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June 29 2012

This week's new exhibitions in pictures

From Turner Monet Twombly in Liverpool to Edvard Munch in London, find out what's happening in art around the country

June 25 2012

Turner Monet Twombly: audio art tour

A new show at Tate Liverpool explores the similarities between the artists Turner, Monet and Twombly in the last years of their lives. Jonathan Jones gives an interactive audio tour

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June 19 2012

The great upstager: how Monet made Turner and Twombly look ordinary

Cy Twombly seems fake by comparison – and JMW Turner like a man who painted with custard. Jonathan Jones on Claude Monet's domination of an exhibition showcasing the three artists

The American painter Cy Twombly died last year at the height of his fame. He was 83, but recognition had come late; it was in his 60s and 70s that he reaped the rewards of a lifetime of making art, and, as the glory grew, created many of his most ambitious works. The comparisons grew more lavish until, by the end of his life, he was exhibiting alongside the classical master Nicolas Poussin. In Tate Liverpool's new exhibition, it is JMW Turner and Claude Monet who are lucky enough to share the honours.

Is it wise to short-circuit art history like this, blithely assuming that a famous name of our own time can hang alongside hallowed giants? It does not help that Tate Liverpool has made a slightly stale selection of Twombly's works. It seems like only yesterday that I was moved by one of his epic paintings about the lovers Hero and Leander, at Dulwich Picture Gallery in London. Now I'm having to weep for Leander by the Mersey, too. Twombly's paintings, inspired by the myth about a young man who drowns while swimming to his love across the Hellespont, are here juxtaposed with Turner's 1837 painting of the same story. In Turner's treatment, lofty temples and impassioned figures are eclipsed by a boiling, glistening sea. This has an honesty and rugged complexity that makes Twombly's misty colours seem sentimental.

Twombly's finest painting here is Orpheus, from 1979, which raises the troubling possibility that his famous late years were in fact a period of decline. On a white canvas, a huge handwritten O makes an eerily beautiful black drawing. Each letter of the name Orpheus shrinks in size: as you read the name, it is as if Orpheus fades away into his own song.

Twombly died with the reputation of a living Old Master. This exhibition releases him from that burden by revealing some massive flaws, especially when you set him beside Monet. The curator has hung some splashy, multicoloured splurges next to ravishing Monet garden scenes. Never work with children, animals, or Claude Monet. The quiet Frenchman is a great upstager. If he makes you worry about Twombly's sincerity, he can also make the marvellous Turner look like a man who painted with tobacco juice and custard. The two Ts are theatrical and self-consciously grand, painting for history. Then along comes Monet, with a painting of water lilies in a reflected glowing void – and his simple beauty seems more profound and suggestive than any amount of mythology.

Twombly remains a fascinating artist, but this show makes too many assumptions about his claim to greatness. (It also misses something about him – humour, perhaps, or sex.) Near Twombly's Four Seasons hangs an utterly scintillating flower painting by Monet. It seems to have more colours in one spot of its surface than Twombly can muster across an entire epic. You do not need the Hellespont to drown in: Monet's pond is deep enough. © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

June 15 2012

Cy Twombly's late works alongside Turner and Monet

A threefold show of sensuality and symphonic emotion at Tate Liverpool, plus openings of work by Yoko Ono, Bruce Nauman and Andy Warhol – all in your quality weekly art dispatch

Exhibition of the Week: Turner, Monet, Twombly

The death of Cy Twombly in 2011 deprived the world of a mighty painter. Colour in art is the language of feeling. Twombly spoke that language with a langorous drawl.

Born in Lexington, Virginia, his sensibility seems steeped in the melancholy of the American south. That poetic quality was sharpened in New York and matured in Italy. As a young man, together with his close friend Robert Rauschenberg, he confronted the Abstract Expressionist style that flourished in 1950s New York with intimate, earthy references to real life. The result was a richly allusive way of painting which flourished after he settled in Rome and immersed himself in the history of the Eternal City.

This exhibition takes very late works by Twombly and compares them with the late paintings of JMW Turner and Claude Monet. This is a tough test for Twombly's reputation. Will his art truly stand up to these masters?

Monet's late works are overwhelming. His waterlilies hang suspended in time and space, in paintings that melt into abstraction. Turner too became precociously abstract with age. So this is an exhibition about the nature of abstraction – about where it meets the stuff of life.

I expect Twombly to be right at home in this company. The exhibition anyway ought to be an incendiary nocturne of sensuality and symphonic emotion.
· Tate Liverpool, from 22 June

Also opening

Yoko Ono
One of the most original and daring artists of the 1960s, whose performances break barriers between artist and onlooker.
• Serpentine Gallery, London, from 19 June

Bruce Nauman
A founder of the postmodern in art. Nauman is represented here by his work Days, a meditation on time, comparable with the works of composer Steve Reich.
• ICA, London, from 19 June

Andy Warhol
Is there really more that is new and exciting to reclaim in the art of Andy Warhol, or is he perhaps due some dead time?
• Dulwich Picture Gallery, London, from 20 June

Dead Standing Things
Still life under Dutch influence makes for a fresh glimpse of British art in this special display.
• Tate Britain

Masterpiece of the Week

Charles Collins, Lobster on a Delft Dish, 1738

This gorgeous still life with its shiny red lobster takes us to the precise, keen-eyed, and passionately materialistic world of the 18th century Enlightenment and is a gem of the Tate collection.

Image of the week

Five things we learned this week

Art doesn't have to be visible to be wonderful

There's a greyhound with a painted pink leg on the loose in Kassel, Germany

Renzo Piano's Shard is "not about priapismo"

Tracey Emin would have liked to be taught by Louise Bourgeois

How Rachel Whiteread battled with the elements while making her Whitechapel frieze

And finally

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June 08 2012

Turner, Monet, Twombly – a trio of sublime painters

Tate Liverpool's forthcoming show, at first sight an unlikely grouping, reveals a web of affinities that gives a new aspect to each

JMW Turner may be the most familiar of all British artists, but his allure remains so great that curators are on a permanent mission to find new angles from which to view him. The current trend is compare and contrast. In 2009 Tate Britain staged Turner and the Masters which looked at the way Turner measured himself against earlier painters. Turner in the Light of Claude, which has just closed at the National Gallery examined his engagement with the great 17th-century landscapist Claude Lorrain. The latest manifestation of our obsession with the man is Turner, Monet, Twombly: Later Paintings which opens at Tate Liverpool this month. This exhibition, however, scrolls forward and looks at the artist in company with his successors rather than predecessors.

It is at first sight an unlikely grouping: while the links between the romantic Turner and the impressionist Monet are well documented, Cy Twombly, the 20th/21st-century American painter of pale, abstract calligraphic canvases, seems to have little affinity with either of them. The exhibition though reveals a web of affinities that gives a new aspect to each. This is not a study of master and pupils or indeed of direct painterly influences but of shared themes and sensibilities. It is also about a long and unbroken painterly tradition: between them, Turner (1775-1851), Monet (1840-1926) and Twombly (1928-2011) form a three-generational strand that runs through nearly 250 years of western art.

At one point the third painter of the trio was going to be Mark Rothko, until the full extent of Twombly's links with the older artists became clear. Before Twombly died last year, the exhibition's curator, Jeremy Lewison, had time to meet him just once in the planning stages of the show. Despite neither Turner or Monet featuring in the artist's previous interviews or writings it transpired that he owned an autographed letter from each of them as part of his collection of artefacts from artists he particularly admired. Twombly had already long identified himself with them.

