Twombly and Poussin: Every picture tells a story

There are narratives in abstract art just as in figurative painting – and a show on Twombly and Poussin aims to prove it.

Abstract versus figurative art, can the one ever equal the other? The argument has been going on for very nearly a century now. But, in its latest show, comparing the contemporary American artist Cy Twombly with the 17th century French painter Nicolas Poussin, the Dulwich Picture Gallery gives an enlightening, and at times surprising, answer.

Poussin was from early on a hero and influence on the American artist, which is one good reason for holding this exhibition and why Twombly, now 83 and one of the pre-eminent figures of modern American art, seems to have been keen to cooperate with it. While their art is quite different on the surface – Poussin cool, classical and figurative, Twombly free-style, multi-material and largely abstract – they had a lot in common. Both artists went to Rome at the age of 30 and stayed there for long after. Both artists saw in Italy the gateway into the past as well as a window on an entrancing landscape. And both, extremely well-read, made classical myth and allusion the subject of much of their work.

Not that the show, thank heavens, aims to do a compare-and-contrast exercise on the two artists. We've had a run of galleries hanging modern artists against the classical forebears of late and, while it often refreshes the masters, it is becoming somewhat tired as a concept. Rather, the Dulwich exhibition – a labour of love by Tate Modern's curator of international modern art, Nicholas Cullinan – aims to show how the two artists developed their separate answers to a similar ambition. Poussin sought to refresh the great tradition of Renaissance and post-Renaissance artists grown florid and (in his eyes) frivolous by a return to a cool, considered art of harmony and moral purpose. Twombly, in the same way, has reacted against the dominant style of American abstract art of Jackson Pollock and others by introducing words and themes and drawing to his work.

One of the real masterpieces on display, Twombly's Hero and Leandro from 1985, a great swirling, passionate canvas of finger-smeared red, white and grey, is made infinitely more moving by the knowledge not so much of the Christopher Marlowe poem which inspired it, but the story itself. Hero and Leander were lovers on opposite sides of the Hellespont. Every evening, Leander would swim the straits to his lover until, in a storm, he drowned. She, in grief at his non-appearance, then threw herself into the turbulent waters as well. Knowing this doesn't necessarily make the work – with its rich red and extremes of passion facing the churning waters – more powerful or even more effective, but it does make it richer.

Hung opposite is Poussin's Rinaldo and Armida. The story is of a Crusader knight entrapped by a Saracen sorceress who, as she approaches to finish him off, is struck by love and restrained by cupid. Know the story and you can free your mind to appreciate not just the circle of woman's arms and man's body that make up the centre of the picture, but also the touching way in which her drooping arm comes to rest on his sleeping hand upon his head in a moment that is both tactile and sensual. Poussin may have gone down in British reputation as a cold, calculating artist of little warmth, but this is a vision of peculiar delicacy and feeling.

Can the abstract communicate ideas and stories as well as figurative? Yes and no. The show starts by placing a dark landscape of A Roman Road by Poussin, in which the trees overhang the road in an arch of dark green, in between two of a series of untitled "Green Paintings" on shaped wooden panels by Twombly from the 1980s, which closely match the French artist in their concentration on colour and Italian light. Thereafter, the exhibition shows the two diverging sharply in their responses to similar subjects.

Poussin believed that a painting could tell a story with as much force as words, especially poetry, and he organised his canvases with a precise composition and particular details which told exactly the stories without words. Twombly introduced words from early on as direct descriptions, as backgrounds and as elusive messages. It didn't meet the approval of critics at the time but, in retrospect, gives him a sense of improvisation that Poussin would never have countenanced. A brilliant drawing by the French artist of Joshua's Victory over the Amorites, all swirling muscle and bloody action in the manner of Michelangelo, is framed by two paper sheets by Twombly covered with pencil squiggles which he drew freehand at night when it was too dark to see what he was doing. They are not the same thing and yet they are related.

In terms of figurative art, Twombly comes closest in his sculptures, the lesser-known aspect of his art. Dulwich has gained a first public viewing of his dryly humorous wooden box on which a stone with a plastic rose is placed, the box inscribed with the statement, "That Which I Should Have Done I Did Not Do", a direct riposte to Poussin's self-epithet, "I have neglected nothing". In terms of abstract, Poussin – who was the great master of colour composition – comes closest in The Triumph of Pan from the National Gallery, a riot of blue dress and exposed flesh against the vertical lines of narrow trees. Half close your eyes and it could be abstract.

Read the detailed introductions to each themed gallery, by all means. They are full of fascinating facts and explanations. But they are not necessary. This is a show to relish in the regard of the works themselves and one's individual responses to them.

It ends with a display not of the two painters side by side, but of Twombly's wonderful Quattro Stagioni from the Tate. Poussin did a series on the same theme (Les Quatre Saisons) and there's a group of photographs of the Louvre set to remind you of his Arcadian vision. But the room belongs to Twombly, and his quartet stand on their own, powerful evocations of the light and mood of the seasons. It helps knowing what they are about. Total abstraction, as Twombly has always argued, has its limitations. But then so has figuration.

And if this would seem to give Twombly the edge in the show (and his name does come first after all) you can always – and should – pop across to the other side of the gallery to the room where the Picture Gallery's extensive holdings of Poussin are normally hung. The gallery has moved adeptly to replace them with the series of five Sacraments held by the Duke of Rutland. The first series on the subject, they were painted as concentrated subjects of meditation, full of calm, permanence and humanity. The last and one of the best, Ordination (pictured outdoors), has been sold to an anonymous buyer abroad. We have only to mid-August to save it (at the cost £15m).

