Cy Twombly’s show at MFA, Boston, explores his fascination with the Ancients


Cy Twombly was a bit of a vandal artist. He seemed intent on denigrating the great traditions of Western art. But what he ended up expressing – almost compulsively – was his ardent love for the tradition.

Twombly (1928-2011) was the most paradoxical of the twentieth century’s greats. On the one hand, he was a thorough modernist. With his clumsy, Brobdingnagian brushstrokes and penchant for finger-painting, he was heir to the abandonment of Jackson Pollock. And just like Willem de Kooning Seeking to retreat from his own facility by painting with his eyes closed (and often drunk), Twombly practiced for hours at night in the dark, trying to unlearn learning how to paint. After seeing one of Twombly’s earliest shows, critic Copland-Burg called his early paintings “disgusting”, “truly shocking” and “the worst exhibition I have ever seen in Chicago”—even as he was a begrudging admirer of them.

You can’t get any more modern than that.

However, there was another side to Twombly, expressed in his lifelong fascination with the cultures of ancient Greece and Rome, as well as Egypt and the Near East. He lived in Italy most of his life. His romantic affinity for the remnants of antiquity was at once carelessly and passionately committed. He said, “What I’m trying to do is that modern art is not disjointed, but something that has roots and traditions and continuity.”

Cy Twombly: Making the Past Present,” an exhibition at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, does what no museum has attempted before. Judiciously placing Twombly’s work alongside classical statuary and other relics of the ancient Mediterranean, the show reveals the nature and scope of his love of antiquity.

Just as Pollock’s drip paintings are physical evidence of a Dionysian dance around a canvas spread on the floor, Twombly’s paintings can seem like the aftermath of a ritual madness. It’s almost embarrassingly intimate—full of smudges, quirks, and scribbles. Yet you come across with a feeling of being left behind — as if you’ve somehow missed the hustle and were left to sift through the morning’s hangover.

There can be great emotion in this sensation, even arousal. Once upon a time, a Frenchwoman waited in an empty room for other visitors at Glorious Cy Twombly Gallery On the grounds of the Menil Group in Houston, Texas. When one of the guards returned, he found her standing naked In front of Twombly, a tribute to the Latin poet Catullus. “This painting makes me want to run around naked,” she wrote in the guestbook.

For centuries, people have felt the same stimulation among the ruins of ancient Greece and Rome. The Vandals and Visigoths must have felt this way; Donatello and Brunelleschi are no less. How can you outsmart the Pantheon or the Parthenon? How do you match “The Iliad” and “The Iliad”? There is pathos in every attempt. The Italian author wrote: “Every idea advanced is refuted by the Iliad.” Roberto Calasso. “The perfection of the first step makes any idea of ​​a gradual ascent absurd.”

Twombly, who was born in Lexington, Virginia, studied at Black Mountain Collegewhere he mingled with a coterie of avant-garde avant-gardes who would go on to revolutionize twentieth-century aesthetics, among them artist Robert Rauschenberg, composer John Cage and poet Charles Olson. He moved to Rome in 1957, after five years of traveling to Italy and North Africa with Rauschenberg on a scholarship from Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. On that first trip he had already begun collecting artifacts at flea markets, nurturing the sensibilities he had with the ancient world.

Twombly’s attitude was often horrifying. He was aware of the vast distance separating him from the ancient times. (But there can be great distances between lovers in the same bed, too.) He was not a scholar. He learned neither Greek nor Latin, and never mastered Italian. But he was a deep and avid reader of the classics (translated) and modern poetry by the likes of Rainer Maria Rilke, C.B. Cavafy, and Wallace Stevens. He collected classical statues (though not as an expert; many of his things were copies). And he traveled a lot.

The MFA offer is great. I feel like I’ve been waiting for this for a long time. He takes Twombly out of the emptiness of his contemporary reception, which made him dizzy lately at the mere mention of his name, bringing weight and dimension back to an uneven but always exciting body of work. organized by Christine Condoleonformer head of the Museum of Ancient Greece and Rome, the exhibition comes with a beautifully written catalog offering informed commentary by authors including Kondoleon, Ann Carson And Mary Jacob. There is also a small online gallery of photographs by Sally MannTwombly’s friend, Sally Mann and Cy Twombly: Remember the light. “

Twombly studied at School of Fine Arts Museum At Tufts University straight out of high school. Boston has one of the finest collections of classical art in the world, and Twombly’s love of antiquity was ignited by early encounters with a fleet Egyptian boat modelAnd ancient Iranian decorations and Greek and Roman statues in the museum across the street. The show, which opened at Los Angeles’ Getty Villa last year, comes at the end of a decade-long renovation MFA Galleries of Greek and Roman Art. So there is a sense of coming full circle.

