“It’s instinctive in a certain kind of painting, not as if you were painting an object or special things, but it’s like coming through the nervous system. It’s like a nervous system. It’s not described, it’s happening. The feeling is going on with the task. The line is the feeling, from a soft thing, a dreamy thing, to something hard, something arid, something lonely, something ending, something beginning.” Cy(*) Twombly in an interview with David Sylvester, 2000. Transcript from http://www.cytwombly.info/twombly_writings2.htm
(*) Cy >> Cyclone Young, two initials borrowed from his father, a baseball player.
“ The painter of history who tells stories” Jonas Storsve
The retrospective at the Centre Pompidou consecrated to the American painter Cy Twombly, marked with beauty, concludes the year 2016 with a grand finale. The exhibit provides the opportunity to see his immense paintings, some of which have never been shown to the public.
Cy Twombly’s path is paradoxical: an American painter who had been settled in Italy for 50 years, Twombly was more inspired by colors, shapes, and Antiquity, specifically Greek Antiquity and its mythology, than he was by American contemporary and modern art which dominated the trends of western art. Twombly was born with abstract expressionism. By conserving the same taste for color and abstract form as Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg and the Beat Generation from which he rapidly evolved, Twombly broke away from Pop Art following the rise of conceptual art and minimalism. It is without a doubt that Cy Twombly remains faithful to the use of easels and workshops, and to creating the typical painting because of his precocious exile in Italy, land of Greco-Roman Antiquity and of the Renaissance.
Little known in America, Twombly was first recognized in Europe, and in France specifically by the gallery owner Yvon Lambert (yet another paradox considering his taste for conceptual art). The artist was later given the title of a belated recognition by the U.S., which granted him not only the honor of being presented in the market but also in major museums like the MOMA. The pinnacle remains the work done for the bronze antique gallery at the Louvre Museum: The Ceiling hangs over the collection of bronze antiques.
Twombly is quite well-known for his paintings of writing, and the exhibit at the Centre Pompidou retraces the artist’s life story in a mural consisting of these paintings and of Twombly’s photographs and sculptures. I am very excited to see the work of Cy Twombly spread out before my eyes, the work of a misunderstood young man who left to join the military, who ultimately showed his paintings to the prominent gallery owner Castelli; the work of an avid traveler hungry for wisdom who painted the Louvre ceiling with medals.
His entire life, devoted to art.
There’s a sort of richness, a history and culture which pierces the great paintings hung on the moldings on the walls of the Centre Pompidou. In this setting, intimate works are visible, such as Twombly’s photos of citrons brought to him by a friend, or even those of the rare citrus fruit “Buddha’s hand.” For these he worked on imprecision, blurriness, with Polaroid in the style of Fresson; the prints were developed in Germany.
A staging of Twombly’s works was orchestrated by the passionate curator, Jonas Storsve, who was happy to have us explore the artist’s masterpieces. Certain works had never been seen in France, such as “Achilles’ shield” and “Night Watch” which had been found randomly through a simple conversation. This title was in fact borrowed from Rembrandt. The work “Achilles’ shield” requires a bit more time examining it: the colors in it seem alive yet crude, as if tossed onto the canvas. The painting’s animated quality makes one think of uncovered colors, almost intact from the paintings from Antiquity. Such paintings from Antiquity are typically anonymous and put through the paper mill of history, with the exception of written witnesses who further polish the shine on the names of Zeuxis and Appelles (painters in Ancient Greece)
However, visitors and observers of the exhibit have more than just the impression of seeing archaic paintings from the beginning of the 5th Century BC, such as those in Paestum which have had their colors retouched along the famous fresco of the “tomb of the diver.” The archaism and primitivism in Twombly’s painting is plain to see and sends us back to ancient human history.
How could Twombly not have had the recent findings (1968) in mind while in his most creative time as a painter? Around this same time, a story was run by Vogue (1966) showcasing the artist to the cultivated American public with his villa, Bassano in Teverina, in the background. The villa is close to Bomarzo, which has extravagant gardens from the Italian Renaissance (the “Park of Monsters”).
In the story’s photo, under the chiseled gaze of Horst P. Horst, a world-renowned photographer, Cy Twombly appears Apollonian, elegant in his finely trimmed linen suit. The publication directed by Vogue’s then editor-in-chief, Diana Vreeland, featured Cy Twombly posing as a semi-fashion icon, semi-artist participating in a carefully-studied production where art, fashion, and luxury converge. Being fairly distanced from the canons of the ill-fated artist, we are better able to understand the qualifiers which are linked to him in Dominique Baqué’s work “Cy Twombly and the double symbol of Apollo and Dionysus” for in it, Twombly is associated with the symbol of light, poetry, and life.
