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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Politics doesn't just connect us to the past and the future – it's what makes us human

To those people who tell me that they’re not interested in politics, I often say: “But politics is interested in you!”

I have long been haunted by a scene in George Orwell’s great novel Nineteen Eighty-Four. Winston Smith, the hero, is forced to watch propaganda films depicting acts of war and destruction. He is moved by something he sees: a woman trying to protect a child by wrapping her arm around him as they are attacked. It’s a futile gesture. She cannot shield the boy or stop the bullets but she embraces him all the same – before, as Orwell writes, “The helicopter blew them both to pieces.”

For Winston, what Orwell calls the “enveloping, protecting gesture” of the woman’s arm comes to symbolise something profoundly human – an expression of selflessness and of unconditional love in an unforgiving world. Scenes such as this we now witness daily in footage from the besieged eastern Aleppo and other Syrian towns, people in extreme situations showing extraordinary dignity and kindness.

I read Nineteen Eighty-Four for the first time in late adolescence. I’d dropped out of sixth-form college without completing my A-levels and was commuting on a coach from my parents’ house in Hertfordshire to London, where I worked as a junior clerk for the Electricity Council. During this long daily journey – sometimes two hours each way – I started to read seriously for the first time in my life.

I was just getting interested in politics – this was the high tide of the Thatcher years – and Orwell’s portrayal of a dystopian future in which Britain (renamed “Airstrip One”) had become a Soviet-style totalitarian state was bleakly fascinating. Fundamentally the book seemed to me to be about the deep ­human yearning for political change – about the never-ending dream of conserving or creating a better society.

Nineteen Eighty-Four was published in 1949 (Orwell died in January 1950, aged 46), at a time of rationing and austerity in Britain – but also of renewal. Under the leadership of Clement Attlee, Winston Churchill’s deputy in the wartime coalition, the Labour government was laying the foundations of what became the postwar settlement.

The National Health Service and the welfare state were created. Essential industries such as the railways were nationalised. The Town and Country Planning Act was passed, opening the way for the redevelopment of tracts of land. Britain’s independent nuclear deterrent was commissioned. New towns were established – such as Harlow in Essex, where I was born and brought up.

To grow up in Harlow, I now understand, was to be part of a grand experiment. Many of the families I knew there had escaped the bomb-ruined streets of the East End of London. Our lives were socially engineered. Everything we needed was provided by the state – housing, education, health care, libraries, recreational facilities. (One friend described it to me as being like East Ger­many without the Stasi.)

This hadn’t happened by accident. As my father used to say, we owed the quality of our lives to the struggles of those who came before us. The conservative philosopher Edmund Burke described society as a partnership between “those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born” – and I find this idea of an intergenerational social contract persuasive.

Progress, however, isn’t inevitable. There is no guarantee that things will keep getting better. History isn’t linear, but contingent and discontinuous. And these are dark and turbulent new times in which we are living.

A civil war has been raging in Syria for more than five years, transforming much of the Middle East into a theatre of great-power rivalry. Europe has been destabilised by economic and refugee crises and by the emergence of insurgent parties, from the radical left and the radical right. The liberal world order is crumbling. Many millions feel locked out or left behind by globalisation and rapid change.

But we shouldn’t despair. To those people who tell me that they’re not interested in politics, I often say: “But politics is interested in you!”

And part of what it means to be human is to believe in politics and the change that politics can bring, for better and worse.

What, after all, led so many Americans to vote for an anti-establishment populist such as Donald Trump? He has promised to “make America great again” – and enough people believed him or, at least, wanted to believe him to carry him all the way to the White House. They want to believe in something different, something better, in anything better – which, of course, Trump may never deliver.

So politics matters.

The decisions we take collectively as ­humans have consequences. We are social creatures and rational agents, yet we can be dangerously irrational. This is why long-established institutions, as well as the accumulated wisdom of past generations, are so valuable, as Burke understood.

Politics makes us human. It changes our world and ultimately affects who we are and how we live, not just in the here and now, but long into the future.

An edited version of this essay was broadcast as part of the “What Makes Us Human?” series on BBC Radio 2’s “Jeremy Vine” show

Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman. He has been the editor of Granta, a senior editor at the Observer and a staff writer at the Times.

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage