Faced with Cy Twombly’s artwork, a first-time viewer may be ushered into an uncomfortable sensation caused by the difficulty of understanding his work – how do you interpret such an obscure mingling of scrawlings and shapes? Yet despite living in the baffling and organic world of abstraction, Twombly’s art stems from the deep emotive and mental seeds of history and the self.
American-born Twombly studied art at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston (1947), at Washington and Lee University in Lexington (1949-50), Art Students League (1950), and Black Mountain College in North Carolina (1951). His travel experiences were extensive (including South America, Spain, North Africa and Italy) and aided in the development of his personal artistic concepts. Italy and its classical sources in particular became a point of reference for Twombly, the incorporation of mythological and literary references into his artwork marked a pregnant artistic awareness and maturity.
…hazy drippings of red become a mingling of orgiastic wine and tragic blood.
Upon Twombly’s return to the United States he served as a cryptologist in the U.S. army, resulting in the incorporation of symbols and calligraphic markings into his art. The recipient of numerous awards, perhaps one of his crowning achievements was receiving an invitation to paint one of the Louvre’s gallery ceilings in 2010, becoming the first artist to be granted such an honour since Georges Braque in 1953. After long years battling cancer, Twombly died in his long-time home in Rome, at the age of 83, on July 5 2011.
Months ago I had the chance to see three out of Twombly’s eight untitled panels of Bacchus. One of Twombly’s most impressive aspects is that on every level his work is “big”. The canvases are enormous, completely filling a room from top to bottom, leaving a small space in between for the viewer. His signature scrawls across the panels are intensified by the burning red of the loops against the white canvas. Having seen a production of Euripides’s The Bacchae earlier that year, I immediately felt the panels captured the enormous intensity and frenzy surrounding the mythological god Bacchus. Twombly’s hazy drippings of red from the swirls thus become a mingling of orgiastic wine and tragic blood.
One of the characteristics of abstract art is that it becomes independent of the world, divorcing itself from the daily visual experience – Cy Twombly’s art is just that.
An exhibition of Twombly’s work is showing at Dulwich Picture Gallery until 25 September.
Images courtesy of Cy Twombly