By Pac Pobric
Certain artists monopolize the reception of their work. Cy Twombly is not one of them, but his painting sometimes tends in this direction. His avowed love for Baroque and Mannerist painting would make it easy to read his work as somehow being directly in dialogue with 16th– and 17th-century picture-making. It is not. Were it to be, it would reek of academicism, which it admittedly courts, but only to keep at bay. Another way of saying it is that Twombly’s explicit references to Poussin, for example, only serve to illustrate how far his work is from that tradition. Twombly once said that he wished to have been Poussin in another life, which only makes explicit the impossibility of having painted like Poussin in his own lifetime. Had it have been possible, he would have done it.
Twombly was no different from any of the best modernist painters in that his work makes criticism difficult. If it invites the thought that there is a one-to-one correspondence between it and academic pre-modernist picture-making, that’s because actually seeing the work for what it is is more difficult. What this points to more than anything is how difficult great abstraction still is, despite the anti-modern insistence that it isn’t. Anyway, that criticism amounts to little more than an out-of-hand dismissal.
It’s Twombly’s difficulty that makes “Cy Twombly and the School of the Fontainebleau” at the Hamburger Bahnhof Museum somewhat frustrating. The working assumption behind the exhibit of a series of mid-16th-century French Mannerist “École de Fontainebleau” prints paired with two magnificent (and four relatively powerless) Twombly pictures is that Twombly’s work cannot be read solely within the context of 20th-century painting. Fair enough. It’s clear that the painter’s allusions to pre-modernist painting mean something. But what they mean isn’t so clear at all.
If saying that Twombly was an artist and not a historian seems obvious, the implications of that probably aren’t. When we say that Twombly was a painter interested in art history, all that means is that his working through the history of art was material and not theoretical. Whatever affinity he had for the School of the Fontainebleau is therefore going to be mediated through the material practice of his painting. That filter—the process of making work with influences in mind—therefore obscures the connection between the final picture and the influence, making the connection highly tenuous.
All this is just to say that there is no direct correspondence between Mannerism and Twombly in a way that can make sense to us immediately. Not that this would have mattered for Twombly. The only sense of history any painter needs is that which helps him or her make a good picture. That’s what it means to have a material and non-theoretical sense of history.
Crucially, the show fails to take this into account. It asks, more simply, for us to see how Twombly’s work is more figurative than it may seem. Finding figuration in abstract pictures has always been a hobbyhorse of anti-modernist criticism. This isn’t to say that Twombly’s work contains no figuration—it does—but it is to point out that the attempt to collapse abstraction into figuration should ring some bells. The connection between the two must be mapped carefully, and that’s not what’s happening here.
Still, the exhibit is not a total failure. It’s perhaps possible to see, in obscure ways, why Twombly would have liked the School of the Fontainebleau. The Mannerist elongation of figurative form, the abstraction of space, and the blurring of decorative and fine-art categories probably all exist somewhere in his work. But finding these relationships is a more difficult challenge than the curators seem to believe. The show is more a failure of criticism than it is of actual artwork, which is better than it having been the other way around. All in all, the exhibit makes clear how difficult it is to truly see Twombly’s pictures. The paintings no doubt invite a reading which fails to rise to the occasion of how intelligent they are. But that’s a short history of modernism writ large.