The similarities Twombly saw and that this exhibition makes explicit include what Lewison lists as: "An interest in allusion and metaphor, a preoccupation with mortality, a liking for atmospheric effects and an engagement with the tradition of the sublime." On a less elevated note, all three painters were also the victims of vituperative reviews and critical miscomprehension during their careers.

If these correspondences suggest that the resulting pictures are gloomy the opposite is true. 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. They may have revisited the subjects of their earlier paintings – landscape, fire, water, the seasons – but they did so with urgent vigour. As Twombly put it: "I've found when you get old you must return to certain things in the beginning, or things you have a sentiment for or something. Because your life closes up in so many ways or doesn't become as flexible or exciting or whatever you want to call it." As age took its toll on their physical power all three men found their flexibility and excitement in paint instead.

Indeed the proddings of mortality, of time and loss, memory and desire, spurred each of them on: between 1829 and his death in 1851 Turner produced 240 paintings; from 1897 to 1926 Monet made 482; and in the last 12 years of his life Twombly painted more than 70 (compared with 58 in the previous 18 years). The length of the past and the shortness of the future hit all of them in a rush. It was not enough though: Monet wrote at 78 that "I think I shall die without ever having arrived at something to my liking."

For all the airiness of their themes, however, the three men were never painters of nothingness. They each remained faithful to their chosen motifs. Turner may have complained that "Atmosphere is my style, indistinctness my fault" but, for example, the nebulous late canvases that so mystified and sometimes outraged his contemporaries, were not just experimental washes of sky, water and land but paintings that were not yet paintings and which often became the basis for fully formed works.

Because there was a large dose of the showman in his nature, he would arrive at the Varnishing Days before the annual Royal Academy Summer Exhibition with one of these rudimentary pictures and totally transform it. The days had been instituted so that exhibiting artists could make minor tweaks to their pictures to take into account the rooms, light and paintings surrounding them. Turner called them "painting days", however, and used them not to adjust but to transform his pictures and also to prove to himself and younger artists that he could still do it. It was, said one contemporary, like watching "a magician, performing his incantations in public". The results would be recognisably Turnerean, although arrived at in a new way.

Because he was incapable of working from imagination, the huge scale and near-abstract qualities of Monet's waterlilies were a case of the painter settling on a motif through which to work out feelings of grief. He had first painted waterlilies in 1899 after the death of his friend Alfred Sisley and his own step-daughter Suzanne, and he returned to them later in response to emotional hardship. The death of his son Jean; the growth of cataracts in his eyes; the death of his second wife, Alice; the outbreak of the first world war, all were dealt with by painting these watery scenes traditionally associated with mourning and calm. So fixated had he become that when he left for a painting trip to Venice Alice wrote "What a miracle that he has left his garden! How happy I am!"

Twombly too turned to arcadia with a series of huge paintings of peonies sharing the title Blooming. These rich, blowsy flowers from which paint dribbles in rivulets are a metaphor not just for transience but embody too the sensuality of life. In his last decade Twombly said he worked "in waves because I am impatient … I take liberties I wouldn't have taken before" and the paintings are the proof. Exemplified by his extraordinary Camino Real (2010), they show a new interest in colour. They are pictures of supersaturated shades – inky reds, livid oranges, fizzing greens – so unlike the tonal politeness of his earlier pale work.

Elsewhere the links between the three are more exact. Monet first encountered Turner's work when he came to London with Camille Pissarro in 1871 to escape the Paris Commune. The pictures he saw in the South Kensington Museum – now the V&A – made a deep impact and engendered a sense of emulation. Some historians have suggested that the founding work of impressionism, Impression, Sunrise (1872-3), was painted as a direct result. Turner was not an impressionist avant la lettre but Monet's Thames paintings and especially the series depicting the Houses of Parliament, painted between 1900 and 1905, were undoubtedly a response to the Englishman's own love of the river and his experiments with atmospheric effects and shifting light. Paintings of Waterloo Bridge by both artists hang side by side in the exhibition. The idea of studying one motif under changing conditions was something Monet used again in his other series showing Rouen Cathedral and haystacks.

Turner and Monet also shared an immunity to physical danger while painting. Turner claimed to have been lashed to the mast of a ship called the Ariel in order to witness the inside of a storm for a picture. Monet meanwhile nearly lost his life painting the cliffs near Etretat on the Normandy coast. He had climbed down to be able to paint the Manneporte rock arch when he was taken unawares by a wave: "It threw me against the cliff and I was tossed about in its wake along with my materials! My immediate thought was I was done for, as the water dragged me down."

Twombly was less daring: "Mainly I sit and look", he said, "I can't get on a ladder all the time, it hurts." Where he most resembled Turner was in the frequency with which he dealt with myth and history. Turner's art is full of references to antiquity – from Dido to Ulysses – and also to contemporary events, whether it was the burning of the Houses of Parliament or the scandal of a slave ship captain throwing his dying cargo overboard.

Twombly used myth not as illustrative but allusive. By naming a canvas "Bacchus" or "Orpheus" he didn't so much imply a narrative but use the resonance of the name and its residual impact in the viewer's mind to give an extra depth. He invoked a sense of nostalgia for a played-out civilisation. He too could nod to contemporary events though: his sculpture Thermopylae, referring to the battle between the Greeks and the invading Persians in 480BC, was made in 1991, the time of the first gulf war. He gave the title Lepanto, the name of the last great sea battle in 1571 between Christians and Ottomans, to a series of pictures in 2001, the year of 9/11.

Twombly described himself as a "Romantic symbolist" and that could, at a stretch, be applied to Turner and Monet too. All of them used boats, for example, to express man's passage through life, whether it be Turner's wave-tossed sailing ships, Monet's rowing boat at rest on a still lily pond, or the one-way journey of Twombly's Egyptian funerary barques.

"Meaning", however, in all three artists is always elusive and mutable and this exhibition does not focus on what the symbols represent but rather on their painterly affiliation – the shared poetry, the raging against the dying of the light, and the fact that the pictures invite a psychological reading. All three were painters of immersive canvases, works without borders that draw the viewer in to a rich and often melancholic world. Above all perhaps their pictures give the tangible sense that Turner and Monet would have agreed with Twombly's definition of the painter's motivation being all about "the forming of the image; the compulsive action of becoming". These were artists determined to the very end to discover just what painting could do and who went about it, across the centuries, in remarkably similar ways. © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

April 09 2012

The top visual arts picks for spring

The Glasgow International Festival of Visual Art, Yoko Ono and a welcome re-evaluation of Edvard Munch

Glasgow International Festival of Visual Art

Interactive art by Jeremy Deller, Wolfgang Tillmans photographs, Richard Wright drawings, LA-based installationist Kelly Nipper at Tramway, a new film co-commissioned with Scottish Ballet by Rosalind Nashashibi and much more in Scotland's funkiest city. What's not to like? Various venues, 20 April to 7 May.

Bauhaus: Art as Life

The Bauhaus was key to architecture, design, furniture, textiles, painting, sculpture, photography and so on – not just what art you hung on your walls, but the walls themselves, and a whole sense of what it is to be modern. A huge number of artworks and artefacts by its international roster of participants will inhabit a specially designed series of dramatic and intimate spaces. Barbican, London EC2, 3 May to 12 August.

Documenta 13

Documenta is the five-yearly keynote show of contemporary art worldwide, held in the German town of Kassel. Polemical, always controversial and frequently baffling, "this exhibition speaks about the uniqueness of our relationship with objects and our fascination with them," says its website – which could mean anything. Documenta depends on its invited curators, led this time by Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev. Kassel, Germany, 9 June to 16 September.

