Cy Twombly passed away yesterday in Rome, quietly ending one of the most admired art careers of our time.
Alongside six decades of singularly idiosyncratic artistic output, the painter has left behind as legacy a touching 16mm filmic portrait by artist Tacita Dean. Completed only this year, it premieres at the Dulwich Picture Gallery alongside an exhibition bringing together works by Twombly with those from seventeenth century painter Nicholas Poussin.
The delicate, abstract form of Twombly’s work, in all its hesitancy, holds its own against the disciplined technique adopted by Poussin. The contemporary artist once declared “I would’ve liked to have been Poussin, if I’d had a choice, in another time”. However, this classical painter is not the only master deserving of comparison with Twombly. Like many of his forebears, Twombly was drawn to historical and mythological subjects. Two works titled School of Athens (1961 and 1964) referenced Raphael‘s masterpiece fresco at the Vatican.
Three studies from the Temeraire (1998-1999), a triptych in oil on the gunship that fought at the Battle of Trafalgar, was shown alongside JMW Turner‘s The Fighting Temeraire (1839) at the National Gallery in London in 2000.
But topic matter is not alone in aligning Twombly with these masters, for the painter left this world having definitively written himself into the history of painting. Steadfastly original, Twombly’s early work figured a brave departure from the dominant school of Abstract Expressionism. His scrawling handwriting and graffiti-like mark making direct on wet paint brought moments of fragility into a time when American art was prevailingly bold and reflecting the nation’s post WWII strength and influence.
This original technique developed into one capable of capturing the frantic atmosphere of Italian markets, the desire and longing of mythical lovers, the melancholy of losing a loved friend and, like the work above, touching upon the meditation through abstraction later associated with Minimalism.
In the summer of 2008, Tate Modern presented a major retrospective exhibition to coincide with the artist’s eightieth birthday. ‘Cy Twombly: Cycles and Seasons’ was fondly curated by Tate’s director Sir Nick Serota, a long-term supporter of the artist, alongside Nicholas Cullinan; the artist himself travelled to London from Italy to oversee the hang. Cullinan went on to curate this year’s ‘Twombly and Poussin: Arcadian Painters’ at Dulwich Picture Gallery; a fitting exhibition to celebrate the 200th anniversary of England’s first ever purpose-built public art gallery.
A selection of works from the Dulwich Picture Gallery exhibition:
The characteristic whiteness of Twombly’s canvases of this period could be attributed to the bleached landscape and unending lightness of the sky over the sea in Italy. As Twombly declared in an interview with critic David Sylvester “the sea is white three quarters of the time, just white — early morning. Only in the fall does it get blue, because the haze is gone. The Mediterranean…is always just white, white, white”.
This work’s title is taken from an unfinished poem by French symbolist writer Stéphane Mallarmé and shows sections of the work transcribed in the artist’s distinctive handwriting directly onto the painted ground. Marked by its surrounding space, one sentence in English from Twombly himself stands clear of the canvas: “I have known the NAKEDNESS of my scattered dreams”.
A departure from sparse and monochromatic canvases, this work epitomises Twombly’s dexterity with colour. The violence of shades at the bottom left of the work is dominated by a blood red, yet oppressed from above by a sweeping area of whites and greys. The work figures the drowning of both the lovers depicted in the eponymous Greek myth. Perhaps too the death of Marlowe, who wrote the poem from this classical myth, and was stabbed to death in Deptford in 1953.
The Tate exhibition spanned Twombly’s career, from the sculptures produced in his twenties following travels across Europe and North Africa with fellow artist Robert Rauschenberg, through to paintings executed in 2005 in response to Homer’s Iliad. Filling the rooms of the gallery’s east wing, the works could not fail to impress even Twombly’s doubters, unfolding an extraordinary lifetime of a steadfastly identifiable style across a range of media and subject. Last year, when the Gagosian opened a gallery in Paris, its inaugural show — ‘Camino Real’ — was an exhibition of new paintings by Twombly. Despite the Gagosian’s illustrious catalogue of contemporary artists, Twombly proved most capable of delivering the energy and individuality necessary to launch the space with style.
The vivacity and intensity manifest in these recent works, and by extension, exhibitions, reflected the defiance with which Cy Twombly forged ahead in the final few years of his life. The artist resolutely proved his work significant to a new generation, just as it had undeniably chimed with developments in art previously. Despite this enduring relevance, Twombly never strayed from his own techniques and interests during the many decades that made up his career. He remained throughout, a true original.
Click here to view a collection of works by Cy Twombly on Artfinder.