Playing mix and match with old painters

Wed, Jul 4, 2012, 01:00

AS DAVID HOCKNEY once pointed out to Lucian Freud, the Chinese have a saying: Painting is an old man’s art. Among other things, Turner, Monet, Twombly: Later Paintings, at Tate Liverpool, tests the truth of that proposition. It brings together representative, mostly late works by three celebrated painters.

Widely separated by time and place, they are nonetheless linked in several ways. Joseph Mallord William Turner is regarded as a precursor of French Impressionism, Claude Monet as one of its most illustrious exponents. He in turn is viewed as anticipating later developments in 20th century American painting, which Cy Twombly then sought to reconcile with the classical European tradition, hence completing the circle.

Turner is an unfailingly popular artist, especially in Britain, and all of the best-known French Impressionists are crowd-pleasers, which leaves Twombly, who died just last year, as the joker in the pack.

In fact you could say that the exhibition’s boldest gambit is to imply an equivalence between the three.

At the same time, publicity for the show pragmatically emphasises the works by Monet that the organisers have managed to include, and rightly so, because they are very impressive.

It’s increasingly difficult to get major works on loan these days, but they have rounded up a number of great paintings from collections in Europe and the United States.

Jeremy Lewison, the curator, set out to generate a dialogue between the artists across the centuries. Turner died in 1851, Monet in 1926, two years before Twombly was born.

All three were daring, experimental painters. Mind you, to say, as Lewison does, that they had in common a hostile critical reception doesn’t really set them apart from countless other artists or demonstrate a bond in itself. But, Lewison further suggests: “Mourning and loss are the key themes in this exhibition for all three artists.”

During the last two decades of his life Monet was, he points out, coping with the deaths of his wife, Alice, and then his son Jean. Another son, Michel, was conscripted and sent to war. He was also coping with health issues, including cataracts that severely affected his vision, yet, for all that, he was working energetically, inventively and brilliantly throughout much of all this, and it certainly looks as if he enjoyed painting and the challenges it posed.

The Freudian idea that we make art to occupy the space of loss makes sense in relation to Monet’s series Water Lilies (or Nymphéas). In this magnificent series of works, drawn from the garden he created at Giverny, he makes generous, enveloping spaces for his and our imaginative occupation, but at the same time he is surely not making specifically elegiac images.

Mourning and loss are inevitable attributes of ageing but, as with Monet, they are more generally than acutely present in the work of Turner and Twombly. The latter laments the fact of growing old and the narrowing horizons it entails, but transience and mortality were long-term concerns for him. They are conveyed in the earthy vitality of his paintings throughout his career, with their recurrent use of seasonal imagery, urgent snatches of scrawled handwriting, scribbled erasures and staccato bursts of colour suggestive of blossoms just past their peak and fading fast.

“Earthy vitality” aptly describes Turner’s approach to life and art as well. A gritty, practical individual, his mature artistic instinct seems to have been to progressively dissolve the literal elements of a picture in liquid light, so that some of his later paintings could be seen as abstract, though they are not. In fact some paintings in the Turner Bequest are certainly unfinished. Ever the showman, it was his habit to add a layer of explanatory imagery to apparently amorphous compositions on varnishing days at the Royal Academy. Hence his big, Romantic set pieces were criticised in their time because the often tiny and slightly awkward human figures in them can appear as little more than afterthoughts to the pyrotechnic bursts of light that irradiate the landscape settings.

A formidable example, The Parting of Hero and Leander, is included in the exhibition, next to a quartet of paintings by Twombly on the same subject. The juxtaposition is good, and flattering to Twombly, who employs the text of a poem by Christopher Marlowe in a sad, moving sequence.

He and Turner are on a much more equal footing in the latter stages of the show, when several of Turner’s light-drenched, startlingly audacious compositions are thrown into the fray. They are still exciting, incredibly fresh works, even those we know to be incomplete.

But in any game of compare and contrast, Monet comes out of the show very well indeed. In fact he can make Twombly look crude in his use of colour, and exposes his weakness for almost lazy, flashy effects. A couple of Twombly’s very late pieces, particularly, look weak and tend to undercut even superior works by him.

Monet’s engagement and commitment are extraordinary. We see paintings of diverse subjects in Venice, London, Normandy and, of course, Giverny, all compelling. There’s a stunning example from his series of paintings of the valley of the River Creuse, from the collection of the Von der Heydt Museum, in Wuppertal.

Other gems include his watery landscape view of Vétheuil, a canvas from his series of irises, and a view of poplars on the banks of his own river at Giverny, the Epte. They, and many others by him, are likely to stop you in your tracks.

Turner, Monet, Twombly is an exhibition you’d expect to see in London, which features in several of the included paintings by Turner and Monet, and where it would have access to a virtually limitless audience. Organised jointly by Tate Liverpool, the Moderna Museet, in Stockholm, and the Staatsgalerie Stuttgart, in Germany (where the National Gallery of Ireland’s new director, Sean Rainbird, was based previously), is has been extremely well received at all three venues.

If you haven’t been to Tate Liverpool, Turner, Monet, Twombly is a very good reason to do so.


Turner, Monet, Twombly: Later Paintings is at Tate Liverpool, Albert Dock, Liverpool until October 28th