On the face of it what could Poussin (his Rinaldo and Armida pictured here) and the American abstract artist Cy Twombly possibly have in common? I didn’t go to this exhibition, but I’ve seen a few reviews, some favourable, some damning. Reading Brian Sewell’s caustic review of the show currently on at Dulwich, I can see that the minds behind this exhibition are seeking parallels between Poussin’s approach to mythology and Twombly, who is noted for labelling his works after myths like Leda and the Swan and Hercules and Patroclus. Yet, Sewell is surely right to observe that Twombly’s labelling system, with its scrawled, garbled letters has nothing in common with the classical lettering in the celebrated inscription ET IN ARCADIA EGO, despite efforts to read some archaeological gravitas into Twombly’s squiggles. This critic is also right to state that the only thing that Poussin and Twombly have in common is that they arrived in Rome, drawn by the classical tradition; in Poussin’s case, after seeing the “light of Italy” in Raphaelesque engravings in a patron’s collection; in Twombly’s, after repudiating the abstract turn in favour of the romanticised European past.
In a photograph by Robert Rauschenberg taken at the Capitoline Museum in Rome in 1952, a gangling Cy Twombly stands next to the famous Hand of Constantine, his form caught in profile. The image is perhaps meant to be read as Rauschenberg’s ironic attempt to cast Twombly in the mould of a philosopher, complete with obligatory book at his side, an interpretation suggested by the pointing finger of the monument which like Plato in Raphael’s School of Athens seems to be calling on the divine for inspiration. This recapturing and recovery of the classical tradition worked on very different levels for the two artists, despite claims that Twombly was a born-again classicist with a Homeric vision. Twombly superimposed his modernism over the classical heritage; Poussin completely immersed himself in it. That is the difference. In his marvellous description, Joshua Reynolds said that Poussin was a mind naturalized in antiquity.
“No works of any modern have so much of the air of Antique Painting as those of Poussin. His best performances have a remarkable dryness of manner, which by no means to be recommended for imitation, yet seems perfectly correspondent to that ancient simplicity which distinguishes his style. Like Polidoro he studied the ancients so much that he acquired a habit of thinking in their way, and seemed to know perfectly the actions and gestures they would use on every occasion.” 
Now compare Robert Hughes in a Time article on Twombly:
“The sight of all these orts and fragments in Twombly's pictures seems to have convinced his more ardent admirers that he's a classicist, saturated in the myths and literature of the ancient Mediterranean, exuding them from every pictorial pore. All he has to do is scrawl a wobbly triumph of Galatea or et in arcadia ego on a canvas, and suddenly he's up there with Roberto Calasso, if not Edward Gibbon. When an audience that has lost all touch with the classical background once considered indispensable in education sees Virgil written in a picture, it accepts it as a logo, like the alligator on a Lacoste shirt. The mere dropping of the name, or the citation of a tag, suggests that a classical past still lives, solid and whole, below the surface. But a toenail paring isn't a body.” 
Indeed: a toe nail certainly isn’t a whole body. As for the mind, it’s absurd to claim that Twombly can think like the ancients.
Then there’s this argument about Twombly and signification. I recall a book where one art historian within a discussion of representation in the western tradition, said that it was too easy to view Twombly’s art as ‘a refusal to signify’. I admire this scholar but I’m not buying this idea of signification in Twombly. Don’t get me wrong. I don’t mind comparisons between Poussin and modern artists. There have a been a number of shows in the last few years that have paired emulations of Poussin’s work with the original, like Leon Kossoff’s version of the Triumph of Pan in a National Gallery exhibition held in 2007. Yet Kossoff managed to convince me as an interpreter of Poussin because he is a real painter, seeking the spirit of Poussin’s art in the materiality of the work, not some dubious parallel between image and text, which a lot of Twombly scholarship stresses. I think Robert Hughes nailed it perfectly when he said that Twombly was one of America’s first graffiti artists, long before Basquiat started spraying SAMO on New York walls. That’s not to demean graffiti artists whose work I like, but Twombly’s classical graffiti for me is just full of sound and fury, ultimately signifying nothing. I don’t know if I’d go as far as Sewell in calling CT a charlatan- that’s for you to decide.
What I do know is that a great opportunity has been lost. How much more impressive and good for Dulwich to have paired Poussin with Poussin- his paintings with his drawings! Or we could have had a whole exhibition of drawings, maybe somewhere in the provinces like Oxford or Birmingham, charting the evolution of naturalized antiquity in this incomparable artist. I wish someone had asked me to curate an exhibition like this- I’ve have jumped at it! It’s long overdue as we haven’t had a Poussin exhibition in the U.K. since the 1990s. Sadly, we get this daft exhibition. Once again Poussin is in the news for all the wrong reasons.
 Joshua Reynolds, Discourse V.
 Robert Hughes, ‘The Graffiti of Loss’, Time Magazine, October 17th, 1994,
 Stephen Bann, The True Vine: On Visual Representation and the Western Tradition, Cambridge University Press, 1989, 2.