Turner, Monet, Twombly
Tate Liverpool, Albert Dock, Liverpool L3 4BB • June 22 – October 28, 2012
The American artist Cy Twombly, who died last year, admired the works of Monet and Turner, studying them to inform his own practice and process of painting. Monet, when in London between 1900 and 1905, looked closely at the works of Turner, undoubtedly inspired by his use of colour and light to evoke and create atmosphere. Turner was so revolutionary in his vision of what a painting could be that he seems to anticipate them both.
Tate Liverpool, in conjunction with the Staatsgalerie Stuttgart, have brought works by these three great artists together in one major exhibition, focusing on what are categorised as ‘later paintings’ – those made when each man was at least aged sixty. Grouped thematically, and even philosophically, there’s a through-line in and between the individual artworks that creates the narrative of the exhibition. Many of the Turner paintings were painted in or about 1840, the year of Monet’s birth; and Monet died in 1926, just two years before Twombly was born. It’s incredible to think that there are only three generations between these artists but, as this show illustrates, all were engaged in a radical reinvention of what painting is; and it’s this experimental energy that is passed on directly between them.
The exhibition was conceived as a conversation between the painters, each responding to the others’ work. Inevitably, and perhaps unavoidably, the exhibition also invites comparison between, and judgment of, particular works – but if that’s the case there are no clear winners here because each artist, at certain moments, comes out on top. Each of them also focuses on what we might think of as being old man’s themes – mutability, the passing of time, changes of seasons, grief and death – but there is no waning of power, quite the reverse; as life speeds up towards the end, so the fire of creativity burns brightest.
In the first room Turner’s narrative painting The Parting of Hero and Leander, first exhibited in 1837, is surrounded and swamped by Twombly’s response to it: four panels painted between 1981-4, in which crashing waves of colour mirror the structure and composition of Turner’s masterpiece. In the myth, Leander drowns as he swims across the Hellespont to visit his lover, Hero, and all of the paintings in this room have the beauty and power of water at their heart. In Turner’s Rockets & Blue Lights (Close at Hand) to Warn Steam Boats of Shoal Water (1840), Light and Colour and Shade and Darkness (both 1843) he creates a vortex in the centre of each canvas around which light and colour swirls – a dramatic technique Turner pioneered. You can see Twombly’s smeared, dripped and flicked paint in Turner’s brushstrokes and in Monet’s paintings of the Normandy coast there is the same awe and wonder at the power of the sea. If Turner makes you feel you are about to be sucked into his paintings, Monet’s are in danger of sweeping you off your feet. Twombly, on the other hand, captures the calm serenity of the drowned.
Sometimes, Monet’s palette makes me feel a bit nauseous – the pastel pink, green, lilac and blue of Morning on the Seine, Giverny (1897) for example. Turner, by contrast, often uses lemon, grey and white to prevent his canvases from making you queasy, such as in the extraordinary Rough Sea (1840-5), a work that could so easily be by Twombly (who seems to prefer to reference Turner’s palette, though he picks up on Monet’s use of bolder colour elsewhere). All three artists make material objects and structures subservient to colour, light and atmosphere, asserting the supremacy of those qualities in an image. The blurred form of a building, or a bridge, or a solitary figure, may help to anchor the subject matter in the real world, but they are not necessary for the painting to exist (Monet’s paintings of Rouen Cathedral, for example, are not about Rouen Cathedral). Twombly does the same with words scrawled on some of his canvases, which, rather than firmly anchoring a painting in the world, float tenuously, delicately, above the surface before evaporating in the air.
There’s a vigour and energy in all these works, an unrelenting dedication to experimentation and individual vision, which comes from a lifetime’s experience. One of the show’s big draws is the inclusion of two water-lily paintings that have never before been seen in the UK. Both were painted when Monet was in his seventies and they are amazingly light, free and ultra-modern in technique – Twombly’s scribbles and energetic application of paint are right here – and they’re well worth the ticket price alone. However, it’s the National Gallery’s own Water Lilies (after 1916) that is the shimmering star of this show. It astonishes on so many levels: the sheer scale of it, the delicacy of the layering of colour and paint, the texture of the surface that seems to vibrate, its coherence and complexity and downright beauty. Unfortunately for Twombly his Untitled (2007), an even larger painting of vibrant red peonies on a lurid yellow background, is placed opposite. On any other day these cluster bombs of dripping paint would be wonderful, and they still are, but so difficult did I find it to tear myself away from Monet’s water lilies, Twombly was here all too easy to ignore.
One of the curators of this exhibition has stated that the inclusion of Twombly makes Turner and Monet seem fresher, more contemporary, but to my mind none of these artists needs the other to make the case for their relevance. Twombly’s inclusion alongside the two acknowledged masters affirms his own stature (the four seasons paintings as good as anything here) and most of his work will be new to a lot of people visiting Tate Liverpool, hopefully widening his fan base. Turner and Monet have been coupled before but it hasn’t yet become a cliché to do so – it simply confirms that revolutionary, groundbreaking work can remain contemporary even after hundreds of years.