Yoko Ono

How substantial an artist Yoko Ono is remains a question, though her impact on contemporary art has been described as enormous. She remains an enigmatic, annoying, captivating and charismatic figure, as this exhibition will doubtless confirm. Serpentine Gallery, London W2, 020-7402 6075, 19 June to 9 September.

Turner Monet Twombly

JMW Turner and American abstractionist Cy Twombly seem to be shoehorned into all sorts of iffy confrontations these days. Here their late work appears with Monet's. Late Twombly still seems over-rated to me, but the showing of late Monet water lily paintings will be worth the visit alone. Tate Liverpool, 22 June to 28 October.

Edvard Munch: The Modern Eye (Critic's choice)

Sixty paintings, many from the Munch Museum in Oslo, and a rare showing of the artist's photography and film works, in a welcome exhibition intended to recast Munch not as symbolist depressive or Norway's Mr Scream, but as a quintessentially 20th-century artist attuned to his times. We are apt to forget that Munch lived until 1944. Tate Modern, London SE1, 28 June to 14 October. © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

January 06 2012

Crossing the bottom line

This week's story about a woman 'interacting' with a Clyfford Still canvas is only the latest case of an overwrought art-viewer overstepping the mark

What is it about great art that makes people behave bizarrely? It has been reported that a woman who police say was drunk "rubbed her butt" against a painting by Clyfford Still as well as scratching and punching the abstract expressionist canvas and trying to urinate on it – but missing.

This is reminiscent of the time a gallery-goer in France kissed a Cy Twombly painting, leaving lipstick traces. And of course there have been many more assaults on great works of art, from Michelangelo's Pieta to Rembrandt's Danae. Few are in the least bit funny.

But it's a new year, and I haven't got my angry juices going yet for 2012, so I'll try to see the more amusing side of people who feel driven to make physical contact – often of a deeply destructive nature – with works of art. I don't know what Twombly thought about the kissing of one of his works, but he did talk to the New York Times about another carnal incident involving his art. Speaking in front of his vast sensuous painting Say Goodbye, Catullus, to the Shores of Asia Minor, he bragged that a young woman was once found in front of it completely nude. He was delighted by her reaction: "Wouldn't you be? That's pretty good. No one can top that one. Come on. How many people?"

Twombly's pleasure gives away a secret. Of course artists want people to engage with their work. Engagement that takes a physical, active form, that breaks the rules of gallery behaviour, might be worth more than the cowed silence of visitors who are secretly bored.

Obviously you can take that too far, and there's no use romanticising gross vandalism. The bum-rubbing incident in Denver does not sound in the least engaged or involved, just horrible and crass. If you were going to interpret it you might even say it reflects the decline of American civilisation. The paintings of Still belong to a great moment in US culture that has passed. This incident almost sounds like a description of a barbarian trashing a great classical monument in the last days of the Roman Empire.

Yet at the height of classical Greek and Roman civilisation, the urge to touch art could be celebrated. Just as Twombly appreciated a nudist reaction, so ancient authors told approvingly of a statue of Venus so beautiful men attempted to make love to it.

There's a fine line between civilisation and barbarism, and great art often elicits a bit of both. Bums should be kept away from paintings. On the other hand, feel free to give them your – inner – love. © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

December 30 2011

August 12 2011

Miró, Van Gogh and Tate St Ives – the week in art

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Jonathan Jones's top shows this week

Joan Miró
The art of Joan Miró is part of the history of abstraction, as well as a highlight of the surrealist movement to which he belonged. His early dream paintings have much in common with the contemporary abstract works of Arp, while late works offer a European answer to the freedom of Pollock and the American abstract expressionists. A truly important modern painter.
• At Tate Modern, London SE1, until 11 September

Ron Arad's Curtain Call
Artists including Mat Collishaw and Christian Marclay project films on a giant silicone curtain created by designer Arad in a multimedia summer spectacle at the venue legendary for its association with 1960s psychedelic lightshows.
• At Roundhouse, London NW1, until 29 August

Tate St Ives Summer Exhibition
There is a minimalist tone to some of the art in this year's eclectic summer show at the Cornish Tate by the sea, as the restrained and passionate works of Agnes Martin are juxtaposed with Martin Creed's gallery half-filled with balloons. Two excellent reasons to include modern art in your British beach holiday, and the surf is amazing, too.
• At Tate St Ives until 25 September

Twombly and Poussin
You can get a very good notion of why the late American painter mattered so much in this excellent selection of mostly smaller works by him. It also features Poussin's majestic Arcadian Shepherds. Eerily, some of Twombly's works are funereally displayed in the mausoleum built into this gallery, while a film by Tacita Dean offers a portrait of the artist near the end of his life.
• At Dulwich Picture Gallery, London SE21, until 25 September

Thomas Struth
Panoramic photographs of resonant, spectacular places, and unsettling juxapositions of modern people with historical cultural landmarks, make Struth a distinctly thought-provoking artist.
• At Whitechapel Gallery, London E1, until 16 September

Up close: sun-worshipping summer masterpieces

Vincent van Gogh, Sunflowers, 1888
Sometimes this painting fills you with happiness. At other times, if the light on it is a little less bright, it can appear desperately melancholy. It is a modern version of religious art: where a medieval street corner might display a statue of the Virgin Mary to console people in their everyday lives, Vincent's flowers, in a faithless age, find hints of spiritual meaning in nature and offers evidence of earth's beauty to strengthen the soul. And yet the unease shows through.
• At National Gallery, London WC2

Giovanni Bellini, The Agony in the Garden, c1465
Bellini's rosy-fingered dawn creeping over a north Italian hillside, brightly illuminating a little town whose people are still asleep, is one of the most beautiful homages to the sun ever painted. Earth's star has not yet appeared in the sky, but the pink fiery promise of its coming that spreads through sharp blue is a miracle of natural observation.
• At National Gallery, London WC2

John Michael Rysbrack, Sunna, about 1728 -1730
Statues of Greek and Roman gods and heroes were the convention in 18th-century landscaped gardens, but Lord Cobham decided to be different in his garden at Stowe. He commissioned Rysbrack to carve marble figures of the pagan Saxon gods, a savage English pantheon. This deity with flaming hair hewn from stone is Sunna, the Saxon god of the sun, as imagined by 18th-century antiquarians.
• At V&A, London SW7

Sculptures from east pediment of the Parthenon, about 438-432BC
The wine god Dionysus reclines to watch the rising of the sun's chariot in the mythological representation of day and night that ancient Athenian sculptors carved on their city's greatest temple. Colossal marble figures of gods, fragmentary but overwhelmingly powerful, convey the titanic authority of Greek myth. While the sun chariot rises on the left side of the group, at the right of the scene one of the horses of the moon goddess rolls its eye.
• At British Museum, London WC1

Maeshowe, about 2700BC
Visitors to the Orkneys in summer are there at the wrong time of the year to see the winter solstice light penetrate this cairned chamber. But at any time of the year it is a fascinating testimony to ancient humanity's adoration of the sun. Just like ancient Egyptians and Aztecs, the neolithic builders of this camera-like stone structure aligned their architecture, and presumably their lives, to the cycles of the sun.
• At Stenness, Orkney Mainland

What we learned this week

The truth about Ai Weiwei's interrogation by Chinese police

How the Medicis' riches not only powered the Renaissance, but created the modern banking system

Why the world needs a nude sculpture of Justin Bieber and Selena Gomez

How artists captured the violent riots of London's past

Why a blockbuster Alexander McQueen show could lead to a fashion takeover in art galleries

Image of the week

Your art weekly

@MrsSymbols Treasures of Heaven, at @britishmuseum: spectacular, scholarly, spiritual, superstitious – and symbolic #artweekly

@camilayerlarte I highly recommend "You are not alone" an ArtAids Foundation exhibition at @fundaciomiro in #Barcelona #artweekly

Have you been to any of these shows? What have you enjoyed this week? Give your review in the comments below or tweet us your verdict using #artweekly and we'll publish the best ones.

