Galleria Galatea, Turin
Private Collection, Turin
Acquired from the above by the present owner in the late 1970s
Heiner Bastian, Cy Twombly: Paintings 1952-1976 Volume I, Berlin 1978, p. 43.
Cy Twombly’s breathtaking painting Untitled (Rome) of 1964 brings together in perfect concert all the spectacular drama, enveloping scale, stunning colour, sublime confluence of line and form, and sheer emotional urgency that characterise the most irresistible achievements of his prodigious oeuvre. Executed in the artist’s thirty-sixth year, this major triumph of his groundbreaking 1960s output belongs to a critical moment in his long and illustrious career. Created in Rome, Twombly’s beloved adopted home, it was acquired in Italy forty-five years ago and has remained in the same important private European collection ever since. Never before exhibited publically, Untitled (Rome)’s monumental scale, surpassed by only one other work of 1964, sets it apart as among the most physically impressive canvases of Twombly’s entire canon. The canvas spans in excess of two by two and-a-half meters, and to stand before it first-hand is to enter an experiential arena limited only by the beholder’s imagination.
Untitled (Rome) precisely distils Twombly’s revolutionary idiom, combining ethereal strokes of graphite, brilliantly coloured graffito lines, and visceral clumps of impasto to conjure the suggestion of a plethora of influence and remembrance. In contrast to paintings of the preceding 1961-63 period, which frequently took a specific Classical myth as their inspiration, Untitled (Rome) embodies what Roland Barthes termed Twombly’s “Mediterranean effect”: a topology of references constituting “an enormous complex of memories and sensations… a historical, mythological, poetic culture, this whole life of forms, colors and light which occurs at the frontier of the terrestrial landscape and the plains of the sea” (Roland Barthes, ‘The Wisdom of Art’ in: Nicola Del Roscio, Ed., Writings on Cy Twombly, Munich 2002, p. 19). It is a work of art that exists in and of itself, encapsulating Heiner Bastian’s description of Twombly’s 1961-65 corpus; “Everything about the paintings… above all, their permeation with antiquity and the Mediterranean world – sets them apart from the larger body of artistic theory of the latter half of this century” (Heiner Bastian, Cy Twombly, Catalogue Raisonné of the Paintings, 1961-65, Vol. II, Munich 1993, p. 21).
The composition beautifully unites two pillars of Twombly’s practice, painting and drawing, in terms simultaneously as emphatic as they are economical. The delicate pencil strokes connote an essential and sensitive linear architecture that proves an unlikely yet precise counterbalance to the explosive passages of vibrant colour. Indicating a demarcation of the composition into three vertical sections, the sharply incised horizontal and vertical graphite lines suggest both the design of a triptych, and even more specific formal iconography, such as the raised central platform or step that is common to Renaissance triptych altarpiece paintings that present a central protagonist, elevated above their supplicants. Moreover, Twombly’s composition continues the unremittingly free association between painting and language, with a short vertical line of text sitting above the central white form, which is intended to be virtually indecipherable but which could read “A Lesson’s end.” The indeterminate yet vibrant white form at the centre of the composition comprises a richly aggregated matrix of looped marks; impasto oil paint squeezed, scratched and gouged in repeated circular lines. This woven mass both recalls Frank O'Hara’s 1955 description of Twombly’s work: “a bird seems to have passed through the impasto with cream-colored screams and bitter claw-marks… this new development makes the painting itself the form” (Frank O'Hara, 'Cy Twombly,' ARTnews, vol. 53, no. 9, January 1955, p. 46); as well as evidently anticipating the looped mark-making of the revered ‘blackboard’ paintings that were to come later in the decade.
