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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Paula Hawkins: a pulp-feminist follow-up on The Girl on the Train

Hawkins’s writing displays a suspicion of power, especially male power, though she is also eager to identify moments of female collusion in misogyny. 

A couple of years ago, Paula Hawkins, an Oxford graduate with a run of chick-lit novels to her name (well, to her nom de plume Amy Silver), became the latest example of various splashy phenomena. Most obviously, The Girl on the Train, her first thriller, made Hawkins an out-of-nowhere, book-clubtastic, “movie rights gone in a flash” sensation, on the model of E L James. It also made Hawkins, who had formerly worked at the Times, one of those journalist-turned-juggernaut figures, like Robert Harris and Gillian Flynn, a beacon of light to every deadline-haunted hack.

Not so publicised was the kind of writer the book showed Hawkins to be. The Flynn comparisons were perfunctory, the overlap limited to shared use of multiple narrators and that not uncommon word, “girl”. A puff from Stephen King was a little more in tune with Hawkins’s sensibility, a taste for the Gothic intensities that lurk beneath the everyday; but King’s praise – it kept him up all night – still missed her strangest virtue: not the gift for making people turn a lot of pages and feel foggy on the next day’s commute, but for using the mystery thriller form as a back-door polemic, every revelation bringing an adjustment of world-view, every twist of the plot putting a spin on what we thought she thought. More striking than Hawkins’s late success or old career was her emergence as a new practitioner of feminist pulp, the sub-subgenre in which men destroy and women suffer, whose most recent classic had been Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones and whose presiding genius – its queen for fifty years and counting – is the hydra-headed literary combustion engine who usually signs herself Joyce Carol Oates.

Hawkins’s new novel, Into the Water, serves to make things clearer. It enables her readers to sketch a Venn diagram to identify what was incidental to The Girl on the Train – what merely helped to grease the wheels – and what she is obsessed with. Why call it an obsession and not a crutch, a formula, the hardening of habit? Not because what Hawkins is up to conflicts with readability – clearly that isn’t the case – but because she is building novels more intricate, more packed with implication, than readability demands.

Like The Girl on the Train, the new novel centres on a female victim with alleged deficiencies as a woman and mother. The body of Danielle “Nel” Abbott, a writer and photographer, is discovered in the part of a lake known as “the drowning pool”. Nel wasn’t much liked by the other local women. She had ideas above her station. She was a “slattern”. In fact, Nel’s death goes unmourned by everyone except her wild 15-year-old daughter, Lena, who is convinced her mother jumped, but for a good – withheld – reason. To Nel’s unmarried sister, Jules, who ignored a number of phone calls and messages, and who has travelled from London to watch over Lena and identify the body, Nel’s death is the final insult, another way of upsetting her existence.

Into the Water follows its predecessor in applying laser scrutiny to a small patch, but there are signs of growth and greater ambition. Last time the setting was a pair of houses on Blenheim Road, Bucks. Here it is the community of Beckford, a village in or near Northumberland, several hours’ drive from anywhere civilised – “if you consider Newcastle civilised”, in the words of one character. The Girl on the Train had three female narrators describing events, in mildly jagged order, that occurred across a single summer. The new novel features testimony from five characters, including Jules, Lena and the brother of Lena’s dead best friend, and provides close access, in the third person, to another five, including the best friend’s mother. Alongside these ten voices are sections narrated by Jules in 1993 – her experiences carry echoes of Stephen King’s Carrie – as well as passages from Nel’s unfinished manuscript: a photographic history of the Beckford lake called The Drowning Pool, containing a prologue and descriptions of three previous deaths, dating from 1920, 1983 and 1679.

The book isn’t free of cliché – the phrase “out of the woods” is not a reference to the rural setting – and some of Hawkins’s devices border on cheating. At various points a narrator starts talking about a previously shrouded incident soon after it has been revealed elsewhere, as if the characters were in cahoots, conspiring how best to frustrate the reader. There’s much recourse to the undefined event, the word “it”. (What?!) The outsider figure, Detective Sergeant Erin Morgan, is severely restricted in her role as a conduit for backstory. “Have you not seen any background on this?” her superior asks. No, she hasn’t. But Erin “should have been given the files”. Well, she wasn’t.

But most of the time, the novel is plausible and grimly gripping, and Hawkins plays fair. Characters aren’t only lying to us, they are often lying to themselves, or else they’re misinformed. The reader always knows more than any one character but never knows all that a character knows, and Hawkins trusts that the promise of enlightenment is sufficiently seductive to deliver information by the drip.

So, Into the Water is on a par with The Girl on a Train – and of a piece with it, too. Hawkins’s writing displays a suspicion of power, especially male power, though she is also eager to identify moments of female collusion not just in patriarchal structures, but in misogyny. The blame lies with men, who react with violence and psychological abuse to the perceived threat of a woman’s independence. But one of the main products of this mistreatment is that the female characters overlook the role played by such damage when considering other women’s behaviour and subscribe instead to a male-sanctioned narrative of stubborn irrationality or wilful coldness.

Hawkins seems more engaged with the second part of the equation, the way that women see themselves and each other. The radicalism of The Girl on the Train and Into the Water depends partly on the persuasive depiction of figures such as (in Girl) the pathetic drunk and the unrepentant home-wrecker, and in the new novel the money-grabbing mystic, the joyless spinster, the trouble-making man-eater. Then Hawkins exposes the truth behind the cardboard, the way these images have been constructed and perpetuated. Her plotting works as an ambush and also as a rebuke. “You didn’t believe that nonsense, did you?” she seems to be saying. “Oh, you did – and here’s why.”

The effect is less patronising than perhaps it sounds. The rebuke is aimed at the reader not as a citizen but as a participant in the thriller tradition. After all, the victim who deserved it is a familiar character: we have little trouble believing the type. Hawkins has set herself the challenge of adding a third dimension to the dramatis personae bequeathed by Agatha Christie and Raymond Chandler. We are accustomed to characters shifting shape as a story develops. The obvious suspect – twitchy, tattooed, alibi-less – was all along a Good Samaritan; the spotless widow has a cellar full of skulls. Hawkins goes further, showing how narrative presumptions betray unconscious beliefs, upending clichés of other people’s making. You might dismiss her as a killjoy if she wasn’t so addictive. 

Leo Robson is the lead fiction reviewer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 20 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, May's gamble

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