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.

Photo: BBC
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Why you should watch BBC3's This Country

The show is a masterclass in the idiosyncrasies triggered by rustic boredom.

“In rural Britain today, studies show that young people feel more marginalised than ever. To explore this problem, the BBC spent six months filming with some young people in a typical Cotswold village.”

These words appear over cute aerial shots of Northleach, Gloucestershire, in the opening moments of the BBC3 mockumentary, This Country, which has just been confirmed for a second season. Cut to cousins Kerry and “Kurtan” Mucklowe, both clearly in their late 20s, squabbling like children over the top shelf in the oven or pointing out where they experienced such thrilling celebrity sightings as Laurence Llewelyn-Bowen.

Written by brother and sister Daisy May Cooper and Charlie Cooper, who also play the leads, This Country is a masterclass in the idiosyncrasies triggered by rustic boredom. “I’ve got enemies in South Cerney, I’ve got enemies in North Cerney, I’ve got enemies in Cerney Wick,” Kerry boasts in her broad Gloucestershire accent. “Oh, having a picture of your winning scarecrow on the front of the Gazette is sad, is it?” Kurtan says sarcastically.

I tell myself that, as a Gloucestershire girl, This Country speaks to me because I’m in on jokes about how “it takes Gramps four hours to drive from Gloucester”, but the fact is it’s just really, really funny. Kerry and Kurtan are ridiculous but, based on Daisy and Charlie and their real experience of financial struggle on moving back to Cirencester, they are drawn with love.

“You’ve just got to live in the moment and appreciate what’s around you,” Kurtan philosophises. “Because while you’re pining for Noel Edmonds’s House Party, you’re missing out on Alan Carr’s Chatty Man.” Don’t miss out on This Country

“This Country” is on iPlayer until 6 August

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 27 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Summer double issue