Most summers at Tate Liverpool there is the ‘blockbuster’ exhibition that brings some incredible artworks by notable artists to the North West. A few years ago it was Marc Quinn and Gustav Klimt, this year it was ‘Turner, Monet, Twombly: Later Paintings.’ I will admit that I was sceptical about seeing the exhibition at first as I have an extreme dislike of Monet. I know! It’s perhaps an odd position for an art historian and practising painter to take on such a popular artist. But it’s probably the emphasis placed on the “Impressionists” as part of my education in fine art for 8 years prior to university that has made me a little tired of Monet and his peers. Or perhaps it’s my mother’s huge love of everything Monet; tea towels, postcards, fridge magnets, you name it, she’s got it. This said, I do love Cy Twombly’s work and was intrigued to find out the link that these seemingly unrelated artists shared.
The link that the show’s curator, Jeremy Lewison, attempted to forge between Turner, Monet and Twombly was that, although they belong to entirely different historical epochs and worked in different styles, they all became incredibly creative and expressive in their later lives. As the director of Tate states, later in their lives Turner, Monet and Twombly apparently had ‘no one else to please but themselves’, which spurred them on to become extremely experimental. This link, however, was poorly communicated and only became clear when visitors were shown a video, towards the end of the exhibition, of recorded interviews with the contemporary expressive artist Fiona Rae, naturalist film director Mike Leigh and the curator himself, who each added to our understanding of the artworks and the justification for displaying them together.
A further criticism I would make is that the layout of the exhibition was confusing and disjointed, since it was split over two floors: bottom and top with the unrelated Liverpool Biannual taking up the two floors in-between.
The first floor called ‘Beauty, Power and Space’ explored the depictions of the sublime, featuring a personal favourite of mine ‘Hero and Leander’ (1981-84) by Twombly. It was inspired by a John Keats’ sonnet where the sea swallows Leandro as he tries to swim to the Hellespont to visit his lover Hero. The extremes of nature are also expressed in Monet’s work on this floor; his Normandy and Brittany coastlines capture a rough and unforgiving landscape; likewise in Turner’s chaotic shipwrecks, whose expressive brush strokes evoke the fearful power and awesomeness of Nature.
The other themes explored in the exhibition were ‘Atmosphere’, ‘Fire and Water’, ‘The Vital Force’, ‘Naught So Sweet As Melancholy’ and ‘The Seasons.’ Each of these explores different subject matters, and the meaningful effects that the paintwork on the canvas itself has. ‘Atmosphere’, for instance, showcased some of Monet’s cityscapes of foggy London where the only details appear to be within the texture of the fog coating the buildings instead of the buildings themselves. Also shown were Turner’s light wash paintings of dawn breaking on the city that show just colourless silhouettes against engulfing yellow skies.
This then leads onto the dominance of Nature in all three of the artists’ work which cumulates in the section titled ‘The Seasons.’ This section featured Twombly’s colossal ‘Quattro Stagioni’ (1993-95), a love letter in paint to the seasons, which were shown opposite Monet’s expressive and loose water lily studies that I’d personally never seen before. These changed my opinion of Monet, whose interesting ways of applying paint are fascinating when seen up close, but from a distant his paintings take on an altogether different quality, seeming more abstract and expressionistic than impressionistic. This also could be said of the Turners featured in the room, which could be described as having an early impressionistic style, which was a contrast to his earlier displayed works that have a hint of realism to them.
I left feeling a little unsure about what I had gained from seeing the exhibition. I came out not loving or hating what I had seen and so I went back for a second visit. Sometimes we can become over-familiar with famous paintings that have been shown over and over again and celebrated as great works of art, and this show really draws attention to the change in technique that can be seen in artists’ works and the creative impulses behind them. It also explored the biographical drives of the artist in old age, a subject I feel has not been looked at before, and the impact this has on their work; the impact of freeing up inner boundaries towards style, medium or even subject matter, resulting in what could be argued is some of the most experimental works by these artists. All the paintings shown express, in my opinion, the vitality of nature with the artists’ own new found vitality in their later lives.
The main goal of the exhibition was to make you think differently about some familiar works by Monet and Turner and to see the expressionist and sometimes abstract qualities that can only only be experienced when seen up close: changes in brush strokes, colour, texture and so on. How these intrinsic qualities in a work of art capture the essence of nature, not just realistically or figuratively, but also affectively, and how this affects the viewer has been made clearer by the Tate Liverpool’s exhibition. The show also demonstrated how a lesser-known artist such as Twombly is nevertheless relevant to the ‘greats'; a more challenging style of working,, such as Twombly’s, can be seen as part of a tradition that is trying to express nature as more than a landscape or a still life. This exhibition’s concept was interesting in its search for finding something unexplored within the well known works and viewers’ ideas of Monet, Turner and Twombly, yet without further reading and exploration this concept fell somewhat flat in aspects of the exhibition’s execution.
‘Turner, Monet, Twombly: Later Paintings’ at Liverpool Tate ended on the 28th of October and if you were unable to make it in time the catalogue is available from Tate Publications and is worth a flick through if you see a copy!