Cy Twombly and Greece (JONAS STORSVE)

Cy Twombly and Greece (JONAS STORSVE)

Greece comes up again and again in Cy Twombly’s biography. It is Greece as the physical country that he visited frequently. But it is also ancient Greece, the mythical and literary country that inspired him very early in his artistic career. This ancient. mythical Greece may well have fired his imagination from the time he was a child, since his sister, four years his elder, studied ancient languages. including Greek for six years,


The American artist first traveled to Greece in 1960, three years after he had moved to Italy. It was to be the first of many trips that took him not only to Athens but also to the islands. It is easy to imagine what a shock he must have felt upon his first visit to the National Museum of Athens at a time when he was already a recognized artist.


Even though subjects such as Leda and the Swan. The Birth of Venus, and Hero and Leander began appearing in his work as early as 1960, it was after his reading of the Iliad that his passion for Greek mythology made itself truly felt. In 1962, he worked simultaneously on two major paintings devoted to Achilles, the hero for whom he had a particular passion. These large-size works. Vengeance of Achilles and Achilles Mourning the Death of Patroclus, were preceded by numerous studies. The Catalogue Raisonne of Drawings, vol. Ili, mentions fourteen preparatory sketches for Vengeance of Achilles. They clearly show the phallic shape of the figure to be the letter A: A for Achilles!


Cy Twombly’s interest in the Iliad endured, inspiring his great 1964 triptych Ilium (One Morning Ten Years Later), but it was not until the late 1970s, with his reading of the 18th-century translation of Homer by the British poet Alexander Pope, that he produced his greatest masterpiece in relation to the Greek world. He completed work on Fifty Days at lliam in his summer studio in Bassano in Teverina in 1978. For the title of this ton-painting cycle. Twombly altered the spelling of the word “Ilium,” one of the ancient names of the city of Troy, because he preferred the sonority of iliam. And, to his mind, the letter A referred to Achilles, as was already evident in Vengeance of Achilles


As we can see from the works on paper presented in this exhibition, it was mainly during the 1970s that Twombly drew on Greek mythology for inspiration. It is worth recalling the atmosphere at the time. For any self-respecting artist, painting had become impossible. In fact, it was acceptable for an artist to do just anything but paint shoot yourself in the arm. lacerate yourself with rose thorns, burn your body in the sun, take walks in nature, move tons of soil. But paint? Heavens, no! So, the poor painters still intent on painting were left to seek subterfuges Georg Baselitz decided in 1969 to paint his figures upside down, while Per Kirkeby opted for a unique format, 122 x 122 cm. and Masonite, an industrial material, and in a text with perhaps more than a tinge of caricature commented on artists who painted only on Sundays or only with their left hand.


And Cy Twombly? He turned to writing, which became a new form of painting for him. Between 1972 and 1979, the catalogue raisonne mentions only eighteen works on canvas (including the monumental cycle of Fifty Days at Wim that engrossed him for two years) and the subject of many of these was related to Greek culture and history.


He produced many more works on paper during this period, some of which are on sheets of paper of imposing dimensions In 1975, he began a series of drawings/ paintings on the gods of Olympus. He wrote their names, list and their attributes the forms in which they manifest themselves and the plants and animals associated with them Twombly finished two of these, dedicated respectively to Apollo and Venus (p. 104 and 94). He made a larger Apollo, and began to work on others, with Hera, Mars, Venus, and Dionysus as the subjects but did not finish them. We know of this work because he reused these sheets of paper four years later for three of his monumental drawing dedicated to Orpheus (144-146), dated 1979. The names of the deities can still be vaguely seen through the paper from the other side.


But Twombly was not only interested in Greek mythology and history. There are the geographic places too. During the period in the summer of 1961 that he spent on Mykonos, he made a substantial number of drawings that he called Delian Odes, after the small neighboring island of Delos, famous for its Terrace of the Lions, that he had visited the previous year Many years later, in 1982. he devoted two triptychs on paper to the island of Naxos, with figures that seem to evoke lotus flowers. Oddly. these drawings were executed in his summer studio in Bassano in Teverina, perhaps in remembrance of the Greek island.


Among the sculptures with Greek subjects: Thermopylae, 1991, holds a special place. It was after a visit to the site of the famous Battle of the Thermopylae that Twombly made this tribute to Leonidas and his three hundred Spartans who attempted in vain to arrest the Persian army of Xerxes I in 480 BC. On the sculpture, whose shape calls to mind a tumulus or a funerary stele, the artist engraved verses of the Greek poet from Alexandria, Constantin Cavafy, subtly transforming the mortuary monument into an object of meditation: “Honor to those who in the life they lead define and guard a Thermopylae”

With his series Leaving Paphos Ringed with Waves (2009), Twombly’s last paintings in relation to the Greek world, he returns to one of the myths of the birth Aphrodite, that situates it near the famous Cypriot city. This series inaugurated the Gagosian Gallery in Athens the year of its creation


Last but not least, one should not forget the ceiling the artist created in 2010 for the Louvre’s Salle des Bronzes with its immense blue sky punctuated by circles and the names of illustrious Greek sculptors. Testimony once again to Twombly’s debt to Greek civilization.





Divine dialogues

Cy Twombly & Greek Antiquity

Museum of Cycladic Art





Follow Me on Instagram