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July 08 2011

Art Weekly

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Jonathan Jones's top shows this week

Thomas Struth: Photographs 1978-2010
When is a documentary photograph not a documentary photograph? When it's by Thomas Struth. The German artist's epic studies of people marvelling at sites of such profound cultural value as the Pantheon in Rome cause you to wonder what these places mean to their modern visitors.
• At Whitechapel Art Gallery, London, until 16 September

The Cult of Beauty: The Aesthetic Movement 1860–1900
Seize the last chance to see the best London exhibition of the year so far, a subversive visual essay on the true nature of our ancestors – the Victorians. Nineteenth-century British artists, designers, and writers are revealed as radical hedonists whose luxuriant worldview helped to shape the modern imagination.
• At V&A museum, London, until 17 July

Urs Fischer and Georg Herold
The most compelling works at this year's Venice Biennale are life-size wax sculptures by Urs Fischer which, you come to realise, are actually slowly melting giant candles. Here Fischer collaborates with German sculptor Georg Herold in a two-man show with an equally surprising twist – there is a life model present in the gallery at all times.
• At the Modern Institute, 14-20 Osborne Street, Glasgow, until 3 September

Devotion by Design: Italian Altarpieces before 1500
Many paintings that we look at in art museums were once part of carved wooden multi-panel altarpieces. In this free exhibition, the National Gallery recreates the original contexts of some of its oldest paintings so that they are shown as they were meant to be seen.
• At the National Gallery, London, 6 July to 2 October

René Magritte: The Pleasure Principle
One of the true modern greats, René Magritte fascinates because he so poignantly questions the power of painting to create illusions. With irony and finesse, his works portray objects and spaces with a deadpan realism that is undermined by sheer impossibilities.
• At Tate Liverpool until 16 October

Up close: artworks in detail

Simone Martini, Christ Discovered in the Temple, 1342
If you are heading to the Magritte exhibition at Tate Liverpool it is worth a detour to the city's outstanding Walker Art Gallery to see this masterpiece of medieval art. Simone Martini rose to fame in 14th-century Siena as an artist of sinuous beauty, and his celebrity took him to Avignon (home of the schismatic Pope at the time), where he painted this gorgeous work. It is a very rare survival of his Avignon works and contemporary with his lost portrait of Laura, the beauty to whom the poet Petrarch wrote hundreds of verses. One of the most important medieval paintings in Britain.
• At Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool

Francis Picabia, Fille née sans mere (Girl born without a mother), about 1916-17

An eerie prophesy of our digital age, created a century ago. In the years before and during the first world war artists were fascinated and spooked by the idea of humans as machines. Picabia's techno-child is one of the most compelling of these science fiction modernist images, along with Jacop Epstein's Rock Drill and Marcel Duchamp's Bride Stripped Bare by her Bachelors, Even.
• At Dean Gallery, Edinburgh

Henry Moore, Standing Figure: Knife Edge, 1961
If visiting the popular new Hepworth gallery in Wakefield you should also treat yourself to a stroll around nearby Yorkshire Sculpture Park where, among a huge variety of modern sculptures set in rolling green spaces, the works of Henry Moore are particularly impressive. This towering yet whimsical figure and other organic forms by Moore take on a dreamlike quality against grass and sky. Is Moore a truly great sculptor or a soft imitator of Picasso? In the Yorkshire landscape, Standing Figure has a romantic character that argues powerfully for the former.
• At Yorkshire Sculpture Park

Andy Warhol, Jacqueline, 1964
A Warhol portrait of Blondie's Deborah Harry recently sold for several millions, yet this moving image of Jackie Kennedy at President John F Kennedy's funeral is a far more powerful work from Warhol's most creative years. You can see it, for free, in a Midlands public collection. Warhol claimed he was left cold by the assassination of JFK, but his portraits of Jackie in mourning ache with the pain and rage of a nation bereft.
• At Wolverhampton Art Gallery

GF Watts, Paolo and Francesca, 1872-75

George Frederic Watts was a Victorian symbolist, whose paintings shared with contemporary European artists an urge to dig below the surface and illuminate the world of imagination. This painting of doomed lovers from Dante's Inferno is in the collection of his works at the Watts Gallery. It explores the same intense imagery of death and desire as French artists such as Moreau and Redon, and is a rich insight into the mythic ambitions of 19th-century British art.
• At Watts Gallery, Compton, Surrey

What we learned this week

The real reason Habitat went bankrupt

Exactly why artists think Cy Twombly was a knockout

Why no one will pony up for Mark Wallinger's giant horse sculpture

Why Hipstamatic became the weapon of choice for photojournalists in Afghanistan

Final proof that Hollywood has always been heavenly

Image of the week

Your Art Weekly

What exhibitions are you going to see this week? Have you been to any of these shows? Did you agree with our reviews? Give your review in the comments below or tweet us your verdict using #artweekly and we'll publish the best ones next week.

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July 07 2011

A nation of abstract art snobs?

There's strength and truth to be found in abstract expressionism – British sceptics need to get over their puritanical hauteur

Britain has never "got" abstract art. Even articles that appeared this week marking the death of Cy Twombly attracted comments of the "my child could do that" variety. It is tempting to dismiss these attacks as philistine, but that would be to ignore an eminently respectable and artistically sophisticated British tradition of disdain for abstract painting.

In a justly famous collection of essays called Art and Illusion, the leading art historian of postwar Britain EH Gombrich argued that western painting is the pursuit of reality – that in effect representational painting has a scientific vocation. This is a translation to art of the empiricism that goes back in British philosophy to John Locke. To look is to discover (although Gombrich showed how what we see is coloured by what we expect to see). If art is about trying to see things how they really are, what is the value of abstraction? For Gombrich it basically had no value at all.

It was not only theorists who believed this in postwar Britain. The best artists did, too. Francis Bacon and Lucian Freud fearsomely depicted real life as they found it – real human life, with the figure at the heart of the matter, the lonely human predicament their weighty concern. Bacon loudly dismissed the American abstract painting of the 1950s as looking like "old lace". Freud paints to this day with total commitment to reality and no interest whatsoever in abstraction.

So British sceptics who think abstract art like that of Twombly is just a load of visual guff can claim a tradition on their side.

Why, then, are we so different from Americans? In the same postwar years that saw British art dig itself into a realistic trench, US painting became heroically and famously abstract. From the moment Jackson Pollock appeared in Life magazine, the New York abstract painters were revered, renowned, and part of modern American national identity. The US and Britain were very different places at the time: America was at the height of its wealth and global power, and abstract expressionism suited the confidence of this epic society. Britain was living through the end of empire; everything was shrinking. Gloomy realism suited the times.

Having grown up and become fascinated by art in a 1980s Britain where abstract modernism was still laughed at, when at last I got a chance to see American art in depth in New York, it was one of the most liberating, beautiful and profound experiences of my life. I recognised some deep strength and truth in abstract expressionism that I did not find – and still do not – in most modern British art. From Henry Moore to Antony Gormley, even our "modern" artists seem stuck in the fussy world of the figurative, while American painters such as Rothko transport me to a heightened reality.

