Twombly, Poussin, Emin and Hungarian Photographers

A bit of an exhibition round up. This is not, as you might think, four exhibitions, because at Dulwich Picture Gallery at the moment they have a combined Cy Twombly/Nicolas Poussin exhibition. Which might seem like a rather odd choice at first glance, since they lived 330 years apart and one of them painted highly controlled classical paintings and the other did scrawly abstracts.

But there is a kind of logic to it. Both of them moved to Rome at the age of about 30, both use lots of classical references in their work, and Twombly specifically referenced Poussin in several paintings, most notably by painting a large group of four paintings called the Four Seasons, a subject Poussin painted 300 years earlier.

And while I don’t think it was exactly revelatory to see them together, it’s always interesting to explore these kind of comparisons, as an intellectual parlour game if nothing else. I guess you could argue that the Poussins brought out a controlled, restrained quality in the Twombly, for example, but it’s rather an elaborate way to make such a straightforward point. I did find myself warming to Poussin more than usual, though. Clearly he’s a great painter, but generally I find his work a bit sterile. But being displayed among modern paintings did at least make the paintings seem a bit fresher.

Meanwhile the Hayward is holding a retrospective of Tracey Emin. I went into it with mixed feelings. She has attracted so much bone-headed mockery from the media over the years that I’ve always felt the need to stick up for her… despite not actually liking her work that much. But seeing it all together it does hold up pretty well. The caricature is that she just splurges her personal life uncontrollably into her work for shock value; and that’s not completely unfair. But of course the execution is what matters, just as a confessional memoir could be good or bad could be good or bad depending on who wrote it. And at her best — some of the appliqué blankets, the video work — Emin’s work is sensitive and intelligent. On the other hand, by the time I had gone all the way round the exhibition, it was also starting to feel a bit repetitive. So she’s still not exactly my favourite artist, but I enjoyed the show well enough.

And at the Royal Academy is an exhibition of C20th Hungarian photography. Why Hungarian photography? Well, because five of the most notable photographers of the C20th — Brassaï, Robert Capa, André Kertész, László Moholy-Nagy and Martin Munkácsi — were all Hungarian. So they provide the core of the exhibition, but other, less famous people are included as well. In some ways the exhibition is about Hungary, with striking photographs recording the various wars political upheavals that engulfed the country, but it also includes many taken in other countries: Brassaï photographs of Paris nightlife, or Kertész shots of New York.

If there is anything distinctively Hungarian about the work, I couldn’t particularly see it. It did feel very European, somehow, and it reminded me again how much my idea of Europe was shaped by the Iron Curtain growing up. Austria ended up on one side of it and was therefore a ‘real’ European country; Hungary was on the wrong side and was part of some shadowy other Europe. And 20 years after the fall of communism, that sense of them not being part of the European mainstream still lingers. I don’t know how much that’s just me showing my age; people just out of university now, who were two three when the Berlin Wall came down, hopefully see the continent rather differently.

Anyway, geopolitics aside, the exhibition is definitely worth going to because it has some very fine photographs in it.

» The Triumph of Pan is by Nicolas Poussin; Hotel International, 1993, © Tracey Emin; Greenwich Village, New York, 30 May 1962 is by André Kertész.

Cy Twombly at Tate Modern

I went to the Twombly exhibition at Tate Modern today. What a fabulous name, btw: I tried climbing the Eiffel Tower but the height made me go all twombly.

He’s not someone I knew much about beforehand, and I don’t know how excited I would have been if I had known; he does what you might describe as scribbly abstracts. In fact with some of the the early ones, white covered with scrawly pencil marks, you wouldn’t be totally surprised if you were told they were taken from the wall of a particularly chaotic primary school. Or perhaps, given the presence of crudely-drawn genitalia and thick gobs of turd-brown paint smeared on with the fingers, a nineteenth-century lunatic asylum.

The paintings in the exhibition, which covers his whole career, are nearly all large whitish canvases with various kinds of roughly-applied scrawls, smears and squiggles. The colours, the media used, and the arrangement of the marks all vary, but there’s a clear continuity through the work. Despite the brief outbreak of genitalia they are overwhelmingly abstract; only the titles and a few scrawly bits of text give you a hint of what they are ‘about’. The two main themes seem to be classical myth and particular places, mainly I think in Italy where he works.

'Quattro Stagioni: Autunno' by Cy Twombly

When I say I might not have been excited to see the show had I known what the work was like, it’s because I find myself increasingly unsympathetic towards non-representational art. Which is a bit philistinic, I know, and I don’t want to get too Daily Mail about it — I do know there’s a baby somewhere in the bathwater — but I think it’s just a sense that when abstract art doesn’t work it’s really exceptionally dull, and I’m not sure even the most successful stuff can ever reach the heights, or have the richness, of representational work.

Having said all that, I did actually enjoy this exhibition. Twombly has the knack of producing charismatic objects. Even the paintings which appear most messy and haphazard have a kind of presence to them. I was going to say that they are more than the sum of their parts, but perhaps it’s that they don’t seem like the sum of parts at all: they come across as organic wholes. Why that is true strikes me as a deepish mystery. The sheer size of them helps give them authority: the painting above, which is perhaps 8’×5′, is typical. There’s a room of much smaller works, about 18 inches square, and although I quite liked those too, they were that much easier to ignore.

» The painting, Quattro Stagioni: Autunno, is © Cy Twombly; the picture is taken from the exhibition website.

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