Cy Twombly is undoubtedly my favourite artist, yet, despite my infatuation with his work, I know very little about him. I have recently returned from a weekend in Paris. The principal reason I took this trip, was to visit the Cy Twombly exhibition at the Centre Pompidou, which is the first retrospective of the artist’s work since his death. Also in Paris at the moment, are two separate exhibitions at Gagosian: Orpheus – consisting of paintings and works on paper – as well as a display of photographs inside the artist’s Lexington Studio in Remembered Light: Cy Twombly.
Twombly’s artwork is neither abstract nor figurative. While his paintings reveal no clear narrative on first appearances, they are heavily inspired by language and myth, with scrawled phrases appearing across canvases that have patches of thick shades of pink paint scattered over the surface. The artist, who died in 2011, said very little about his work during his lifetime and the reception and understanding of his work is mixed. A close friend of mine has described his oeuvre as being full of sex, when I first encountered it however; I had a completely different interpretation. Perhaps I was being naive; there certainly is a lot of phallic imagery in Twombly’s work, intermingled with fleshy pinks and deep bloody reds. At times his canvases are a manifestation of complete tranquility, while in other instances they are violent representations of unrestrained emotions and passion. Yet, even in the most graphic works, there is something about his soft, pastel colour palette that I find myself completely drawn to.
The exhibition at the Pompidou, curated by Jonas Storsve, moves chronologically spanning Twombly’s 60-year career and comprises 140 paintings, drawings, sculptures and photographs. The artist was born in 1928, in Lexington, Virginia. At the age of 24 he went with fellow artist and rumored lover Robert Rauschenberg to study in Europe, with a particular emphasis on visiting the prehistoric cave paintings at Lascaux in southwestern France and the ancient ruins in Rome. While Rauschenberg returned to the United States, Twombly went on to settle in Rome in 1959. The inspiration from these ancient ruins can be seen throughout the artist’s oeuvre, particularly in the natural tan colours that provide the support to Twombly’s paintings and drawings. His canvases are never white, but often different shades of earthy browns.
Centre Pompidou begins with Twombly’s earliest works, often scribbles on graph paper that are small in scale. Some of the images are ripped and one looks like it has been attacked by butterflies, yet, despite this visual display of brutality, it still manages to be beautiful. As the exhibition moves on, the work gets bigger in scale, moving from paper onto canvas with Twombly intermingling drawing with paint. The majority of his paintings are titled after Greek and Roman myths, with the odd word from these legends sprawled across the image amongst layers of heavy pigment. The inclusion of text within his work is an illustration of Twombly’s interest in history and language with the founding book of Ancient Greek literature – the Iliad – often being the subject of his paintings.
In The Vengeance of Achilles, 1962, Twombly depicts a large volcanic looking triangle, capped with red. This can only be blood, in a painting that depicts Achilles slaughtering the Trojan Hector in a quasi-abstract form. Besides his intrigue with Homer, Herodotus and Virgil, Twombly was naturally inspired by his surroundings in Rome. The Nine Discourses on Commodus cycle, 1963, comprises nine huge paintings against a grey backdrop. This series is particularly striking as it marks a departure from the light, tan canvases that compose the majority of Twombly’s work. The paintings also include white paint for the first time, which stands out against the matte grey backdrop, particularly when pink and yellow pigments appears to burst out and drip down the canvas. Commodus was a Roman emperor who was murdered in 192. While many have said that this reflects the fall of the Roman Empire, there has been comment on the work being a reflection on the assassination of John F Kennedy, who was killed in the same year that Twombly executed the series. The series moves from lightness in the form of pure white against grey, through bloody reds and ends with yellow, perhaps a suggestion of decay.
Also noteworthy in the Pompidou exhibition are Twombly’s sculptures, which consist of found objects covered in plaster as well as a small display of his Polaroid photographs that depict lemons and yellow flowers. These works are soft and gentle and are a peaceful contrast to some of the artist’s impassioned depictions of historic epics. Twombly’s series of three shapes, that looks like rounded stars layered upon squares are particularly striking. These are predominantly green, in a departure from the pinks and browns previously on display. The natural colours sweep continuously across the three boards like a wave. It is unclear what they may be a symbol of but they are spellbinding all the same. Perhaps these are meant to represent a natural sentiment, much like his staggering Four Seasons, 1993-5 that completely overwhelm the viewer. Across four canvases, each of the season’s are depicted individually. They are all so different, yet united at the same time, encompassing a different mood and colour palette.
This natural imagery becomes more prominent towards the end of the artist’s career. While the mythological influence is always present. Fauna and flora begin to appear across the canvases in a more obvious fashion. This can be seen in Twombly’s Blooming, 2001-8 where huge red flowers are spread across eight panels and paint has been allowed to drip downwards like blood. The same sentiment is also seen in Bacchus, 2005, which was painted at the same time as Blooming was being completed. At this point the scale becomes monumental, in a departure from square canvases, Twombly’s paintings are now on top of horizontal, rectangular backdrops. The colour palette also changes; it becomes more limited with a particular emphasis on red. The whole energy seems to have altered, the outlines are thicker and there is a sense that the work has been conducted faster and with more urgency. The final paintings at Pompidou are an acid green, fluorescent departure in the form of the Camino Real series from 2011, completed just before his death. The red remains omnipresent, although the highlighter green is almost the inverse of Twombly’s early, understated natural canvases from the beginning of his career.
A short metro ride away from the Pompidou Centre are two more Twombly exhibitions at the Gagosian. On the ground floor of the Parisian outpost of one of the world’s most successful commercial galleries is the presentation of Orpheus. This exhibition comprises paintings and works on paper from between 1968-1979 shown together for the first time. Orpheus was a character from Greek legend who persuaded Hades to return his wife Eurydice from the underworld. The one condition that Hades stipulated to Orpheus was that he must not look at his wife as she returned to the upper world. Orpheus however, simply could not resist but to look upon the face of Eurydice and thus he lost his wife for a second time. Twombly represented this tragic story in muted artworks that lack the pinks and yellows scattered across his work on show at the Pompidou. The work is largely grey and lifeless, all colour has been vanquished to the underworld, just like Eurydice. In The Veil of Orpheus, 1968, Twombly has mirrored the symphony of the same name by French composer Pierre Henry, who tore the score to mark the moment where Orpheus lost Eurydice for the second time. In other works Twombly scribbles with wax crayons on top of painted canvas and scrawls Orpheus across the images in Cyrillic alphabet in a display of disassociation.
Upstairs from Orpheus is a very different presentation of Twombly’s work. This exhibition is a sympathetic and intimate reflection on the late artist’s life and work by fellow Lexington native, Sally Mann. Remembered Light comprises both colour and black and light photographs by Mann of Twombly’s Lexington work space, where he returned every year. The images which were taken between 1999 span the end of the artist’s career and the period directly after. Mann’s photographs mirror the softness present in Twombly’s own Polaroid images. It is clear that Mann has a great appreciation for Twombly, a figure who she credits as being a mentor. Mann’s photographs are an observation inside the artist’s environment, which she has clearly left undisturbed. Across the gallery we can see palettes covered in thick blobs of paint as well as piles of letters and outstretched canvases pinned against the walls.
Paris is the obvious destination for any Twombly fanatic right now. Across the three exhibitions, the artist’s work is explored from every angle, shedding light on one of the most intriguing artists of the twentieth-century.
Cy Twombly is on display at Centre Pompidou Paris until 24 April
Cy Twombly: Orpheus is on display at Gagosian Paris until 18 February
Sally Mann Remembered Light: Cy Twombly in Lexington is on display at Gagosian Paris until 25 March