It is actually impossible to argue with someone who refuses to experience the power of abstract art, because to feel it you have to let yourself go a bit. Perhaps the problem is one of trust. British sceptics cannot bring themselves to trust the mystery of aesthetic experience. Even that phrase "the mystery of aesthetic experience" is about to be mocked ... but it is your loss. This scepticism must, in the end, go back to the Reformation and its fear of graven images. Somewhere in your psyche, abstraction-haters, when you look at Twombly's lush colours you see a medieval stained-glass window: and the puritan in you wants to smash it. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2011 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

July 06 2011

Knockout. Hero. Genius: Cy Twombly

Full of explosive scrawls and poetic fragments, Cy Twombly's work changed art. Howard Hodgkin, Michael Craig-Martin, Maggi Hambling and others explain his extraordinary talent

Howard Hodgkin

I can't remember exactly my first encounter with his work, but it was a knockout. I think it was in Philadelphia: there was, or is, a room in a gallery there totally devoted to his work [Fifty Days at Iliam, 1978, inspired by Homer's Iliad]. The experience was one of total immersion. He painted with such emotional freedom. I went to see the new exhibition of his work alongside Poussin's at the Dulwich Picture Gallery, London last week, and they were well matched. Much of his work refers to Poussin, as well as to other artists.

I never met him, unfortunately, though I think I would have been very uncomfortable if I had: I would have felt jealous. Painters don't necessarily get on well with one another. What would I have been jealous of? I think the fact he made his work so expressive in all sorts of ways, without it becoming expressionist. At a time when painting is perhaps not taken as seriously as it once was, he was an extraordinary beacon for other painters. Certainly I learned from him, from that total emotional openness. His work became increasingly sensitive and romantic.

I don't have a favourite painting; and if I did, I wouldn't tell you.

Maggi Hambling

For me, he was the greatest living painter. The life force he achieved with the touch of his paint could certainly not be achieved by any mechanical means. He was so moved by his subjects – the upward thrust of a tulip, the fragility of a rose, the noise of a street market, the abandon of a bacchanal – that he moves us, profoundly.

It is as if his paintings are being made in front of me: they are not dead, finished things. The juxtaposition of life and death is finely balanced in every mark: the paint breathes. I am taken into unknown territory that is made immediately familiar.

In these days of so much dry, clever, soulless trivia, completely lacking in worthwhile subject matter, Twombly stood a towering hero. His mixture of intimacy and grandeur, force and delicacy, creates a sexy dynamism. He advanced the language of paint – from late Titian, through Rembrandt, Van Gogh, Rothko and Pollock – and so takes his place among the elite. He is dead, but the courage of his work lives on.

Michael Craig-Martin

I first encountered Twombly as a student in the early 60s. I've been thinking about how his work seemed then, how it was thought about – which I'm not sure is the same as it is now. The dominant art of the period was abstract expressionism: a very assertive, extrovert, macho art like that of Jackson Pollock or Willem de Kooning, very gestural. And then there was Twombly's work, which was introspective and fragile. It was also abstract, but the mood could not have been more different.

One of the amazing things about his work, from the earliest days to now, is that you can see him in it – right through the whole thing. It is a very sustained and powerful body of work. But in his later years, when he was in his 70s, the paintings themselves got bigger and the gestures got bigger; they became much more extrovert.

He brought a certain kind of mark-making to art – that slightly childlike feeling of scribbling on paper, but which suddenly becomes very sensual and full of potential meaning. These were the kind of marks that didn't really exist in painting before him: seedy-like marks and scratchings. You can see that, say, graffiti art came after him: he is the person before [Jean-Michel] Basquiat.

He started this thing of being delicate and understated, but more sensual than emotional. His works showed different possibilities in painting. Now that he's famous and his work is familiar, it's easy to forget what an invention that was, what unknown territory this was.

The paintings themselves are very obscure, full of fleeting meanings. If you're not attracted to that, and want an explicit subject matter and message – which people often do today – these paintings are probably too subtle, ungiving. They're like a mental speculation - when your mind is slightly wandering. They're not didactic.

He was such a distinctive voice; there wasn't anybody else quite like him.

Fiona Rae

It feels like the end of an era. With Robert Rauschenberg and Sigmar Polke also gone, most of the major heroes of contemporary painting have disappeared.

His paintings have influenced me enormously. They seem full of an improvisatory spirit and embody a freedom to express and include whatever he wanted – whether words from poems, or scrawled cartoonish hearts, or loopy, repetitive drawing. To me they seemed full of humour, as well as the spiritual profundity for which he is the well-known poster boy.

His sculptures had a fantastic sense of the bathetic and hand-made, too: he was just as likely to include bits of scrunched-up coloured tissue paper on top of an object as more tasteful, sculptural materials. His paintings straddled high and low, with intensity and feeling, like sad bouquets.

Nicholas Cullinan

As a student, I went to the Menil Collection in Houston, which has a whole gallery devoted to Twombly's work. It had a huge effect. When you see a range of his work you realise how adept he was at handling paint.

The first time I met him was about four years ago, when I worked on the 2008 Tate Modern retrospective with Nicholas Serota. We both spent a lot of time talking to Cy about his life and work. The word genius is used quite often, but he's probably the only person I would mark down in that category: the way his mind worked was so riveting. All kinds of things would make him laugh – not just things that were scholarly, but things that were bawdy. That combination of high and low was really crucial. It was a completely natural, spontaneous reaction; it wasn't premeditated. He was an incredibly warm, generous, thoughtful person.

It would be a shame if the work seemed different after his passing. It has an element of melancholy, but always leavened with a sense of the pleasures of life. His position in art history is assured. We're now able to go to Paris and see his ceiling in the Louvre, a permanent commission, and his uniquely beautiful works, which proliferate in museums around the world.

Nicholas Cullinan was co-curator of Tate Modern's 2008 Twombly retrospective, and of the current exhibition at Dulwich Picture Gallery.

Brice Marden

I remember seeing his Discourses on Commodus paintings in 1964, soon after I moved to New York. It was the show [artist and critic] Donald Judd famously panned. There was a centralised grid and a lot of roof paintings, and I was struck by the combination of that grid and the looseness of the painting. I used to wonder what happened to them, why I never saw them around. Now, reading the obituary in the New York Times, I see that everyone hated them. Later, when I became [Robert] Rauschenberg's assistant, he bought Twombly's Panorama, white chalk on black or brown; it was quite a treat to see that every day.

I call myself an abstract painter, and he's one of the greats, so he's definitely an influence. Cy wasn't afraid of paint, and he made it do the most beautiful things. I don't think he was too affected about whether or not he was fawned over on the art scene. He was amazingly relaxed, very comfortable with himself. I never heard him discussing his work, or Roman poets. You knew he liked to hang out and watch things; everything else went into the painting.

It's always very interesting to see him in relation to Jasper [Johns] and Rauschenberg. They all came out of abstract expressionism, but Jasper and Bob are realists, they used real images; Cy stayed abstract. There is that European touch, a certain elegance – and I don't mean that in a derogatory sense.

Yesterday, I was trying to imagine him at work. I can see Richter, all these other people, but it's hard to see him physically applying the paint. There was the relaxed demeanour he had, but such an intensity to the paintings. Was the relaxed demeanour because he had to be that way to work up that kind of intensity? I don't know. I sent him a note once, about his sculpture show in Basel, and he told me he taped it on his wall. It was an unbelievable show. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2011 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

Cy Twombly and Nicolas Poussin: the odd couple

A new exhibition juxtaposes the work of Cy Twombly with paintings by Poussin. A Good Old Modernist meets a Grand Old Master – a bold pairing that works brilliantly

The curator Nicholas Cullinan has had the bold and lovely idea of interspersing paintings, drawings and sculptures by Cy Twombly with paintings and drawings by Nicolas Poussin, in a compact exhibition at the Dulwich Picture Gallery. Arcadian Painters, he bills the pairing, his working premise being that the veteran American artist (who died on 5 July 2011) shares with the 17th-century Frenchman a devotion to classical antiquity. Whether or not you feel that such an affinity comes through visually, the experiment in juxtaposition gives you much to reflect on. Above all, it refreshes your eyes. We expect Poussins to inhabit a zone of studious murmuring and fusty hauteur. (We know they are in their element in the Dulwich, the country's most venerable public picture gallery.) And we suppose that the Twomblys will be hanging out across town in the no less snooty cool of the modernist White Cube. But thrust them together and you're forced to think anew about how things made for looking at actually work.

