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Stop time with Turner, Monet and Twombly

27th June 2012

With an eye always on delivering the unexpected, Tate Liverpool decided to make things particularly interesting with its latest major effort. Instead of just banding JMW Turner and Claude Monet together, which has actually been done before, the gallery decided to include Cy Twombly.

While Claude and Monet are logical against the current mood for juxtaposing disparate artists to derive some new meaning from art, Twombly, though brilliant and a provocative abstractionist, has to achieve cultural beatification.

The show, entitled, Turner Monet Twombly: Later Paintings, nevertheless manages to establish an interesting arrangement between all three artists, identifying themes that run through each of the pioneers during the final chapters of their lives (categorised here as the last 20 to 30 years), despite the fact they all lived centuries apart.

While this results in a fascinating show, it is worthwhile noting that Twombly wasn't the first choice for the triptych of artists. It was intended for Mark Rothko to be paired with Turner and Monet. However, the curator, Jeremy Lewison, saw something in Twombly's later works that made sense. It has proved to be perceptive thinking.

The Independent's Adrian Hamilton certainly thinks so, viewing the American artist's inclusion as important, adding a "whole new dimension" to what might have been a decent enough exhibition, but a demure one at best.

"Set against Turner's The Parting of Hero and Leander from 1837, Twombly's versions of Hero and Leandro from 150 years later seem to pick up the surging, stormy sea of Turner and make an astonishing narrative of the abstract swirls," he notes, by way of explanation.

"With his swirling, spattering acrylics on paper he seems to dance hand in hand with his predecessor's astonishing watercolour sketches and half-finished oils like Turner's near abstract Rough Seas of 1840-5."

It's about bonds then, the ones we never fully appreciate or give the time of day to, that weave the threads of the past and bind us to history, shaping the unwritten future. According to Tate, the show is thus designed to create a dialogue between the artists, where through their paintings, they engage in discourse, often dialectical.

After all, the three artists were each distinct in their styles: Turner was decidedly Romantic, Monet was inventively impressionistic, and Twombly explored the power of intangibility.
But, as is inevitable, the disintegration of the persistence of memory – to lend the title of a Dalian painting – unites the artists, the flight of time and the preoccupation of mortality evolving into an unwanted muse.

This is observable in the fact that each artist, fighting against the inevitable, produced a considerable number of works late in their respective careers. The Guardian noted that in the last 20 years of his life, Turner produced an astonishing 240 paintings, Monet was exceptionally prolific between 1897 and 1926, painting over 482 works, while Twombly, in the 12 years running up to 2011, delivered 70 pieces (the previous 18 years saw him produce 58).

"I think I shall die without ever having arrived at something to my liking," Monet famously remarked, aged 78. One may mistake it for being an utterly melancholic show, but it is anything but.

Take for example Monet's vivid Saint-Georges Majeur au Crepuscule, the sparkling colours exuding jubilant warmth, or how about Turner's Breakers on a Flat Beach, which evokes a youthful vision of what is believed to be Margate. There's real energy in them, full of life and verve. They're almost looking back, painting memories they enjoy, but missing the actual moment itself, which can never be relived.

"In later life all three painters had the self-confidence of old age and were not only still experimenting but producing some of the most radical work of their careers," the art critic Michael Prodger explained earlier this month in the Guardian.

"They may have revisited the subjects of their earlier paintings – landscape, fire, water, the seasons – but they did so with urgent vigour. As age took its toll on their physical power all three men found their flexibility and excitement in paint instead."

Tate Liverpool has decided to examine this thematically, splitting up the artists' later works into seven subjects: Beauty, Power, Space; Atmosphere; Fire and Water; The Vital Force; Naught so Sweet as Melancholy; The Seasons; and A Floating World. This works, as it creates unpredictable scenes, a landscape of inexplicability existing, rising above time itself.

Adding to this is the lack of signage to accompany the paintings, the useful titbits of information that contextualise the works. It's as if Tate Liverpool has denied admission to time. These golden moments are yours to enjoy.

Turner Monet Twombly: Later Paintings is at Tate Liverpool until October 28th 2012.

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