Turner Monet Twombly: Later Paintings - review

Tate's exhibition of late Turner, Monet and Twombly is full of paintings you'd like to steal

Red Sky Over a Beach by JMW Turner
Red Sky Over a Beach by JMW Turner

“Turner Monet Twombly: Later Paintings” is at Tate Liverpool until 28 October­­

This is a great show, an absorbing, exhausting show. It passes the kleptomania test with ease. There are many, many works here that one would steal without compunction were theft possible with impunity. In fact, a short prison sentence would be acceptable if one’s cell also housed one of the stolen works, as aversion therapy. (I envisage being caught as I return, helplessly, to steal a second, a third, a fourth piece of art. Yes, I need help.)

In the third and last room of this exhibition of late works by J M W Turner (1775-1851), Claude Monet (1840-1926) and Cy Twombly (1928-2011), there is a bronze sculpture by Twombly entitled Winter’s Passage: Luxor (1985). It looks spectacularly unpromising – grim, drab, a dull assemblage of driftwood. It is the piece I coveted most. Its base is an oblong of wood on four small cubes, one at each corner. On top of this base is a smaller plank of the same drained, exhausted wood. Resting on that is a narrower plank of wood, weathered and warped, curved up slightly at both ends. On it is a small brick of wood. Attached to the brick is an angled lever. It has all the charm of a junction box by the side of a railway. It is without a single inflection of beauty – the flat-chested, thin-lipped, unsmiling, utilitarian functionary of nightmare, whose lapel badge gives nothing away. Winter Passage: Luxor.

And then you see it. It is an Arab dhow or an Egyptian felucca, boats characterised by an angled hypotenuse sail the shape of a thorn. The sculpture is a curved craft, adrift on the grain of the wood, with a cabin and an angled sail – that schematic lever. We call this the “secretary effect” – the unregenerate moment in Superman comics when the secretary takes off her specs (a synecdoche for all her clothes) and Superman suddenly appreciates the pulchritude that was there all the time. After this delicious shock, you take in the effect of the bronze casting – the transfiguration of an Arp-like objet trouvé into something classical, something measured. Then there is the applied partial patina of grey and grey-white paint on the darker grey of the wood – which reads like dirty salt deposits on a working vessel. The mood it enforces suggests not only shipping but an emblem of age. And we are back with the grim functionary, except that now we can make out the name on the lapel badge – Death.

From this sculpture, the way it marries classicism and illegibility, we can learn a lot about Twombly, the most problematic, the least-known artist of the three. The fame of Turner and Monet is secure. Overall, the show – excellently and unobtrusively curated by Jeremy Lewison – is about the power of suggestion, the greater existential accuracy of suggestion and inaccuracy. You could sum it up with this quotation from Brian Friel’s play, Translations: “‘uncertainty in meaning is incipient poetry’ – who said that?” asks Owen.

A quick example from Turner. There are five oils like watercolours, so vague that their putative titles have question marks appended: Sea and Sky?, Red Sky over a Beach?, Calm Sea with Distant Grey Clouds? These paintings are almost impossible to describe, so little has taken place on the paper. The marks are somewhere between restraint and accidents of dirt. Red Sky, for instance, has a passage of faintly freckled fish skin in the foreground, which I read as the beach promised in the title’s admitted guesswork. There is a tiny smear of red. Below it, there is what I take to be blue sky – rendered like a brief barrier of reeds, the result of a starved brush. You have to see it, to see that you can’t quite see it. It is like seeing a beautiful face through a veil – ravishing, subtly enhanced rather than simply obscured.

The same thing applies to Turner’s great painting of the Salute in Venice, painted somewhere between 1840 and 1845. I know Venice quite well but I can’t work out where Turner has painted his view of the church from. There is a large vague building to the left that I simply don’t understand. It might just be the Punta della Dogana, the old Customs House – though that scarcely resembles the spectral ingot we see in Turner’s painting. The catalogue tells us the painting may be unfinished. It is truer to say it is hardly started, there is so little in the way of finish and definition in this lovely passage of misty pallor.

Picasso once said of his famous sculpture of a goat that it was more goat-like than a real goat. (He supplied the goat with an anus of pipe and dugs like sweet potatoes.) Turner’s painting of the Salute transcends the original church in a different way – not by accretion but by subtraction. Less is more. A whisper carries further than a shout. There is something candidly magical at work.

The same applies to Monet, though his method is less systematically one of erasure.  He is more interested in texture, in impasto, in gesso effects. The famous lily paintings are here in force – six of them – and the largest has the matt quality of a fresco. His views of Rouen Cathedral are as granular as Parmesan. But the most obviously beautiful of the Monets here is Morning on the Seine near Giverny (1897). This is a painting of two halves. On the left are dark trees, on the right a misty pink vista of water going to an inferred vanishing point. Keats claimed he loved the horizon when it was a mystery. Monet’s picture is beautiful because its mystery is like a concluding chord imposing its calm. It is the trance of the seven veils – a vision, Friel’s version of poetry.

Or take the poetry of Monet’s Waterloo Bridge (1902): the bridge itself is a barely visible bruise but the right foreground gives us a rich orange-pink spill of light that recalls Gerard Manley Hopkins describing the poetry of falling ash: “blue-bleak embers, ah my dear,/ Fall, gall themselves, and gash gold-vermilion”.