Twentieth-century paint juts outward and 17th-century paint draws in: that's the first impression you receive, from the placing of a Poussin between a pair of Twomblys that meets you as you enter. The latter are big quasi-octagonal panels that might have been carpentered for some hieratic medieval interior. Each is cream above and green-black below, colours which meet along a ragged descending border that disrupts the panel's symmetry; and loose white paint has been slathered and sprayed across that border, here being worked with fingers, there left to dribble. This act and the physical fact of it are what the pictures principally announce, even if the caption claims that they are impressions of the countryside around Rome and that this is what connects them to the Poussin canvas. Into that picture, by contrast, you plunge, seeking spatial footholds in its deep-sunk browns. You close in on a tree, a couple of resting travellers, a swan in a pond, the towers of a small town. Gradually adjusting to a summer evening's long shadows, you register that all those elements are held in place by a single, dead straight Roman road, hurtling away from the canvas's foreground to far-off mountains. To pick out its converging lines is to peel the picture back to its structure – which is almost comic in its simplicity. One symmetrical form, a triangle, has been inscribed on the base of another, a rectangle. The latter doubles up as a canvas of the Roman Campagna and the former as a perspective recession of Roman civilisation's most famous token.

Poussin draws you inwards only to get you looking on, or at, the structures that comprise his canvas. Twombly for his part thrusts handfuls of paint in your face only to invite you into a mist, a dissolve, a trackless indeterminacy. If there's any notion of landscape informing those panels of his, it's more Chinese than Italian: its spaces come about as the soft aftershocks of gestures, rather than through geometries of objects and light. In fact, each of these operators has an eccentric take on the standards supplied by his forebears – in Poussin's case, the transparent pictorial window of Renaissance art, in Twombly's the in-your-face vehemence of the Abstract Expressionists. For that reason they won't be reduced to period representatives, the Grand Old Master versus the Good Old Modernist. Arcadian Painters turns out to be a study in twinned forms of vivid awkwardness.

Twombly more or less set out cussed. Arguably it was the shrewdest strategy for a young American in the 1950s to adopt. He had the luck to study at Black Mountain College, the North Carolina forcing-house for aesthetic innovation, alongside Robert Rauschenberg, with whom he then went on to tour Italy. Rauschenberg soon achieved stardom with an art that was a whole bend more urban, abrupt and grungy than anything Pollock and De Kooning had come up with. But Twombly was drawn to the dreaminess of those big boys – their debts to surrealism, their Jungian notions of "myth". He set his hand to run loose, by literally drawing in the dark. Pencil loops and nicks cover two 1956 sheets on show at Dulwich. Their intent, it seems, is to hold back intent, to not yet mean anything in particular – at the same time, to walk that tightrope with pace and panache.

Suchlike scribbling formed a seedbed for the art Twombly developed after he returned to Italy in 1957 and married an heiress. He unpacked a whole puppet-show of about-to-be-significant manoeuvres, spreading them out over big cream-primed canvases: the child's impulse to smear some intrusion on the clean expanse; the romantic's impulse to mouth some antique name or choice line of verse; quick coarse grunts of lust; then the impulse to stock-take, to reason, embodied in numbers and diagrams, and the impulse to round on yourself, to erase. It was the manner of the spread that was charming and chancy, the way Twombly's blurts coexisted with a broad, bright spaciousness.

With all those romantic cues, he became something of a writer's painter. John Berger cherished Twombly's slurred quotes as pointers to that great hinterland of unknown texts that lies beyond each individual reader. Roland Barthes wrote an arch meditation on the "indolence" of his scrawls, which for him bore the erotic redolence of some crumpled pair of pants discarded by a rent-boy. Living it up in a dream of Italian aristocratic languor, the Twombly of the 60s was, in a sense, pursuing a classic American lifeplan – but by the same token, he was quite out of step with the American avant-garde. Donald Judd, its toughest spokesman, a foe to all things European, dismissed his work as goofy whimsy in 1964, and for years to come Rauschenberg's former buddy had no more than a toehold in curators' schemes of contemporary American art.

With the advent of postmodernist criticism in the 80s, "marginal" began to mean "central", and "bad" – the way Twombly aped Pollock's messiness, rather than his swagger – to mean "good". For its part, Twombly's studio practice got more old-fashioned-painterly. He turned from scribbling to lading his canvases with lush oils. Dulwich exhibits Hero and Leandro, painted like those landscape panels in 1985 – their dribbles and fingerworking here orchestrated into a deliquescent collapse of mist-greys and cerise. And it shows four lofty canvases from the early 90s, Twombly's Quattro Stagioni, in which the root muscular impulses of his art – to blurt, to scratch, to dangle, to let go – get upgraded to a monumental dignity. They demand to be admitted into the hall of fame, and its doors are thrust wide. Inside, curators stand waiting, eager to take the grand old man at his word when he claims: "I would've liked to have been Poussin, if I'd had a choice, in another time."

In another time, a pushy, brainy young Norman made his way to Europe's art metropolis: Poussin would make Rome his base until his death 41 years later in 1665. His production there started out along familiar Italian guidelines. At Dulwich there's an assiduous School-of-Raphael-style battle drawing from 1625 and more attractively, a 1628 canvas, The Arcadian Shepherds, echoing Titian at his most sensuous and poetic. Yet it's not their flocks that Poussin's Arcadians attend to, but an inscription on a tomb. By now, he was a draughtsman participating in an early scientific project to codify the diversity of nature: henceforward, text would always be a behind-the-scenes presence in his work. The question for him became how to deliver a self-contained analogue to verbal thinking by means of his own "mute art".

The distinctiveness of Poussin's aesthetic becomes clear if you consider the customary way he came to conduct his business. Every couple of months or so Bertholin the courier would call at his house on the Monte Pincio and collect from its straitlaced and thrifty proprietor – a one-man operation, with hardly an assistant to hand – a sealed case containing a rolled up canvas. A few weeks later this would get unfurled and restretched in the mansion of some Parisian patron. In such a way, Poussin compressed his consummate knowledge of Rome's buildings, artworks and landscapes, and his deep, careful reading of scripture, epics, histories and science, into forms that would pass permanently out of his sight – since after 1642, he made no move to visit his native land again.

Courier-packet painting became a highly self-conscious procedure. You wanted to ensure that whatever thoughts went into the picture would come out the other end, but you also got singularly caught up with the canvas as a confined rectangular object. You arrived at your image by partitioning that rectangle. Hence Poussin's insistent structuring (which becomes strikingly experimental in a series of canvases sent to Cardinal Richelieu, the Seven Sacraments: the Dulwich has managed to borrow five of them to display alongside Cullinan's exhibition). It's matched by his fine-tuning of colour – there's a gorgeous interplay of blues and oranges in many of the canvases included in the show. But all this was intended to assist the painting's meaning, which on a certain level became political. Poussin was exiling himself from France the better to serve her. Dispatching his distillations of history and religion to men of discernment, he hoped to open up a new, virtuous cultural space opposed to the corruption epitomised by Mazarin, Richelieu's successor as chief minister.

