William Turner (1775-1851), Claude Monet (1840-1926) and Cy Twombly (1928-2011) are among the most outstanding artists of the past 200 years. The exhibition now coming to Stuttgart is the first to bring the three artists together. Focusing on their late work, it presents a selection of some seventy paintings, among them twenty by Monet alone. A spacious hang allows the richly coloured canvases and works on paper to interact with each other in unexpected and fascinating ways – often from one room to the next. Carefully judged juxtapositions bring out a multitude of correspondences between Turner, Monet and Twombly: not only in the way they experiment with colour, pushing the boundaries of painting and breaking with traditions in ways that were not always comprehensible to their contemporaries, but also in their choice of motifs and subject matter. They deal with death and the transience of life, with the changes wrought by the passage of time and with nature as a place of both tranquillity and mortal danger.
Conceived around the idea of a dialogue between individual works by the three artists, the exhibition does not seek to recount the history of abstraction – to which Turner, Monet and Twombly contributed significant chapters – but to highlight formal and motivic correspondences between paintings and within groups of works. Viewers can enjoy fairly harmonious sections, such as the Atmosphere opening sequence, which is characterised by colouristic restraint and an astonishing similarity in the way all three artists handle colour effects. But they are also confronted with provocative contrasts, for example in form of the juxtaposition of Cy Twombly’s five-metre canvas from the Blooming series with Monet’s water lilies from the Beyeler Foundation – an abstract red composition on a bright yellow ground set against Monet’s subtly atmospheric colour harmonies. Part of what makes this confrontation so fascinating is the realisation that both paintings are more than up to it.
Although the three painters belong to entirely different eras, their works share certain formal qualities, among them the use of expressive colour, the dissolution of form, gestural brushwork and a sustained interest in atmosphere. The vivid and expressive brushwork that characterises Cy Twombly’s Hero and Leandro (1981-1984) also gives immediacy to the rough, choppy waters of the English Channel in Monet’s Sea at Fécamp (1881) and the crashing waves in Turner’s Wreckers, Coast of Northumberland (1834). The pure, vibrant yellow of Turner’s sunsets also appears in Monet’s San Giorgio Maggiore at Dusk (1908) or in Cy Twombly’s Estate (Summer) from the Four Seasons cycle (1993-1995) and, even more vehemently, in Untitled (Sunset), two works on paper of 1986. The line between recognisability of the subject and near-total dissolution of form into pure light and colour had already fascinated Tuner and prompted paintings such as Venice with Santa Maria della Salute (c. 1840-1845), in which the iconic architecture becomes one with the gauzy, all-enveloping luminous haze. What had been experimental in Turner – and quite possibly never intended as finished – became the hallmark of Monet’s work, in which the landscape or the architectural motif are entirely subordinate to the overall atmospheric effect. Cy Twombly, finally, abandoned figuration and the object altogether, relying instead on the evocative power of colour alone.
The parallels revealed by the juxtaposition of late works by Turner, Monet and Twombly are more than skin-deep. The paintings are loosely grouped under a series of richly allusive headings. ‘Beauty, Power and Space’, ‘Atmosphere’, ‘Naught So Sweet as Melancholy’, ‘The Seasons’, ‘Fire and Water’, ‘The Vital Force’ and ‘A Floating World’ are the sections curator Jeremy Lewison has devised for his exhibition. They have an associative openness that invites visitors to let their imagination wander, but they also bring out deeper levels of meaning and more complex connections in terms of the formal and thematic issues confronted by the three artists.