Twombly introduces actual lines of poetry into his paintings. Orpheus (1979) consists of that name scrawled illiterately across an empty canvas. Another depicts peonies – about eight great bombs of pigment, allowed to explode and run so that the yellow canvas is a bead-curtain of red drips – and has a haiku by Kikaku written on the right of its enormous canvas: “Ah! the Peonies/for which Kusumoki/took off his armour”. The picture is a tribute to the irresistible imperative of beauty, the force-field of beauty – resulting in what T S Eliot calls “the awful daring of a moment’s surrender”.

Twombly’s obvious contribution to painting is, paradoxically, writing – his own handwriting and literature – two things that seem anomalous in painting. A standard fear for modern painters has been the kitsch of illustration. However, since so much painting is often fluently calligraphic – the painter “writes” his sign for the nose or the nose-and-mouth together, for instance – the idea of writing itself should be legitimate. The handwriting of Twombly is, crucially, childish. Lewison thinks Twombly’s illegibility “suggests fading and loss of memory and the obliteration of life forces”. I think it is rather a shrewd awareness of the power of suggestion bound up in incompleteness. The real reason is self-protective. It is a way of countering the charge of being parasitical on literature.

Twombly’s taste in literature is frankly classical. He is drawn to timeless sentiments – sentiments that are true, hallowed, yet at risk of sounding hollow. For example, this inscription in the summer panel of Twombly’s Quattro Stagioni (1993-95): “youth/that is infinite, and yet/so brief”. How to make this banality touch us with its truth, stop us in our tracks?

That sculpture I so much admire – Winter Passage: Luxor – involves the viewer in delay, one of Twombly’s crucial procedures. It is a detritus of driftwood, dully arranged; then it is a boat bearing us to burial. The handwriting works in exactly the same way. We are forced to decipher. The writing itself is as far from sophistication as possible. We are witness to the painful hand of childhood, awkwardly gripping the pencil. And so we extend to the sentiments the tenderness we extend to the child.

Compare the Reverend John Ames in Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead, when confronted with his son’s artistic offerings: “You are drawing those terrible little pictures that you will bring me to admire, and which I will admire because I have not the heart to say one word that you might remember against me.” He loves his son, you see.Twombly’s awkward hand is there to coerce our tenderness, to draw on our instinct for love. It is a brilliant, simple calculation designed to enforce our forgiveness. There is nothing naive about it. Our hearts are simultaneously opened and hospitable to the sentiments expressed in the hobbled hand. Sententiousness seems incompatible with the innocent crippled calligraphy.

Sometimes, the paintings are purely written. There is a triptych – Hero and Leandro (1981-84) – of paintings that record, first, a great suck of sea: green sea, pink-cream sea the colour of summer pudding. (Almost the equal of Turner’s great Rough Sea [1840-45], though Turner’s palette is restricted to whites, black-greys and lovat. A single tinge of red-brown is a boat, poised like a gondola-swing at the top of its arc – the size of the tinge tells you size, the height of the sea.)

The second Hero and Leandro panel is a basic, calm eau de Nil, with drips like stalactites and a mini tornado of black at the bottom right, suggesting a whirlpool. Finally, an even more washed-out wash of eau de Nil depicting morbid stillness. Next to these three paintings is a single framed square of paper on which is written in pencil: “He’s gone,/up bubbles/all his amorous breath”. The colour of the paper is important. It is an antique faded pink, bleached white at the edges. In itself, it seems a relic, the bygone commemorating the gone.

Twombly’s painting Orpheus, is a large, “white” canvas, whose top two thirds are painted white. Under the paint, you can just read the word “Orpheus” – at least once, possibly twice, possibly more. Below, the word in black, crabbed across the canvas, the great “O” of Orpheus, like the mouth of someone utterly dismayed – perhaps like Orpheus when he looked back to the underworld to see his beloved disappearing before his eyes. After the “O”, the letters falter and stumble. What do the overpainted palimpsest Orpheuses mean? That looking back at the lost beloved, given over to death, is a staple, a recurrent experience. We will all come to it – and to the sense that we are somehow responsible.

This isn’t a winning picture. It is wonderfully bleak with failure and defeat. Unlike Twombly’s flower paintings, which are an explosion of colours, serving to remind you of how arranged most flower pictures are. (But see here Monet’s fabulous Lilac Irises [1914-17], where the freedom of the brushwork makes you feel that flowers themselves are an inspired improvisation of nature.) Twombly’s Quattro Stagioni are equally gorgeous and bountiful, even Inverno [Winter] with its great whitewash of cold. In Autunno, pay attention to the rich slosh of excremental praline falling from top left to the middle of the painting.

Twombly is a great painter, the equal of Turner and Monet – and also a great sculptor. I want to end with his Thermopylae (1991), the “hot gates”, where disaster, an army, was held off, for an impossible time, by Leonidas and a handful of hoplites. Twombly gives us a bronze commemorative heap – a sheer mountain and a burial mound. In it are affixed four flowers, wired into protective sheaths. They are armoured flowers – an emblem of all human bravery, at once frail and courageous. The petals are symmetrically ridged, like a scallop shell, huddled not open. The whole is whitened with dust. Is unforgettably whitened with dust.