Sarah Brooks on the recent Cy Twombly exhibition at the Tate Modern
Cy Twombly is an American artist whose work has long fascinated art critics. Twombly emerged after the Abstract Expressionism movement of the 1940s and 50s and his work is renowned for an intense engagement with light, alongside a love of poetry and a fascination for classical mythology. Twombly represents these qualities in his work through an intertwined use of words and images and his frequent decision to write and scribble across many of his paintings is both innovative and thought-provoking. Personally, I find Twombly’s expressive use of colour and the way in which he cleverly contrasts it alongside areas of blank canvas in order to create space, particularly inspirational.
Twombly’s famous series of paintings Quattro Stagionio or Four Seasons, of which he painted two versions, symbolically use colour to represent the changing seasons. Whilst Primavera (spring) features energetic splashes of red and yellow paint in curved boat forms (a mythological reference), which create an uplifting sense of vitality and new life, Estate (summer) is much more mellow in its use of whites, creams and yellows. Such colours simultaneously indicate the peace and tranquillity associated with a lazy summer afternoon and the notion of stifling heat, given the presence of a white mist across the painting. Automno (autumn) is like Primavera in its exuberant use of rich colours, except this time there is a whole multitude of new colours such as browns, greens and purples, which, when featured alongside the bare branches Twombly has also painted, create a vivid sense that autumn is the season when nature is stripped of its colour. The last painting in this series Inverno (winter) continues with this theme as large areas of black paint are harshly contrasted with areas of white and yellow to give an overall image of winter that is both bleak and unforgiving.
Another particularly powerful set of Twombly’s paintings are the Ferragosto series which were painted in August 1961 during the oppressive heat of the summer in Rome. It is captivating to watch the progression of these canvases as they become increasingly saturated with paint, growing heavier and heavier to culminate in the awe inspiring, Ferragosto V. This painting is awash not only with vivid colours and paint that has been smeared, spattered and dripped in thick layers, but it also explodes with phallic imagery, a theme which has been prevalent throughout the whole series. The title Ferragosto is aptly derived from the words Feriae Augusti, a festival during Roman times that celebrated fertility and maturity in addition to the honouring of gods and goddesses associated with harvests and the changing of seasons. As one views the series of paintings in succession, a definite sense of urgent and ripe maturity is projected as Twombly’s brushstrokes become more fierce, rapid and expressive.
Whilst Twombly is known for his large-scale canvases which incorporate a variety of different media simultaneously, what he is undoubtedly less well known for are the sculptures he has devised. At an illuminating exhibition the Tate Modern held over the summer entitled “Cy Twombly: Cycles and Season,” it was interesting to see a selection of Twombly’s sculptures displayed alongside his canvases. A particular favourite of mine, Untitled 2001, featured a white wooden box with what appeared to be a collection of brightly coloured plastic bags placed on top and stuffed with plaster. Twombly’s placing of these brightly coloured objects created an interesting juxtaposition with the white below and the overall effect was a refreshing change from the vast and scrawling canvases that were the main features of the exhibition.
At the exhibition I must admit I found myself trying to unravel the meaning of the many childish scribbles that litter his canvases. Whilst some are immediately obvious, as they are lines of poetry or references to myths, the majority are illegible and appear to have been scribbled on in a great hurry. As these scribbles frequently appear to merge into drawings, one begins to sense that most of the writing on Twombly’s canvases is not meant to be read and understood in the way in which one usually approaches words. Instead, in works such as Poems to the Sea, where lines of written poetry appear to signify waves, Twombly’ s scribbles need to be appreciated for their pictorial quality and the way in which they break down the boundaries between words and images. In this sense, Twombly is definitely an innovative artist, yet it is his vivid, energetic and symbolic use of colour in paintings such as Quattro Stagioni, which appeals to me the most. Combined alongside blank canvas space and a vast array of brushstroke techniques, it is evident that Twombly is an exhilarating artist of so many different and compelling dimensions.