Preview: Turner Monet Twombly

Sophie Haydock discovers how a new exhibition at Liverpool's Tate Gallery celebrates the work of three artists who were moved by life's eternal themes during the autumn years of their lives

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The latest exhibition to arrive at Tate Liverpool has brought together three of the most dynamic artists in history. Turner Monet Twombly: Later Paintings, on show until 28 October, is set to rival the other big events of the summer – offering visitors an intoxicating blend of nudity, stormy seas and water lilies.

The much anticipated show unites the radical painters JMW Turner, Claude Monet and the American abstract artist Cy Twombly, who died last year. Tate Liverpool’s curator Eleanor Clayton explains that the show explores the “universal themes” of their art as they entered a later stage in their lives.

Their final years were a period for them to reflect on death and their careers.

“I take liberties I wouldn’t have taken before,” Twombly said in 2008 to mark his 80th birthday. “I work in an impatient way.”

Each also revisited ideas from their youth, such as the naked human form. “Turner kept erotic sketchbooks throughout his life,” says Clayton. “But it was only in the last 20 years that he began including nude figures in his paintings.”

The exhibition also deals with nature and each artist’s obsession with violent weather. All three became drawn more and more to very rough seas. “Turner famously claimed that he had himself tied to the mast of a ship during a storm so he could really experience first hand its extreme nature,” reveals Clayton.

The show appeared in Stockholm and Stuttgart in Germany before arriving in Liverpool last month. “The gallery is close to the Mersey. We’ll open the windows so you can see artworks inspired by nature and look out on the water and perhaps Liverpool’s own stormy scenes.”

There are several works that could only be agreed for the UK venue, so it’s a “more complete version of the show than has been seen before,” says Clayton. “Every single work in the show is astonishing. They are complete masterpieces. Each artist uses paint so inventively – it’s great to see them in the flesh.”

A big draw is Monet’s paintings of his gardens in Giverny, five of which are on show – the largest number to appear in the UK for over a decade. “Monet’s water lilies are very widely reproduced, but it’s very rare to be able to see so many of them together. Two have never been seen in Britain before,” Clayton smiles.

Many visitors may feel they are familiar with Turner and Monet, but less so with Twombly, who is slowly getting the recognition he deserves. “He’s well known to the art world, and is becoming more familiar to the public,” says Clayton. Tate Modern ran a retrospective of his work in 2008, which was very well attended.

People will have something new to discover with him, she says. “We’ve found that the work people are most struck by is Twombly’s. They hold up very well against these two undeniable masters. They are so strong and powerful.” Especially impressive is his five-metre painting, Blooming: A Scatter of Blossoms, painted in 2007.

A preoccupation with death plays a role in all the works too. “It’s something all of us can appreciate – the idea of coming to terms with mortality and loss. The artists all started losing people close to them, because they lived to such old ages. Turner was the pallbearer for one of his contemporaries and wrote that it bothered him. ‘Who will do the same for me when I die?’ he asked.”

Death, disaster, stormy seas – should visitors expect the exhibition to be doom and gloom? Clayton is adamant it won’t be. She says the works are overwhelmingly an ode to life and rejuvenation. “We end on the water lilies, which are very beautiful, but do have a subtext of loss – there’s no point pretending that people don’t die or that things don’t come to an end. But they are also symbols of regeneration and hope, of rebirth, of life continuing.”

Turner Monet Twombly: Later Paintings is at Tate Liverpool until 28 October

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