Twombly had first moved to Italy seven years earlier in 1957, establishing a studio in Rome that overlooked the Colosseum. In 1959 he married Tatiana Franchetti in New York, thereby formally becoming integrated into his wife’s Italian family. In early 1960 the couple moved into a grand new home in a seventeenth-century Palazzo on the Via di Monserrato in Rome and Twombly’s life became infused with the antiquarian splendour and sensually overwhelming experience of the heart of the city among Classical stimuli and evocative urban topography. As Nicholas Cullinan has described, “To encounter the past is to put into question the present. This sense of awe and perplexity at overlaid tenses and times and encountering places only previously known in the imagination…offered for Twombly a palimpsest of past, present and future; layered, intertwined and interpenetrating each other like archaeological strata” (Nicholas Cullinan in: Exhibition Catalogue, London, Tate Modern, Cy Twombly: Cycles and Seasons, 2008, p. 74). Concurrently Twombly’s style became increasingly visceral, with thick and florid colour enunciating Classical references, such as in the Ferragosto paintings executed in the summer of 1961. Working in his studio on Piazza del Biscione through 1962, he became more focused on mythological subjects, as demonstrated through his paintings Birth of Venus, Hero and Leander, Leda and the Swan, and Vengeance of Achilles. These thematic developments culminated at the end of 1963 with a series of works called Nine Discourses on Commodus, an epic portrait of the violently megalomaniac Roman emperor. He spent the Spring of 1964 in Greece and during July and August he worked in Castel Gardena in the Dolomites on a series of drawings which he entitled Notes from a Tower. When he returned to Rome he painted the major triptych Ilium (One Morning Ten Years Later), the extraordinary second version of School of Athens, now in the Museum Ludwig, Cologne, and the masterful Il Parnasso. It was in this context that Twombly created the present work; a crescendo of the visceral imagery, compositional economy, and graphic intelligence that define a staggering innovation and inimitable abstract aesthetic.
Approaching the Classical tradition broadly, Untitled (Rome) magnificently and concisely illustrates the dialectic underlying classical art, as outlined by Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche in his defining work The Birth of Tragedy (1872). Beyond an historical analysis, Nietzsche aimed to identify universal principles of tragic art, which he saw as stemming from the tension between ordered Apollonian self-concern and Dionysian states of destructive communal abandon. Nietzsche’s description of this interplay speaks to the visual encounter of Untitled (Rome): “And behold! Apollo could not live without Dionysos… Let us now imagine how the ecstatic sounds of the Dionysiac festival, with its ever more seductive, magical melodies, entered this artificially dammed-up world founded on semblance and measure, how in these melodies all the unmeasurable excess in nature found expression in pleasure, suffering and knowledge, in a voice which rose in intensity to a penetrating shout; let us imagine how little the psalm-singing artist of Apollo and the ghostly sound of his harp could mean in comparison to this daemonic popular song!... The individual, with all his limits and measure, became submerged here in the self-oblivion of the Dionysiac condition and forgot the statutes of Apollo. Excess revealed itself as the truth; contradiction, bliss born of pain, spoke of itself from out of the heart of nature” (Friedrich Nietzsche, ‘The Birth of Tragedy’ in: Raymond Geuss and Ronald Speirs, Eds., Nietzsche: The Birth of Tragedy and Other Writings, Cambridge 1999, p. 27).
More than any other painter of his generation, Twombly captured the aesthetic of excess (though always in tension with restraint). The proto-architectural drawing along the horizon of Untitled (Rome) can thus also be seen to function as a minimal theatrical set – an Apollonian backdrop – before which violently rendered paint marks perform. Its ruled lines abstractly bespeak a stepped wall or edifice; the pencil a necessary foil to bright and explosively painted oil pigment. Hand prints in various states of resolve – sometimes with a palm, but elsewhere dotted or dragged marks by errant fingertips – showcase Twombly’s tactile painting style. Elsewhere, these personal gestures dissolve into anonymous energetic brushstrokes, which constitute bright knots of crimson red or brilliant white. The palette utilised in Untitled (Rome) can significantly be found on ancient pottery and statuary from the classical Mediterranean: bright orange and red, cobalt blue, yellow, black and white, are all pigments that archaeologists have determined originally adorned the now purest white marble statues and temples.
By its recourse to Classical history, the immediacy of its painted finger marks, and insistently representational composition, Untitled (Rome) evinces how Twombly differed from contemporary Abstract Expressionism. Nevertheless, it equally illustrates Thomas Crow’s observation that Twombly and the Abstract Expressionists were affined by having “extinguished explicit figuration the better to retain the formal characteristics of heroicizing art from the past: large scale, expansiveness of effect, the rhetoric of ambition and risk… In this sense, their art was old-fashioned in its ambition, a throwback to the seventeenth century… when art could confidently summon up belief in Vir Heroicus Sublimis” (Thomas Crow, Modern Art in the Common Culture, New Haven 1996, p. 191). The immersive dimensions, arresting colour scheme, and aggressively painted surface of Untitled (Rome) unmistakably convey its ambitions as a truly heroic work of art.
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