The scriptures, histories and legends of the ancient world provided an exemplary model against which the present could be held to account. Classical antiquity provided Poussin with a form of critique. What does classical antiquity provide Cy Twombly with? Mystique. Twombly adores its lostness. He goes after its baffling, mellifluous names – Smintheus, Agyieus, Platanistius, Theoxenius – his pencil languidly scratches, in a whimsical mock-invocation of Apollo from 1975. The letterings trail and expire, and that sighing of the hand reflects Twombly's self-declared romanticism ("I would've liked to have been Poussin") and the overall psychophysical drift towards release and collapse that is the level on which meaning actually comes through in his art.

For these reasons, it seems to me misleading to pair up, say, a 1635 The Triumph of Pan and a 1975 collage labelled Pan as if they were ancient and modern treatments of the same theme. (The exhibition captioning and catalogue toy with this tactic extensively, if irresolutely, mythologically annotating every scribble and grunt: quite frankly, they're best ignored.) Twombly may feel his way around classical subjects and his adopted terrain of Italy, but his mental activities are remote from the moral and intellectual focusing of Poussin.

Despite this, the two artists' paintings actually hang together brilliantly. You might consider Twombly's a lightweight schmoozing up to one of the great heavyweights of western painting. But a truly stylish gatecrasher makes the party swing better. Twombly's nimble hops about the canvas, his instinct to surprise himself, the pizzazz of his rudeness, all pep up his companion: the near-manic idiosyncrasy of that doughty loner starts to shine through. (The bizarre knot of branches top left in that Triumph of Pan and the foreboding chunk of pediment signing off The Triumph of David feel like Poussin's attempts at repartee.)

To better appreciate the duo's fundamental good neighbourliness, step outside the Dulwich's exhibition galleries to watch Edwin Parker, a recently made short film in which Tacita Dean trains her camera on the octagenarian Twombly. He's seen sitting about in a studio and a canteen in his hometown of Lexington, Virginia: he's seen muttering to assistants, taking a letter from an envelope and slowly rolling his wry brown eyes. Beyond the studio blinds there are bright leaves, then there are bare branches. Time does a ferocious amount of passing in the course of the film's 10 minutes, and Twombly does a ferocious amount of being. He "be"s so intensely that I had to rush out, gasping for breath, back to the exhibits of canvas and paper. Give me those singing blues and oranges, those swooning creams and cerises. I'll opt for those weird and stubborn wall-hangings to take on Time, that grim inspector. I get the feeling they might just win. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2011 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

Cy Twombly: a close encounter

'His absence will be keenly felt' – Tacita Dean pays tribute to veteran painter Cy Twombly, who has died

Cy was fully intending to come to his opening dinner at Dulwich Picture Gallery on Sunday last week and only cancelled at the last moment, so it is shocking news to learn that he died yesterday afternoon. The show put him together with Poussin as an equal, and it would have pleased him enormously to see his work hanging in such parallel beauty with the painter he so admired.

His work was about the encounter – no encounter, no work. I filmed him last autumn in his small shopfront studio in Lexington, Virginia, where he was born. He'd started returning there once a year from his home in Gaeta, just north of Naples.

I gave the film his given name, Edwin Parker – Cy being a childhood nickname, because it felt closer to whom he became in the film. He was a private man but he wasn't reclusive and it was only in recent years that I learned what he looked like.

When he looked into the camera, it was the look of young Twombly arriving in Rome for the first time with the artist Robert Rauschenberg.

Cy will be missed by the many who are stopped in their tracks by one of his works – that degree of emotional beauty is rare. His absence will be keenly felt by those who through the work found the man.

It is sad knowing that he is no longer sitting, biding his time and awaiting the encounter.

• Tacita Dean's film of Cy Twombly, Edwin Parker, is being shown at the Dulwich Picture Gallery until 25 September 2011. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2011 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

Cy Twombly - a life in pictures

American painter, who has died aged 83 in Rome, bridged the gap between the art of today and the legacy of the classical world

July 05 2011

Cy Twombly obituary

American artist who drew on the high culture of the past to forge a distinctive, at times thrilling, body of work

The death of the American painter Cy Twombly, at the age of 83, has ended one of the most distinguished artistic careers of the past half-century. Like a latter-day Ingres, he was an expatriate who lived in Italy, fascinated by the country's cultural heritage. Twombly's response to this stimulus was, however, anything but academic, as he expressed himself with a radical language of highly coloured stains and energetic brushwork. His success resulted from the combination of this exciting style with a subtle, original intellect, great self-belief and a measure of charm and good fortune.

Edwin Parker Twombly Jr was born in Lexington, Virginia. His father was a sports instructor and former baseball player whom Twombly admiringly described as still doing back flips at the age of 40: he was known as "Cy" after the legendary pitcher "Cyclone" Young. Twombly inherited his father's nickname, but not his athleticism.

After completing his initial training in Boston, in 1950 Cy junior joined the Art Students League in New York, the epicentre of abstract expressionism. Soon afterwards this influence followed Twombly to Black Mountain College in North Carolina, where his teachers included Robert Motherwell, although he was also inspired by the rector Charles Olson's interest in archetypal, symbolic imagery.

In such paintings as Min-Oe (1951) Twombly devised bold, symmetrical compositions, which, he suggested, were characteristic of both primitive and classical art. He also produced this effect in some of his sculptures, for example Untitled (Funerary Box for a Lime Green Python) (1954), where a pair of solemn-looking palm leaves gives the work a consciously ritualistic tone.

Twombly's yearning for antiquity led inevitably to the transatlantic trip that he made in 1952 with a scholarship from the Museum of Fine Arts at Richmond, Virginia. With Robert Rauschenberg, whom he had met at the Art Students League, he travelled to Rome, the city in which he was to settle five years later, and, more surprisingly, Morocco.

Although the journey to North Africa was Rauschenberg's idea, it profoundly affected Twombly: he brought back a sketchbook filled with motifs and studies of materials, and subsequently produced expressive abstract canvases whose titles were taken from the Moroccan towns Tiznit and Quarzazat.

Most remarkably, in reaction against the taboos about left and right that he encountered on his travels, Twombly began to draw "as if with his left hand". By literally denying himself dexterity, he reduced his control of the creative process in a way that was analogous to surrealist techniques – he took this even further during his military service as a cryptographer in 1953-54 by working at night, in the dark.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the joint exhibition that he held with Rauschenberg at New York's Stable Gallery in 1953 had some stormy reviews, with the Herald Tribune declaring that it was one of the two worst shows of the season.

Twombly remained undaunted: in certain pictures, such as Academy (1955), the odd defiant expletive emerges from what are otherwise abstract patterns. With these moments of crudity, the works destroy the conventional distinction between writing and painting – a theme that became even more obvious after Twombly's move to Rome in 1957.

Twombly's early years in Italy had an air of "la dolce vita" about them. It was in this period that he met Tatiana Franchetti, an Italian aristocrat, whom he married in 1959 in New York before buying a palazzo on the Via di Monserrato in Rome. During the late 1950s he also spent time by the sea, on the island of Procida and at Sperlonga, north of Naples, where he produced memorable images on canvas and paper.

As Twombly told the critic David Sylvester, "the Mediterranean is always just white, white, white": in the 24 drawings called Poems to the Sea the colour blue barely appears, and yet the cursory lines and spots create a sea of the mind's eye – hours of contemplation transformed into a few cryptic marks. With their textured, creamy backgrounds, the paintings inspired by Procida are also extremely evocative: parched cliff-tops in the Bay of Naples; crumbling plaster; the heat – it's all there if you look for it, though without that act of the imagination the charm quickly fades.