I adore the Twombly carvings, which look like mysterious votive objects or ancient toys unearthed from desert tombs. In fact, they are improvised, nailed structures of wood, plaster and sometimes plastic leaves or flowers, painted white to give them an aged patina. It’s pretty preposterous, however, which has its own weird appeal. They are born, if you like, late.

Most of what we have salvaged from the classic past is in the form of fragments. living in Italy Amidst the ruins of World War II, Twombly embraced the aesthetic of fragments and rubble. His connection with the composer John Cage, who embraced chance and silence, helped him see the gaps and silences that ancient fragments might resonate as much as the things themselves. His works seem interconnected, as if each were part of a larger unit. (Calasso wrote: “Myth, like language, gives itself in every part of it.”)

Under the influence of ancient tombstones and tablets, and also the “spontaneous writing” of the Surrealists, Twombly embraced the idea that the written word, legible or otherwise, could be thought figuratively. His scrawled words resemble annotations, footnotes, and comments scribbled in margins by drunken medieval monks. Individual names – “Apollo”, “Venus”, “Sappho”, “Catullus” – conjure whole myths and whole bodies of literature.

In a large horizontal panel titled “Orpheus”, the giant O takes up the left part of the canvas. The remaining letters, mostly smudged and erased, spread to the right and down, like notes descending on a musical stave. There is a sense of resignation or fading in the formation of the text, as if the word is not worth completing, the gods have long departed. But the placement of the letters also evokes Orpheus himself’s descent into the underworld to retrieve his beloved Eurydice.

in Rilke’s “Sonnets to Orpheus”, Orpheus is the figure who may unite the dead with the living through song. Twombly fell in love with Rilke’s work at Black Mountain, where he and Rauschenberg became friends Uncommonly involvedand where Charles Olson was teaching about the relationship between the soul and spontaneity in poetry. One Greek word meaning “lover” Spinelus, can also be translated as “he who breathes in the other”. Thus the giant “O” plate becomes the sign of the song or the open mouth of a singer. Kondoleon displayed “Orpheus” next to a broken theatrical mask from ancient Rome, his mouth open as if in song, the air of 20 centuries flowing through him.

Orpheus was transformed into a swan after his death. So Twombly’s “Orpheus” is associated with his many works dealing with “Leda and the Swan,” including a fine 1962 canvas featuring a collection of marks in pencils, crayons, and oil paint. Flashes of pink and red indicate spillage and possibly violence. Again we get to the place late, in awe or dismay.

The incredibly poignant recent exhibition contains works related to the yard. Among them is the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts.Battle summary. The painting’s airy figures, resembling a battle diagram hastily drawn on a blackboard, look great in front of a “Thermopylae,” a cast-bronze statue resembling a helmet pierced with arrows (with flowered tips) and, as Kondoleon points out, an ancient burial mound. “Thermopylae” Greetings to the Spartan soldiers who repelled the Persians at that famous mountain pass, and nodded their heads in Cavafy’s poem with the same name.

At the other side of the room, a tall ancient funerary monument shows a naked Greek athlete, young and muscular, sculpted in relief. Next to her, a collage of Twombly evokes Adonis, whose name is synonymous with masculine beauty. In the myth, Venus fell in love with Adonis before he was torn to pieces by a wild boar. (Theme has been sketched several times by Titianwhose later works, full of possibilities for change and an awareness of death, tap into the sensibility often associated with Twombly.) Twombly’s collage includes words from Percy Bysshe Shelley”Adonishis elegy for John Keats, who had recently died in Rome at the age of 25.

Twombly has returned annually to Virginia for his last 20 years. But he died, as Keats, in Rome, at the age of 83. I think what characterizes his work most strongly is his acute awareness of mortality. He understood that humans may be unique among animals in having foreknowledge of their own death. This foreknowledge means that we, like Orpheus, live in two worlds, and it leads us to create the illusion that our lives have plots and meanings.

Yet Twombly recognized, I think, that life is plotless, that meaninglessness prevails—hence, perhaps, his impulse to distort and subvert. In this, he was flawlessly modern. But he wanted to live inside the contradiction of our double consciousness, to dwell in the contradiction. So he savored the wonderful beauty, fun, and exciting heat of both the ancient past and our one and only life. And with his own version of the Orpheus song, he tried to bring them closer together.

The Making of the Past Present: Cy Twombly Through May 7 at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.


An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that Kate Nissen helped organize the MFA show. Christine Condoleon was the sole coordinator. The story has been corrected.

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