JMW Turner, The Parting of Hero and Leander, exh1937, Tate, 2011
Art I saw Andrew Graham-Dixon this morning. The Culture Show frontman was leaning on the fencing at the Albert Dock in Liverpool gently chatting with a colleague/friend/who can guess and reader, I was star struck. Others are impressed when they see footballers, musicians and actors in the wild, but for me it’s arts presenters it seems (see also Mark Lawson), especially ones who’s programmes (BBC Four’s Art of here there and everywhere) have probably taught me large sections of what I know of the subject. As a rule, I don’t tend approach people I admire, it tends to be quite embarrassing, and I didn’t this time, because also apart from anything else the man was working.
Like me he was attending the press event for Tate Liverpool’s new major summer exhibition Turner Monet Twombly: Later Paintings. Though unlike me he was also interviewing Alexi Sayle for television. We’re instead making to with this. The third and final venue of the show’s tour (having previously visited Stockholm and Stuttgart), it’s a bit of a departure for this Tate which usually concerns itself with contemporary art and only rarely ventures chronologically before the twentieth century. Which isn’t to say that either Turner or Monet have little affinity within modern art circles. Both benefited from the growth of expressionism in the 1960s, especially Turner who pushed the landscape form into abstract areas.
At which point I should confess on first viewing, the very first walk around the exhibition, I didn’t “get” “it”. Never much of a fan of Turner, a huge fan of Monet, but never having even heard of Twombly, when asked by a press friend directly afterwards what I thought, I made a sound which spelt out probably looks like “ih”. On first inspection this seemed like a very good Monet exhibition constantly interrupted by Turners and Twomblys. Because objectively it is a very good Monet exhibition since for the first time in ten years it collects together five of his water lily paintings in close proximity, two of which haven’t been in this country before. There’s also Rouen Cathedral, a couple of his Waterloo Bridges and Matinee sur la Seine.
Claude Monet, The Water-Lily Pond (Le Bassin aux nymphéas) 1917-1919, Oil on canvas, 1000 x 2000 mm, Courtesy Albertina, Vienna
Not the chronology of the forming of that opinion is as linear as that paragraph suggests. I did notice that in the first exhibition space on the ground floor Turner’s The Parting of Hero and Leander is displayed directly opposite Twombly’s painting of the same name and that the overall shape of the latter, with its huge sweeping smudges of pink and white paint are informed by the overall structure of the former, both evoked in Monet’s nearby series Untitled (Porto Ercole), the often deadly elemental cocktail of earth, fire, wind and water. But I still found myself lingering over the Monets, his ability to capture the misty morning atmosphere of places I can only dream of visiting in stark contrast to the paradoxically, it seemed to me, the formal chaos of Turner's more familiar locations.
It wasn't until later, during a tour from curator Jeremy Lewison that I realised that of course my beloved Monet is being interrupted by Turner and Twombly, this is an exhibition which imagines a centuries long conversation between the three painters demonstrating that artists, for different, often very personal reasons, continually return to the same themes and techniques. When Turner paints Peace – Buriel At Sea to commemorate his friend painter David Wilkie who died from typhoid on the voyage back from Egypt, when Monet completes a series of Venetian paintings begun before his wife’s death and when Twombly is inspired by the funerary boats in Cairo Museum, they’re all wrestling in their own way with grief.
At which point, my “ih” became an “ooh” and it was almost as though the background chatter seeping into the space from other floors was the paintings themselves whispering their own points of view, and quite often in agreement with each other. In the Fire and Water section (the exhibition is thematically separated into seven sections) (plus a little shop) (I like a little shop) we see in Parliament, Burst of Sunlight, Monet attempting to show how the golden light of the sun bouncing across the Thames is refracted by the morning mist. He’s reacting to Turner’s own similar attempts and later Twombly (who included a Monet exhibition catalogue amongst his prized possession) continues the experiment.
Cy Twombly, Untitled 1987 (2), © Cy Twombly
In selecting works from the later periods, the curators, as the exhibition’s mini-guide explains, are capturing the moment when “the outward battles have been won” (presumably in relation to stylistic concerns) “but the inward battles commence”. The themes which connect these works have a funerial aspect. Of the three, Monet’s the artist with the clearest recognition of his mortality, losing his sight later in life which led to a much coarser approach to painting, the question being whether this necessary roughness as a result of his condition or a set of choices reflecting that condition. Similarly, is the simplicity of Twombly's massive day-glo red and Camino Real series a result of his age?
But it has to be said, it’s Lewison’s talk which really helped to crystallise how these relationships work so I wonder if a visitor would be best not looking at the exhibition too closely at first and instead take the lift to the fourth floor and finding the small room in the middle of the exhibition space were the curator appears on video at one of the earlier vernues giving to camera what looks like a version of the same talk, about its inception as originally featuring Rothko until he noticed the closer connection between the current three, about his meeting with Twombly who explained that he owned letters from both the other artists which crystalised that connection and how the various themes developed and much more.
Only after that would I return to the ground floor and beginning with the Partings of Hero and Leander and work outwards. This is how I wished I’d approached the exhibition just as I wish I’d read this excellent piece by Michael Prodger from The Guardian which covers some of the same ground. But at least, though there isn’t much "least" about this, my appreciation of Turner has been irrevocably changed. I know now that he wasn’t some establishment figure, and that even in death, inscribing in his will that he wanted his unfinished works to be displayed with his finished paintings, he was directly confronting that establishment. As always happens when eavesdropping on the best conversation, I’ve learned something new.
Turner Monet Twombly: Later Paintings at Tate Liverpool opens on Friday and continues until 28th October. £12 admission (concessions available).