While many of Twombly's works have classical and literary associations – titles such as the School of Athens and inscribed lines by Sappho, Mallarmé, Keats or Catullus – not all of his oeuvre is so ethereal. Search hard, and phalluses appear among the squiggles (though American critics sometimes confused them with carrots or rockets), and in 1961 the juicy Ferragosto paintings recreated the mid-August holiday with lurid colours and brown scatological smears, applied once again with the left hand: Roland Barthes aptly described them as gestures of "dirtying", "deranging the morality of the body".

During these years in Italy, Twombly's output sometimes reflected developments in the rest of the world: for example, as minimalist artists were creating a stir in America and Europe, in the late 1960s Twombly executed six monochrome canvases, the Treatise on the Veil, which are completely blank apart from measurements written in crayon over the grey paint.

The austerity continued into the early 1970s with a series, dedicated to Twombly's late friend Nini Pirandello, characterised by subtle rhythmic patterns and muted colours, quite distinct from the baroque lushness of his earlier work. From the middle of the decade, however, a new variety and richness appeared. Twombly returned to sculpture, which he had abandoned in the late 1950s, producing objects redolent of classical architecture or ancient rites, while in his paintings a little later he introduced luminous, watery tones.

This tendency culminated in a spectacular sequence at the Venice Biennale in 1988. Inspired by the city's lagoon and canals, Twombly splashed acrylic on to canvases shaped like baroque ceiling paintings, as if Monet was meeting Jackson Pollock and Tiepolo.

Most brilliant of all, however, were two series from the 1990s (now in Tate Modern and the Museum of Modern Art in New York), which evoked the four seasons, and the stages of human life, with sensuous colours and characteristically enigmatic writing.

In the retrospective exhibition held at Tate Modern in 2008, these luxurious images contrasted starkly with the simpler blood-red Bacchus canvases, painted at the time of the Iraq war, in the following room. The Dionysian impulse remained a potent force in Twombly's work even as he was approaching 80. In contrast, his recently installed ceiling at the Salle des Bronzes in the Louvre offers a more serene vision of the classical tradition, with its lapidary inscriptions alluding to ancient Greek sculptors set against an intense blue background.

Although Twombly continued to live in Italy – much of the time in his house in Gaeta near Naples – he somehow remained very American. He often returned to Lexington, where he was still known to some as "Cy junior", and was happy to point out that the area has "more columns … than in all ancient Rome and Greece".

Entertaining, erudite and at times a little neurotic, Twombly was almost as intriguing in interviews as in his art. He certainly gave good copy – as well as commanding huge prices in the international art market. Twombly profited from the global economy, but as an individual and an artist he was very much of a particular milieu, that of the American sophisticate in Europe (although he hated the label "expatriate").

He forged a distinctive, at times thrilling, brand from references to the high culture of the past, only rarely referring to contemporary events or issues. Yet, despite this apparent remoteness from the present, he achieved early success by offering a clever alternative to abstract expressionism and managed to keep going long enough to come back into fashion. It is questionable whether such an esoteric artist would have so enduring a career if he started today.

Tatiana died in 2010. Twombly is survived by their son, Cyrus, who is also a painter; two grandchildren; and his partner, Nicola Del Roscio.

• Cy Twombly (Edwin Parker Twombly Jr), artist, born 25 April 1928; died 5 July 2011 © Guardian News & Media Limited 2011 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

Cy Twombly - an appreciation: Paintings about sex and death

He painted supremely ambitious and convincing epics of charismatic colour and vertigo-inducing space

Cy Twombly's paintings are today on view at Dulwich Picture Gallery in south London, cheek by jowl with works by the 17th century master Nicolas Poussin, and a stone's throw from paintings by Rubens and Rembrandt. It is a company in which he manifestly belongs.

In an age when some said painting was finished, he proved otherwise. His ambitious and convincing epics of charismatic colour and vertigo-inducing space do what painting has always done, and tell stories of sex, death, history and the gods.

Here is an artist who can teach you to read. Few of us read as Twombly did, steeping himself in Greek, Latin and English verse, and teasing the beholder to follow up enigmatic quotations scrawled in a languid stain on his sighs of paintings.

At Dulwich is a painting, Hero and Leandro (for Christopher Marlowe), that is a white misty spume of oceanic spray assailed by a bloody smear of red. Blood in water, it seemed to me. Only later did I read Marlowe's poem Hero and Leander that begins: "On Hellespont, guilty of true love's blood..."

Twombly came of agein the America of Jackson Pollock and the Abstract Expressionists. It was surely, in part, a sense that imperial New York's historical double is ancient Rome that made him emigrate to Italy.

What he found there was low life and sex in a landscape of ruins: his way of responding to the dolce vita was to turn the arabesques of Pollock's style into outbursts of graffiti. In his paintings the myths of the gods found in Roman frescoes are retold with obscene pink smears for buttocks and breasts. Out of this comes a deeply romantic art of colour and time and place that brutally breathes new life into the mythologies of Greece and Rome.

Above all, he came from America's south; when born in 1928 the civil war and the (albeit deserved) destruction of southern pride was a living memory for some in his native Virginia. Classical architecture has a history there going back to Thomas Jefferson; and no southerner can fail to see history as a melancholic process. He found in the Mediterranean a world even more crumbling with ruins and memories, where it is still possible to imagine the sea stained with the blood of old battles. He may have seemed apolitical, yet shortly before 9/11 he unveiled paintings of the sea battle of Lepanto, the traumatic 16th century conflict between Christians and Muslims.

While Twombly was alive and working – and his last paintings of flowers were ripely beautiful – it was possible to see a connection between the art of today and the noble legacy of Greece and Rome as it has been perpetuated by artists such as Raphael and Picasso. His death really hurts, it leaves a black hole. A link has been cut, a lifeline lost. Some artists fade from memory when they die. Twombly will grow in stature. He will be mourned by all who truly love painting. The great god Pan is dead, as a voice was heard to cry by sailors in the age of the Roman emperor Augustus. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2011 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

Artist Cy Twombly dies aged 83 in Rome

American who exiled himself from his country of birth was seen by many as an heir to abstract expressionist Jackson Pollock

Cy Twombly, the US artist whose graffiti-style paintings on large canvases established him in the eyes of many as the heir to Jackson Pollock, has died in hospital in Rome at the age of 83.

After emerging from the New York art scene of the 1950s, he was to cultivate and be inspired by a life-long association with Europe's history and culture, and is regarded as a key figure among a generation of artists who strived to evolve beyond abstract expressionism.

Born Edwin Parker Twombly Jr in Lexington, Virginia, in 1928, he took on his father's nickname, Cy. A student of a number of US art colleges, he travelled extensively in Europe and was to be influenced in later years by his service as a cryptologist in the US military.

After spending much of the 1950s in New York, where friends included Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg, Twombly left for Italy.

His work was shown at the Venice Biennale in 1964 before he began drifting away from expressionism and embarking on the abstract sculptures that were to become closely associated with him.

The artist, who had been living in Italy, was hospitalised in Rome last week, according to Eric Mezil, the director of the Lambert collection in Avignon.

An exposition of Twombly's photographs opened last month at the Lambert collection. An exhibition of his work and that of Nicolas Poussin, whom he admired, started last week at the Dulwich Picture Gallery in south London.

One of the most important exhibitions of his work in decades took place at Tate Modern in 2008. It included his Quattro Stagioni (Four Seasons), A Painting in Four Parts (1993-94).

"Ah, it goes, is lost," Twombly had scrawled in pencil on one of the four tall canvases, in a reflection of some of the themes to which he often returned: time, love and doomed desire. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2011 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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