Jeremy Lewison, the curator of Tate Liverpool’s new show, Turner Monet Twombly, explores the three artists’ affinities to each other
Recent exhibitions have shown the work of J.M.W. Turner alongside old masters. Turner and the Masters at Tate Britain and Turner Inspired: In the Light of Claude at the National Gallery have demonstrated Turner’s debts to his forebears. Only Turner Monet Whistler, also at Tate Britain, sought to propose Turner as a beginning rather than an end point in a tradition of painting.
Turner Monet Twombly: Later Paintings is more radical than that, proposing that Turner’s impact can be felt among painters right up to the present day. This exhibition is not about influence as such but affinities. We know that Claude Monet looked closely at Turner and we also know that Cy Twombly was an admirer of both the Englishman and Frenchman, but what is examined here is more a common spirit. Split into seven themes, the exhibition places three artists born in three different centuries side by side as though in debate.
One of the themes addressed in the exhibition is the sublime. Under the title ‘Beauty, Power and Space’, a group of works by each of the three artists is brought together. Turner’s The Parting of Hero and Leander is for the first time seen alongside two versions of Twombly’s Hero and Leandro, painted some 150 years later. On the right side of his painting Turner dramatically describes the powerful storm that destroys the youthful Leandro as he swims the Hellespont, while Twombly closes in, placing the viewer at the tempest’s epicentre. The evocation of drama is at the heart of both artists’ endeavour as well as the narration of a story charged with emotional and sexual anguish.
The comparisons set up in this exhibition are not always so immediately evident, however. ‘Beauty, power and space’ was the phrase John Ruskin, Turner’s chief apologist, used to define the sublime and it usefully characterises what appears to interest Turner, Monet and Twombly in certain phases of their careers.
Quoting the German poet Rainer Maria Rilke, Twombly inscribes Untitled 1992 with the words ‘outside, an Amazing Space on the other Side of AIR’, suggesting the vastness of the universe beyond the air that we breathe. This large-scale painting, in which a highly inflected surface of white and grey with touches of red and blue evokes sky and sea, seems to take up where Turner left off in a painting such as Rockets and Blue Lights (close at Hand) to warn Steam-Boats of Shoal-Water, where the evident power of nature is pitted against a foundering sailing boat. Both artists suggest the immensity of nature and the inconsequence of man before it. At the top of Twombly’s painting is an inscription from Charles Baudelaire’s Journaux intimes, ‘I have felt the wings of the wind of madness,’ which, in the original source, follows hard on a passage where Baudelaire discusses his fear of the void. It is just such a void that Twombly creates in this powerfully suggestive work.
The sublime, of course, was of particular interest to English Romantic artists, as well as German painters like Caspar David Friedrich. It was less central to French art, but clearly Monet’s seascapes of the early 1880s engage with this theme. Monet had admired Turner’s paintings in 1871 when he was in London with Camille Pissarro, but it was not till the 1880s that Turner’s storm scenes began to infiltrate Monet’s approach to painting.
Monet’s first wife Camille had died in 1879 and it was only thereafter that he began to paint the darker side of coastal nature. His Les Pyramides de Port-Coton, effet de soleil depicts the craggy west coast of France as an inhospitable environment devoid of human presence, one where the long history of storms has worn away the rock face to form sharp, angular, defiant structures. The high horizon emphasises the limitlessness of the ocean that Monet described in a letter, using the same word as Baudelaire: a ‘gouffre’, a fearful void. Monet’s paintings, like Turner’s and Twombly’s, evince human endangerment.
Turner Monet Twombly: Later Paintings provides a unique opportunity to appreciate the modernity of Turner and Monet and the classicism of Twombly, to grasp that no matter what the epoch in which an artist works, he or she will often have similar preoccupations but express them differently. This exhibition allows you to listen in to a fascinating conversation.