Everything is changed at Dulwich Picture Gallery by the fact of Cy Twombly’s death. He died in Rome, aged 83, on 5 July, just a week after the current show at Dulwich opened (it closes on 25 September). Twombly and Poussin: Arcadian Painters is the exhibition’s title; it brings together a range of works roughly deriving from the artists’ shared feeling for poetry and mythology, Italian landscape, the life of the senses, the cult of Pan; and inevitably the mind now turns to the enigmatic tag so important to Poussin, ‘Et in Arcadia ego’, meaning (art historians cut their teeth on this) that death is always present in the land of milk and honey, or maybe, imagined as spoken inconsolably by a body inside the tomb, ‘I too – not death in the abstract but this warm hand – once touched spring water and the yielding earth.’ The urgent, despondent first version of this theme by Poussin is hung in the show’s room one, lent from Chatsworth. It sulks under discoloured varnish, but its theatrics – the naive scholarliness of the shepherd tracing the inscription – are irresistible. Death is displaced in the painting to a figure in the foreground whom at first we barely notice: a typical Poussin figure, half-asleep on the ground, white-haired and a little overweight: as if death, if we’re lucky, will be a long weary half-consciousness of water still flowing (the figure is a river god holding a jar whose contents spill through his fingers) and a shelf of grass.
LRB 25 August 2011 | PDF Download