Friday, 27 July 2012

Light and Colour, Up Bubbles All His Amorous Breath

Turner Monet Twombly: Later Paintings, Tate Liverpool

This is one of those summer blockbuster shows and, as such, had it been in London, the galleries would have been heaving and the visit would have been an unpleasant experience of jostling and aggravation. But this is Liverpool, I am in a provincial Tate, it is a beautiful day outside and the steady but far from overcrowded stream of visitors are in friendly and conversational spirits. This is also one of those conceptual shows, hung around a usually ill-conceived idea dreamed up by a curator, where the merits of the works on display are sacrificed for the good, or often not-so-good, of the concept. Thankfully, in this instance, the concept works and the curator, Jeremy Lewison, has done a remarkable job.

Three painters, separated in time. Monet was only 11 years old at the time of Turner’s death and Twombly wasn’t born until two years after Monet’s own death. All three in their own times were derided as ‘daubers’, challenging received notions of what a painting could, or indeed should, be. The exhibition concentrates on the mature work of its subjects at a point in their respective careers when their reputations and public profile were assured, and it opens with a grand statement.

To the left as one enters is Turner’s The Parting of Hero and Leandro (1837), to the right facing it and equal in scale and ambition Twombly’s Hero and Leandro (to Christopher Marlowe) (1985), and on the wall at the back, between the two, Twombly’s painting in four parts Hero and Leandro (1981-84). And this is the exhibition in a nutshell: conversations between painters 150 years apart with similar aims and shared concerns and themes. The conversations continue throughout: Turner’s paintings of Waterloo Bridge face Monet’s paintings of Waterloo Bridge; Turner’s sunsets face Monet’s sunsets; Monet’s water lilies face Twombly’s peonies; and on; and on.

The most successful conversation, to my mind, and the one I returned to again and again over the course of my visit, was between a series of Turner’s small oil-on-board seascapes (c.1840-45) and Twombly’s epic Orpheus (1979), which share a minimal palette of off whites and creams and the splicing in two of the picture plane by a muted horizon line. Orpheus has been placed such that it dominates the largest room of the exhibition. Possibly the wittiest conversation was between Monet’s Water Lilies (after 1916) and Twombly’s Petals of Fire (1989) where Twombly’s diptych of smears and drips of black, red and white, seems to be mocking Monet across the decades, goading him for being the acceptable face of modernist painting.

Now, I must admit that I was not a fan of Monet before I came to this exhibition. I was excited at the prospect of Turner and of seeing how Twombly fared in proximity to an undeniable master. And I must also confess that my opinion has not been greatly changed. I find Monet’s use of colour to be gaudy and somewhat vulgar in a polite kind of way. Although he does improve when he allows himself to copy Turner and to soften his palette, as in Morning on the Seine, Giverny (1897) or Waterloo Bridge, London, at Sunset (1904).

The star of this show is undoubtedly Twombly and I don’t think I was alone in coming to that conclusion on the day of my visit. I suspect most people came for either Turner or Monet, having little or no prior knowledge of Twombly, and if nothing else this show, through careful and considerate curation, has done wonders towards furthering the acceptance and understanding of contemporary painting in the view of the average art going member of the public. I heard several visitors comment that when they first saw the Twombly’s they ‘didn’t get it’ but the longer they spent with them and saw the connections with the more acceptable paintings of Turner and Monet the more their appreciation grew. And vice versa, by placing Turner and Monet in proximity to Twombly it becomes clear (especially with Turner) how radical they were in their own time and how common acceptance is something that only comes about with the distance of hindsight.