The death of impulsive dauber, fervent scribbler and self-styled “romantic symbolist” Cy Twombly, less than a week after this exhibition of his work opened in June, has generated an unexpected energy around this old South London gallery.

Twombly’s work has been hung alongside that of 15th Century French painter Nicolas Poussin. The two artists were explicitly connected, in a statement once made by Twombly: “I would’ve liked to have been Poussin, if I’d had a choice, in another time”. But is anything gained from a direct comparison of the two?

…two chaotic balls, one red-brown, one grey-black…

The thematic and biographic similarities between the artists are clear; both moved to Rome in their early-thirties and mined stories from classical mythology for subjects. The stylistic differences are equally as obvious: Poussin’s carefully drawn and classically posed deities contrast sharply with the frenzied energy of Twombly’s interpretations of unearthly passion. In Twombly’s Bacchanalia-Fall (5 Days in November) two chaotic balls, one red-brown, one grey-black, race below a small copy on graph paper of Poussin’s The Triumph of Pan, the original of which is also on display and is comparatively more formal, less ecstatic.

…a voluptuous, great, pink, fleshy ‘Venus’ is accompanied by a smaller, scribbled phallus.

The exhibition is keen to point out subtle stylistic similarities between pieces with common themes; ultimately it is more successful in showcasing Twombly’s gift for lyricism. Humour and eroticism exude from his Venus + Adonis, in which a voluptuous, great, pink, fleshy ‘Venus’ is accompanied by a smaller, scribbled phallus. Twombly’s interpretation of the love goddess has been paired with Poussin’s Venus and Mercury, but the latter hangs tensely and frigidly alongside its modern counterpart. And over all, it is the classicist’s work which suffers from comparison with the modern upstart. Poussin’s Triumph of Pan seems bizarrely serene next to Twombly’s anxious smudge of brown in Pan, which simply reads ‘(panic)’, scrawled onto the canvas.

…able to capture emotions with expert precision…

The themes of Twombly’s work have been made somewhat more accessible through the juxtaposition with Poussin but in larger pieces, such as Hero and Leandro, where clouds of crimson and lilac mingle and drip to represent drowned lovers, little can be gained by the comparison to the earlier painter. The old masters may have been able to capture emotions with expert precision but Twombly was able to free them again, and they play mischievously around this exhibition in a fitting testament to the late artist.

The exhibition continues until 25 September.

Admission: £9/£4

4 Stars 

Images courtesy of  Cy Twombly and Nicolas Poussin


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