A sizable number of works deal with the subject of death and the transience of all earthly things. In Turner’s painting San Benedetto, Looking towards Fusina ominously funereal gondolas cross the still waters of the Venetian Lagoon in the wan light of the setting sun. The painting captures the morbid and melancholy aspect of the watery city and stands in marked contrast to the jubilant celebration of the glorious light that distinguishes Venice with Santa Maria della Salute. Monet too was fascinated by Venice and enthralled by the city’s atmospheric light and evocative colour. But if we look at Monet’s Venice paintings in the light of his biography, the paintings take on a somewhat different hue. Monet’s wife fell seriously ill shortly after the couple’s return from a prolonged sojourn in Venice in 1908/09 and died in May of 1911. Work on the paintings he had started in Venice was a way for Monet to come to terms with the loss of his wife and to remember their shared life. The boat motif, which appears in the work of both Turner and Monet, is also a near-constant presence in much of Twombly’s oeuvre. His sculpture Winter’s Passage: Luxor of 1985 is made from found bits of wood and offers an insight into the origin of the motif in the boats of classical antiquity. Twombly’s boats thus allude to man’s final journey into the world of the dead aboard the vessel steered by Charon, the mythological ferryman of Hades. They evoke the transience of life, the passage of time and the transition from one form of existence to another. This aspect is expressed with great poignancy in Inverno (Winter) of the Four Seasons cycle, where the barely recognisable, calligraphic boat ciphers are being swallowed up by black paint. Like the boat imagery, the subject of the four seasons is a potent allusion to the fleeting nature of time.
The ‘sublime’ is another point of reference that each of the three painters comes back to. The English writer and philosopher Edmund Burke (1729-1797), whose ideas had a lasting effect on 18th-century landscape painters, defined the source of the sublime as anything that had the power to inspire awe and terror. The beholder can derive pleasure from the experience of terror provided he is at a safe distance from its source.
Each of the three artists plays with this ambivalent sensation in his own way: Turner by depicting deluges, conflagrations, catastrophes or the devastating power of the sea; Monet in his sea pieces, in which he shows the ocean as a raging monster and the coast as a craggy, forbidding landscape, and Twombly by choosing to work on enormous canvases that instil an awed sense of boundlessness in the viewer.
The exhibition focuses on late works by the three artists. Far from resorting to facile repetition, each of them continued to invent new ways of ex¬pressing age-old subjects. Even though their late works may tend to deal with themes such as melancholy, loss, mourning and remembrance, they are distinguished by an unbroken creativity and a growing enthusiasm for experimentation.
As he grew older, Turner began to value the effects of light and colour over finish and to leave more and more of his paintings uncompleted and indistinct as to their subject matter, preferring instead to establish an atmosphere and a vague colour composition. His enigmatic late paintings continue to fascinate the public and are widely seen as a source of inspiration for the Impressionists. Monet, on the other hand, withdrew more and more from the bustle of modern life, retreating to the microcosm of his garden at Giverny, where he devoted himself to countless and increasingly abstract variations on the theme of his water lily pond that gave expression to his withdrawal from the world. Twombly, finally, discovered the joys of expressive colour. The almost obsessive use of colour that characterises his late work has no precedent in his earlier output and bears witness to his undiminished vitality.
Several years in the making, the exhibition curated by Jeremy Lewison brings together almost seventy works, among them three sculptures by Cy Twombly, ten works on paper and a wide selection of paintings ranging in size from small-format studies by Turner (c. 30 x 48 cm) to enormous works by Twombly (Untitled, 2007, measures 252 x 552 cm, each of the canvases of the Four Seasons cycle c. 300 x 200 cm). An exhibition as ambitious as this one can only be realised with the help of generous loans. Most of the Turner paintings come from the Turner Bequest housed at Tate Britain in London. Further works have been made available by the Yale Center for British Art, New Haven, and the Sterling and Francis Clark Art Institute in Williamstown. Works by Monet were loaned by the Musée d'Orsay, Paris, the Von der Heydt-Museum, Wuppertal, the Beyeler Foundation, Riehen, the Folkwangmuseum, Essen, the Kunsthaus Zürich, the National Gallery of Art, Washington, the National Museum Wales, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, and the Museum of Modern Art, New York. Works by Twombly come from the Centre Pompidou, Paris and Tate Modern, London. Several works have been borrowed from private collections.
The exhibition was organised by Moderna Museet, Stockholm, in cooperation with the Staatsgalerie Stuttgart and Tate Liverpool.