There’s been a death in Dulwich. Cy Twombly actually passed away in Rome, aged 83 on July 5, but it was only a few days after this odd coupling of his paintings with those of Nicholas Poussin (300 years his senior) opened in Dulwich, to no little fanfare and applause. Indeed, it’s the crowning moment of the Picture Gallery’s celebration of a mere two centuries of existence, but the mood from the beginning is funerary, to say the least.
‘Et In Arcadia Ego’ are the words of Death himself, revealing that even in bright nature his shadow casts long. In Poussin’s treatment of the subject, a pair of ‘Arcadian Shepherds’ (1628-29) stumble upon a tomb, their limbs leaning in to touch this doomy inscription. Twombly’s ‘Arcadia’ (1958) could be a stone panel of that rough surface removed and hung on the wall, with its crudely scratched and improvised letterforms that only shepherdly scrutiny might decipher.
A sepulchral white Twombly sculpture, in the form of a stepped ziggurat or monument, also stands in for the architectural details of the crypts that line either side of Poussin’s gloomy ‘A Roman Road’ (this picture from 1648 needs more than a good clean). On this subject Twombly and Poussin agree: there’s an undeviating quality to the stories and structures of the ancient world that help to order art, nature, life and even the hereafter.
Elsewhere, they bicker and fight. A room of Twombly v Poussin sees narrative figuration in the blue-and-orange corner knocking out poetic abstraction in the pale-pink corner. In facing off works by such disparate artists the risk was always going to be that any battle of styles would detract from their shared passion for classical mythology (they both interpreted Narcissus, Apollo, Bacchus and Pan, among others). The blunt juxtaposition of Poussin’s masterly composition, ‘The Triumph of David’ (1631-33), with Twombly’s sparse, freeform ‘Heriodade’ (1960) makes one look the Titan and the other an ugly Gorgon, but then ‘comparisons are odious’.
Making facile, aesthetic associations is ultimately unflattering to both artists: Poussin seems archaic, dull and contrived while Twombly comes off slight and ephemeral. Only their twinned treatments of the poetic importance of Mount Parnassus bear close scrutiny together. Both crowded canvases dance with sensual muses and tumbling putti, albeit rendered in simplified, scribbly ideographic forms by the abstractionist’s pencil. Here, and in a clever conjunction of similarly cross-referencing Bacchanals, Twombly actually augments our reading of Poussin, these conjunctions providing rare moments of spine-chilling sublime.
Whether they attract, complement or clash with one another, they also need their own space to fly solo. I confess to not being a great fan of late Twombly, so was initially disappointed to find the concluding room filled with only his take on ‘The Four Seasons’ (the quartet of giant Poussins understandably stuck at the Louvre). Yet this contained, intimate setting allows them to encircle and impress upon you their melancholic drive. Scrawled all over one is the repeating phrase, ‘Say Goodbye’, so it’s fitting that the epilogue is a new film by Tacita Dean that follows Twombly, or Edwin Parker as he was officially known, going about a typical day.
Lest the whole exhibition become a memorial to the recently deceased American, Poussin actually has the last word in Room 11, where five of his ‘Seven Sacraments’ have been borrowed until the end of the show’s run. The final blessing, ‘Extreme Unction’ (1644) depicts the emotional send-off of a dying man in his final throes, powerfully lit by just three candles. When Bernini commented on these pictures that: ‘Poussin has genius, but he has borrowed largely from the antique,’ he could of course have been talking about Twombly too.