Cy Twombly, the painter of Olympus at the Centre Pompidou

 Paris  |  6 February 2017  |  AMA  |  Tweet  |  LinkedIn

Over 140 works including the painter’s three major cycles… The Cy Twombly retrospective on at the Musée National d’Art Moderne – Centre Pompidou is a key exhibition. Recommended (highly)!

By a happy coincidence, the Cy Twombly exhibition was launched at the end of November 2016 while on the other side of the English Channel, an exhibition opened on Rauschenberg – the other “TW”, as Roland Barthes nicknamed him. The two lovers, the two companions, celebrated on the same day by the opening of two retrospectives. One at the Tate (London), the other at the Centre Pompidou (Paris).

Robert Rauschenberg had a decisive impact on the career of Cy Twombly; he was the one who encouraged Twombly to enrol at the prestigious Black Mountain College (North Carolina) before the pair combed through Europe and North Africa together for the first time, in 1952.

From Lexington to Rome

This moment – this shift in the history of the young Twombly – is the starting point of the retrospective at the Centre Pompidou. Curator of the exhibition, Jonas Storsve explains: “This is the first complete retrospective to be dedicated to Cy Twombly, going from 1951 to his death in 2011.”

The exhibition begins with the painter’s first experiments from the start of the 1950s, using viscous cream-white industrial paint hollowed by lead-pencil annotations – works that stand out for the economy of their means. During this period, Cy Twombly still lived in Lexington (Virginia), before he left for the Black Mountain College and the other side of the Atlantic.

It was not until the end of the 1950s, or even the start of the 1960s, that colour appeared blatantly in Twombly’s work, as a result of his abandonment of industrial paint for less fluid coloured paints in tubes. “This was a very carnal period in the painter’s work, as expressed by the paintings themselves,” points out Jonas Storsve. Twombly settled in Italy where he would live for nearly forty years. His favoured themes emerged, marked by his immediate environment and his readings. “This period is placed under the reign of Eros, joined shortly after by Thanatos” – an inclination illustrated by School of Athens (1961) and Dutch Interior (1962). This was also a period of subtle, erudite allusions, first to fellow painters such as Poussin and Miró, but also to literary figures including Goethe, Herodotus, Homer, Horace, Keats, Mallarmé, Ovid, Rilke, Sappho, Spenser and Virgil, all cited by Twombly.

Thanatos would appear in his first cycle dedicated to the Battle of Troy and Achilles: Achilles Mourning the Death of Patroclus (1962) and The Vengeance of Achilles (1962). These two paintings are shown opposite one another.

Three core cycles

Readers will have grasped that the exhibition follows a chronological course. According to Jonas Storsve, “this retrospective, very classical in its form, is organised around the painter’s three major cycles which have never been shown in France.”

The first, Nine Discourses on Commodus (1963), conserved at the Guggenheim Bilbao Museo, is made up of nine grey panels, crossed by frenetic stripes, scratches and lines in white and red. The work meditates on cruelty, madness and the assassination of the Roman emperor Aurelius Commodus (161–192 A.D.), used by Twombly as a metaphor of the 1960s, a period marked by the Cuban missile crisis and the assassination  of J. F. Kennedy. Twombly showed concern about the way the world was moving, but the world failed to understand him. When Nine Discourses on Commodus was exhibited at Leo Castelli in 1964, at an era when painting was malingering, vanquished by Pop Art and minimalism, it turned out to be a critical and commercial washout. Too esoteric, too many references, too disorderly, the cycle failed to win fans.

The second cycle marks a return to Greek mythology, especially the Battle of Troy: Fifty Days at Iliam (1978)Hellenists will note a mistake in the title (“Iliam” rather than “Ilium”), which was deliberate on the part of the painter, for the sake of sonority. “A hell of a slice of painting,” remarks Jonas Storsve. The immense canvases making up Fifty Days at Iliam are shown in a breath-taking chapel-style space featuring narrow openings. Beautiful lighting and an absence of protective Plexiglas enhance the experience. Conserved at the Philadelphia Museum of Art since 1989, Fifty Days at Iliam is, here, being presented in Europe for the first time.

In this cycle, the urgency felt by the painter reaches a climax. “Some parts are produced by hand, quite simply because Twombly didn’t take the time to pick up a brush. He stayed motionless in front of his canvases for long periods before the right composition came to mind, and at that point, he had to get it down fast, so as to not lose sight of his initial plan,” explains the curator.

