the personal and political. A journalist (Billy Crudup), nameless but based on Theodore White, arrives to interview the widow. Her social secretary, Nancy Tuckerman (Greta Gerwig), urges her on with cheerleading smiles during the shooting of a stiff promotional film intended to present her warmly to the public. Her brother-in-law Bobby (Peter Sarsgaard) hovers anxiously nearby as she negotiates the chasm between private grief and public composure. For all the bustle around her, the film insists on Jackie’s aloneness and Portman gives a performance in which there is as much tantalisingly concealed as fearlessly exposed.

A different sort of unravelling occurs in Christine. Antonio Campos’s film begins by showing Christine Chubbuck (Rebecca Hall) seated next to a large box marked “fragile” as she interviews on camera an empty chair in which she imagines Richard Nixon to be sitting. She asks of the invisible president: “Is it paranoia if everyone is indeed coming after you?” It’s a good question and one that she doesn’t have the self-awareness to ask herself. Pressured by her editor to chase juicy stories, she goes to sleep each night with a police scanner blaring in her ears. She pleads with a local cop for stories about the darker side of Sarasota, scarcely comprehending that the real darkness lies primarily within her.

For all the shots of TV monitors displaying multiple images of Christine in this beige 1970s hell, the film doesn’t blame the sensationalist nature of the media for her fractured state. Nor does it attribute her downfall entirely to the era’s sexism. Yet both of those things exacerbated problems that Chubbuck already had. She is rigid and off-putting, all severe straight lines, from her haircut and eyebrows to the crossed arms and tight, unsmiling lips that make it difficult for anyone to get close to her. That the film does break through is down to Hall, who illuminates the pain that Christine can’t express, and to the score by Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans. It’s perky enough on the surface but there are cellos sawing away sadly underneath. If you listen hard enough, they’re crying: “Help.” 

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era