Any proselyter for modernism will face their biggest challenge with Cy Twombly. The rough scribbles, messy blobs of impasto, uncontrolled drips of paint, simplistic representations of the world and smudged fingerprints are all strongly redolent of the nursery; Twombly seems to embody that disdainful phrase of the anti-aesthete: “My child of four could do that”.
And, indeed, I couldn’t quite escape the feeling that Twombly’s most iconic paintings were something of a rip-off. Even where there are astonishing bursts of colour as in the blood-red Ferragosto, it all seems too random and uncontrolled to really merit serious praise. There is so little apparent meaning in them and so little painterly depth … great stretches of the paintings are merely just primed or lightly washed canvas, and then there are areas of random splurges and curved scribbles. Meaning drifts in and out, but it again seems too superficial – rather than being visual retellings, the references to Greek or Roman myth seem like lazy gestures to add pathos, a kind of intellectual name-dropping.
A contrast with Jackson Pollock is useful. Whereas Pollock’s greatest paintings are full of tactile warmth, glistening like a phosphorescent cave and seem to possess their own pulsing, inner life, Twombly’s paintings just don’t reach that same transcendence – the artist’s hand is too transparent, the lack of coherence too jarring. The build up of paint, the construction of layers that gives any painting its richness does exist in Twombly but in a superficial way, with everything reduced to raw, jagged gestures.
Given all that there is something that still draws me to Twombly’s work. The sheer freedom with which he paints and expresses himself is a classic statement of artistic (and emotional) liberation. But I’m not sure that’s quite enough to create great art – it too easily ends up as the indulgent outpourings of the patient on the couch.
Indeed, there a plenty of connections between the exhibition and the art of psychoanalysis. The presence of forced deletions corresponds with the patient’s conflicting desire to both repress and recall a traumatic incident; the return to primordial sexual matters, and of course, the rough, ghostly outlines of genitalia in Twombly’s work represent the As in the work of De Kooning, primordial symbols float around like Jungian archetypes. Painting as a grand spiritual express of some cosmic essentialism.
And yet, as the exhibition progressed, a different Twombly began to emerge, one that was perhaps more comic, more ironic, more referential; an artist more suited for postmodernity, even if trapped amongst the frame of the modernist canvas.
Take for example, the suite of four paintings entitled Nini’s Paintings. At first glance, they seem modernist monoliths – fully abstract paintings, working to their own sealed logic. But in actual fact, not only do the canvases seem to take a naturalistic life of their own, depicting a flotilla of shimmering waves, there are echoes and references to earlier styles and artworks. Maybe, Twombly is not such a hardcore modernist after all.
Monet seems to be a particular reference point. Firstly, they recall series of paintings such as the Haystacks or Rouen Cathedral where the same subject is painted under changing light over time.
Claude Monet, Water Lillies, 1916, Tate Modern
But they also reference Monet’s late paintings, those splurges of colour that form the lilies drifting on the ponds at Giverny. Not only is there the same engagement with paint, hovering close to the no-man’s land where abstraction and representation blur, but there is the same insistence on thrusting the viewer into the middle of the space. At the bottom of the canvas there is no platform, dias or fence to block the viewer’s line of sight and so she becomes embedded in the painting, immersed in the encircling waters.
But there is also something faintly comic as to how the serpentine forms, traced in childish pencil, can build up to some misty melancholic state. Look closely at the badly drawn sine curves and the painting seems a like a childish stab at repetition; stand further back and the waves coalesce with the sombre background colours to give off a rather haunting glow. The low-brow and the high-brow blend together.
In other places, the references are more reverential. The triple set of paintings that Twombly based on the story of Hero and Leandro have strong echoes of late Turner; again, that deep painterly immersion in fluid brushstrokes, providing a strong sense of aquatic movement.
The series of water paintings (Untitled (A Painting in Nine Parts) throw up other visual echoes, most noticeably in the elaborate shapes of frames that mimic those used by extravagant rococo painters. The reference starts off as comic; the level of abstraction in Twombly’s work and the chromatic reduction to just two colours – his favoured white and a mossy green – seem to mock his the many-hued palates of his antecedents. But the intensity with which he homes in on the details of, say, a fast stream by a bank (again, close-up and immersed like Nina’s paintings), reveal a passion for his subject matter, for the simple fact of moving water.
This is not to say that Twombly was some crypto old-style Romantic. The towering Quattro Stagioni follow on from the mossy green water paintings, emphasise his modernist credentials and remind us of the overarching thrust of his oeuvre. Some critics love them. I remain to be convinced that the deliberate of use, conjuring up a world of angrily beautiful but failed articulation is the great moment of American modernism.