What these two cycles also reveal is the depth of Cy Twombly’s painting: a syncretism combining American painting, its techniques and dimensions, with Mediterranean culture. And the last cycle, Coronation of Sesostris (2000), also goes along with this tendency. It integrates – in a way that is not common in Twombly’s paintings – narrative elements, such as the Egyptian god Râ, references to Sesostris I, and poets from antiquity, Sappho et Alcman.

The exhibition does not try to go against the obvious: bringing together Cy Twombly’s three main cycles – which is nonetheless a feat. The first two cycles are conserved in public institutions while Coronation of Sesostris belongs to the Pinault collection. But other landmarks in Twombly’s work are also present: his austere black paintings, created in response to the emergence of conceptual and minimal art, the Quattro Stagioni, his last more colourful series, Bacchus, Blooming and Camino Real. “The end of Cy Twombly’s life is as monumental as it is intimate,” comments Jonas Storsve.

In addition to these major focuses, the curator has also included a number of works for the sake of pleasure: lesser-known works such as a small series of seven – originally eight – drawings in coloured chalk, the Untitled (Grottaferrata), given by Cy Twombly in 1957 to his friend Betty Stokes. Indeed, the exhibition leaves a large space for drawings – can this be a result of Jonas Storsve being a curator in the MNAM’s graphic-arts department? – these “graphic rashes” described by Roland Barthes in his essay on Twombly’s paintings, “Non Multa Sed Multum”.

However, this prominence of Twombly’s paintings and drawings should not overshadow the rest of the exhibition – namely photographs, for example, the remarkable Lemons, Gaeta (1998), dry prints on cardboard, and above all sculptures, which occupy a special place in the show. “Rather than incorporating the sculptures into our chronological route, we wanted to gather them opposite the Parisian panorama.” A juxtaposition that ends up being a little dense, but behind which the Parisian sky stands out superbly. Twombly’s sculptures are remarkable, navigating between archaism and minimalism, composed of salvaged objects slathered in white. “White paint is my marble,” he once said.

Writing, its gesture and trace

In Twombly’s work, writing plays on the notion of its intelligibility. Sometimes stripped of meaning and reduced to a tracing denoting the act of writing itself, inscriptions also stand in for representation, with colours and their arrangement used to convey sensations, the painter’s moods. This is the case of Achilles Mourning the Death of Pratoclus, where text replaces representation, and angrily strewn blotches reflect the emotion of Twombly, and above all, that of Achilles.

Figurative elements play on the same rhetoric. Flowers in the Blooming series, almost indiscernible, dissolved into the painting, express a sensation, an emotion, as well as the flowers themselves. Often, in the works of Twombly, the subject is intellectualised, feelings are materialised.

This does not detract from his love of the written mark, no doubt nourished by his travels in Rome, Europe, North Africa. This love is visible throughout his work, in which the artist’s own creation process is always manifest. Twombly was fascinated by the history of human marks, gestures, from primordial incisions to calligraphy: gestures that he repeated infinitely.

Cy Twombly fled to Italy to find this inspiration – and perhaps to also keep a distance from the sirens of his times: pure instinct as advocated by the exponents of abstract expressionism – Twombly himself is associated with the second generation, in the wake of Pollock, Rothko or Willem de Kooning –, or the stripping down of the work to its material existence alone. And yet Twombly flirted with these concepts: in his sculpture, which plays with minimalism despite the roughness of surfaces, and in his paintings, which produce the illusion of instinct. Simulation of a child’s strokes, with sensitivity and erudite knowledge. “The reflex is culture,” as Roland Barthes once wrote.




“TW” at Larry’s

The gallery Gagosian has developed a habit of opening its new spaces with exhibitions on Cy Twombly. This was the case in London in 2004 (“Ten Paintings and a Sculpture”), in Rome in 2007 (“Three Notes from Salalah”), in Athens in 2009 (“Leaving Paphos Ringed with Waves”) and in Paris in 2010 (“Camino Real”). Not to mention “The Last Paintings” and “Photographs”, two exhibitions that travelled to Los Angeles, Hong Kong, London and New York in 2012. And with the retrospective currently on at the Centre Pompidou, the Parisian branch of the gallery couldn’t miss the opportunity. Its “Orpheus” exhibition thus shows paintings and drawings on the fertile theme of the Greek hero. “Orpheus brings beauty and order to Dionysus,” we can read on many of the works on show.



“Cy Twombly”, until 24 April. Centre Pompidou, Gallery 1, Level 6. Place Georges-Pompidou, Paris 75004.

« Orpheus », until 18 February. Gagosian Gallery, 4 rue de Ponthieu, Paris VIIIe.


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