Death is everywhere at Dulwich


The gallery is showing a short film by Tacita Dean of Twombly a year or so ago, puffy and slow and sly, fumbling round his studio in Virginia. The film moves (rather in the same way as Dean’s tremendous portrait of old Michael Hamburger fondling his apples) from a world of light and vitality, glimpsed through the studio blinds, towards a final montage of grey trees against a storm-warning sky. Halfway through the exhibition one turns off into Soane’s strange shrunken mausoleum for the gallery’s founders, and in the half-light among the sarcophagi is a Twombly sculpture: a black rose resting on a marble pebble resting on a box covered in faded velvet. The label on the box reads: THAT WHICH I SHOULD HAVE DONE, I DID NOT DO. Nicholas Cullinan, whose great idea this exhibition was, makes the connection to Poussin’s contrary (though not, as I hear it, self-vaunting) ‘Je n’ai rien négligé.’ But the rose on the unlovely pebble also reminds me of Poussin’s habit of bringing back bits of wood, stones, moss, lumps of earth from his rambles by the Tiber; and the story of him reaching down among the ruins for a handful of marble and porphyry chips and saying to a tourist: ‘Here’s ancient Rome.’ Both artists are humorists as well as death-haunted. (Richard Wollheim once said to me, apropos The Triumph of Pan, which is in the exhibition, that he did not feel Poussin ever managed the difficult business of laughter in paint. Maybe not: but he was good at showing human beings trying to be funny. He was interested in the proximity of a laugh to a rictus.) ‘Witty and funereal’ was how Frank O’Hara described Twombly’s sculptures early on.

more from T.J. Clark at the LRB here.