Whether it can be saved is uncertain. Poussin is not that well-known a figure among the public. The country has a sizable number of his works. But to break up a series in this way and to sell it on the basis of anonymity (why does the buyer wish to keep his name secret, one might ask) seems an act of unnecessary self-harm to a country whose care of culture has grown quite casual.

Poussin was one of the greats. By showing the work of a contemporary, and considerable, artist against his, visitors will come away refreshed by both. They might also go away sensing just how much this country has lost by throwing away its common educational inheritance of classical allegory and myth. But then that is another issue.

Twombly and Poussin: Arcadian Painters, Dulwich Picture Gallery, London SE21 (020 8693 5254) to 25 September

Arts and Entertainment
Ellie Levenson’s The Election book demystifies politics for children
bookNew children's book primes the next generation for politics
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams' “Happy” was the most searched-for song lyric of 2014
musicThe power of song never greater, according to our internet searches
Arts and Entertainment
Roffey says: 'All of us carry shame and taboo around about our sexuality. But I was determined not to let shame stop me writing my memoir.'
books
Arts and Entertainment
Call The Midwife: Miranda Hart as Chummy

tv Review: Miranda Hart and co deliver the festive goods

Arts and Entertainment
The cast of Downton Abbey in the 2014 Christmas special

tvReview: Older generation get hot under the collar this Christmas

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Transformers: Age of Extinction was the most searched for movie in the UK in 2014

film
Arts and Entertainment
Mark Ronson has had two UK number two singles but never a number one...yet

music
Arts and Entertainment
Clara Amfo will take over from Jameela Jamil on 25 January

radio
Arts and Entertainment
This is New England: Ken Cheeseman, Ann Dowd, Frances McDormand and Richard Jenkins in Olive Kitteridge

The most magnificently miserable show on television in a long timeTV
Arts and Entertainment
Andrea Faustini looks triumphant after hearing he has not made it through to Sunday's live final

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Rhys says: 'I'm not playing it for laughs, but I have learnt that if you fall over on stage, people can enjoy that as much as an amazing guitar solo'
musicGruff Rhys on his rock odyssey, and the trouble with independence
Arts and Entertainment
Krysia and Daniel (Hand out press photograph provided by Sally Richardson)
How do today's composers answer the challenge of the classical giant?
News
Shenaz Treasurywala
film
News
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Watkins as Christopher Jefferies
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars Director JJ Abrams: key character's names have been revealed
film
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams won two BBC Music Awards for Best Song and International Artist
music
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
TV
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    War with Isis: The West needs more than a White Knight

    The West needs more than a White Knight

    Despite billions spent on weapons, the US has not been able to counter Isis's gruesome tactics, says Patrick Cockburn
    Return to Helmand: Private Davey Graham recalls the day he was shot by the Taliban

    'The day I was shot by the Taliban'

    Private Davey Graham was shot five times during an ambush in 2007 - it was the first, controversial photograph to show the dangers our soldiers faced in Helmand province
    Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

    Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

    Many flyers are failing to claim compensation to which they are entitled, a new survey has found
    The stories that defined 2014: From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions

    The stories that defined 2014

    From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions
    Stoke-on-Trent becomes first British city to be classified as 'disaster resilient' by the United Nations

    Disaster looming? Now you know where to head...

    Which British city has become the first to be awarded special 'resilience' status by the UN?
    Finally, a diet that works: Californian pastor's wildly popular Daniel Plan has seen his congregation greatly reduced

    Finally, a diet that works

    Californian pastor's wildly popular Daniel Plan has seen his congregation greatly reduced
    Say it with... lyrics: The power of song was never greater, according to our internet searches

    Say it with... lyrics

    The power of song was never greater, according to our internet searches
    Professor Danielle George: On a mission to bring back the art of 'thinkering'

    The joys of 'thinkering'

    Professor Danielle George on why we have to nurture tomorrow's scientists today
    Monique Roffey: The author on father figures, the nation's narcissism and New Year reflections

    Monique Roffey interview

    The author on father figures, the nation's narcissism and New Year reflections
    Introducing my anti-heroes of 2014

    Introducing my anti-heroes of 2014

    Their outrageousness and originality makes the world a bit more interesting, says Ellen E Jones
    DJ Taylor: Good taste? It's all a matter of timing...

    Good taste? It's all a matter of timing...

    It has been hard to form generally accepted cultural standards since the middle of the 19th century – and the disintegration is only going to accelerate, says DJ Taylor
    Olivia Jacobs & Ben Caplan: 'Ben thought the play was called 'Christian Love'. It was 'Christie in Love' - about a necrophiliac serial killer'

    How we met

    Olivia Jacobs and Ben Caplan
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's breakfasts will revitalise you in time for the New Year

    Bill Granger's healthy breakfasts

    Our chef's healthy recipes are perfect if you've overindulged during the festive season
    Transfer guide: From Arsenal to West Ham - what does your club need in the January transfer window?

    Who does your club need in the transfer window?

    Most Premier League sides are after a striker, but here's a full run down of the ins and outs that could happen over the next month
    The Last Word: From aliens at FA to yak’s milk in the Tour, here’s to 2015

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    From aliens at FA to yak’s milk in the Tour, here’s to 2015