Twombly basked in the waters of Antiquity, of Man and God.
Within the context of the retrospective exhibit displaying the beginnings of Twombly’s career, this specific piece was painted in 1954 during his time in the military. In the constitution of Twombly’s palette we can also see hints of Rembrandt’s style of an auto portrait, for the painter remains enigmatic in his gaze—everything is singular in his work, the subject of a belated recognition, moving backwards from the artistic expressions that dominate contemporary art.
Cy Twombly’s first pieces from the 1950s depict industrial painting in black and white like those that were shown to Léo Castelli and rejected by the great gallery owner based in New York. These three paintings were stored away in a warehouse during the 50s and later reappeared in broad daylight having never been displayed. The works had kept their original colors while the other paintings had become lighter.
The artist had always held a sort of loyalty to this painting even during the years where the driving trends were conceptual art. However, this painting had a rather difficult time during the 1970s having been discredited, so Twombly introduced collages on roman bacchanals.
After a timid approach in his younger years using black and white, the artist slowly dared to use colors. As of 1959 he abandoned his industrial painting and moved into painting with oil.
Cy Twombly was a wilful student, very cultivated and passionate about Antiquity. This passion was without a doubt spurred by his sister who studied ancient letters. As a result, Twombly applied for and received a scholarship for a very prestigious program where he would able to pursue what he most wanted to see: the Lascaux caves, French, Italian, and Dutch museums. With this opportunity would be able to study the prehistoric and ancient periods, and even Baroque…He invited his friend Robert Rauschenberg to accompany him on his journey to Italy. He ended up spending that winter, 1952-53 in Morocco. It’s funny to think in terms of this Parisian exhibit on Twombly at the same time as thinking about the big retrospective exhibition on Robert Rauschenberg which will be housed at Tate Modern until April 2017.
The concept of seriality has played a large role in Twombly’s work since this era, and traces his entire life. For instance, in the 2000s Cy Twombly repainted a missing panel of a triptych belonging to François Pinault “Illium.” The great, ancient epics were a constant source of inspiration, for Twombly did not cease working on depicting the the tragedies described by Homer, Euripide and even up until The Flies written by Jean-Paul Sartre. His work is a gaping hole through which pagan myths are propelled and survive, like with the coming together of Jean Ray’s novel Malpertuis (1943) and Harry Kümel’s surrealist film (1971) with the depiction of a fantastic house where the Gods of Mount Olympus are alive in the 20th century.
In 1959, he married a young Italian portraitist named Luisa Tatiana Franchetti and settled in Rome.
Over the course of my visit, themes of Antiquity, inspirations from classic painters, emerge. In 1960, Twombly was enthralled by an exhibition on Nicolas Poussin at the Louvre under the curatorship of Anthony Blunt. His in-laws would have even had a Titien in their possession. Thus the direct relationship and inspiration between Antiquity and the hieratic pose in Poussin’s characters, as if set in a sculpture with an almost inhuman dignity, becomes clear. In admiring his art, I wonder whether we are in the presence of men or Gods, or perhaps the work is about the men of Arcadia, the imaginary country existing before the Fall?
His enduring loyalty to painting, and to painters, has been conveyed to us throughout his life. In the 2000s, he painted his water lilies (A Gathering of Time, 2013).
The sculptures have also been reunited on a sort of pedestal facing the Paris sky on the top floor of the Centre Pompidou. Cy Twombly’s white sculptures, like Greek statues, intermingle with the big, blue winter sky of Paris…the sight is magnificent.
I feel his engagement in and his horror at the war in Iraq—the dripping blood symbolized by his red letters, which were white in the past, on his “black paintings” from the end of the 1960s. His ceiling of medals at the Louvre was installed in 2010, just one year before his death…the rightful place for this artist who was full of history, to be fixed in this great art history museum. An end illustrated by the aptly giant final bouquet called “Blooming,” which was created between 2001 and 2008.
If you have not yet seen this exhibit, I implore you to go. Go and explore a work that gives us the energy to begin this new year. I hope your New Year is just as beautiful, powerful, and inspirational as the works by Cy Twombly!
Florence Briat Soulié
Translated by Brianna Reed, Vassar College ‘16
30 November, 2016 – 24 April, 2017
Curator: Jonas Storsve