Lot 30
  • 30

Cy Twombly

4,000,000 - 6,000,000 GBP
4,069,000 GBP
bidding is closed


  • Cy Twombly
  • Crimes of Passion I
  • dated MCMXXXXXX
  • pencil, wax crayon and oil on canvas


The Turtle Gallery, Rome

Heiner Friedrich, Cologne

Thordis Möller, Cologne

Gagosian Gallery, New York

Erich Marx, Berlin

Private Collection, Milan

Sale: Sotheby’s, New York, Contemporary Art Evening Auction, 13 November 2012, Lot 23

Acquired directly from the above by the present owner


Berne, Kunsthalle Bern; and Munich, Lenbachhaus, Cy Twombly: Pictures 1953-1972 . 1973, np, no 7 illustrated, (incorrect dimensions)

Dusseldorf, Städtische Kunsthalle; and Baden-Baden, Staatliche Kunsthalle, surreality - visual reality, 1924-1974: the countless images of life , 1974-75, p. 26, no. 364, illustrated in color 


Exhibition Catalogue, Rome, Galleria La Tartaruga, Cy Twombly, 1961, n.p., illustrated (incorrect dimensions) 

Heiner Bastian, Cy Twombly: Bilder/ Paintings 1952-1976, Zurich 1978, n. p., no. 29, illustrated in colour

Heiner Bastian, Ed., Cy Twombly: Catalogue Raisonné of the Paintings, 1948-1960, Vol. I, Munich 1992, p. 221, no. 137, illustrated in colour

Catalogue Note

Exploding with florid marks and libidinal power, Cy Twombly’s Crimes of Passion I is a masterwork utterly consumed by the classical theme of Eros. Graphic clusters of breasts and priapic symbols start and stutter across the canvas’ expanse, mediated by the intermittent delineation of numbers and box-like frames within which further flowering shapes savagely erupt. Crimes of Passion I thus possesses an erotic grandeur that marries the mythological with the transgressive. Indeed, this is the theme that would consume the Baroque Paintings created between 1960 and 1965, works that together signpost Twombly’s full immersion into the ancient splendour that is the city of Rome. Executed only three years after he had permanently settled there this painting delivers the full powerful force of Twombly’s reflective integration of his encompassing experience and aesthetic absorption of the Eternal City – a fact irrefutably substantiated by the presence of Crimes of Passion II in the collection of the Museum Ludwig, Cologne. The present work undoubtedly indicates an important moment in the development of Twombly’s mature practice; having relocated with his family to an expansive seventeenth-century Palazzo, the ambition and size of his canvases increased – significantly, this painting is one of the largest created by Twombly at this point in his career. Steeped in an erudite knowledge of ancient Greek and Roman literature, Crimes of Passion I belongs to Twombly’s renowned dialogue with the classical past, the loves of the gods and the mythical formation of ancient civilisation. Permeated with the artist’s idiosyncratic tremulous handwriting and automotive mark making, Crimes of Passion I combines a transcription of immediate experience with a fresh reinterpretation of the classical past: here, Twombly masterfully metamorphoses Arcadia and the Ovidian ideal by means of an entirely new symbolic language.

In early 1960 Twombly and his family had moved into a grand new home on the Via di Monserrato in Rome. His everyday life was infused with the antiquarian splendour and colourful sights and smells of a living city surrounded by the classically Arcadian Roman campagna. Denoting a movement away from the measured rhythm of Twombly’s earlier 1950s production, the present work signals an urgent and fractured transmutation of classical stimuli and the mythologically evocative Roman landscape. Articulated in fits of stuttering marks, numbers, fluttering forms and explosive scribbles, Crimes of Passion I enunciates a fragmented vision and reimagining of the ancient myths of love and Eros that permeate the culture of this historic city. Discussing the sister painting of the present work, Nicholas Cullinan has observed: “By the early 1960s… the languor and lightness of Twombly’s first works following his move to Italy subsided, and began to be increasingly replaced by a newfound emphasis on anxiety, violence and an ever-more baroque aesthetic of painting. A Murder of Passion and Crimes of Passion II, both of 1960, make this apparent. The latter was originally dedicated to the Marquis de Sade, and the aggressive erotics of the author to whom the work is dedicated are conjured by an accumulation of dismembered body parts. The heightened eroticism and sensuality that entered Twombly’s art at this point is marked not only by the titular associations, smatterings of orifices, breasts that double for buttocks, and phalluses adorned with scribbles of pencil that seem to describe pubic hair, but also by a stylistic shift articulated by techniques such as smearing, an ever-increasing impasto and the use of progressively saturated colours” (Nicholas Cullinan, ‘Insinuating Elegance: The Anxiety of Influence’, in: Exhibition Catalogue, London, Tate Modern, Cy Twombly: Cycles and Seasons, 2008, p. 84). Marking the very beginning of this movement, the present work invokes the classical theme of Eros that utterly permeates Twombly’s Roman paintings from 1960 onwards. Aligned with the explicit subject of the subsequent Rape of the Sabines from 1961 and the Museum of Modern Art in New York's Leda and the Swan from 1962, Crimes of Passion I and II communicate an erotic excess via an almost obsessional explosion of gendered body parts inspired by the artist’s own intensely erudite knowledge of the classics – which by 1960 was stimulated by the excess and grandeur of a Baroque Rome in ruins.

Reflecting the way in which Freud and Jung identified a mirror for the unconscious in classical mythology, Twombly’s tableau of signs is entrenched within a wealth of classical archetypes. Certainly, Pablo Picasso’s contemporaneous The Rape of the Sabine Women from 1962 further demonstrates another master who is skilled at mining the classical for metaphoric depictions of erotic aggression. As explained by Heiner Bastian: “The heroic gods of antiquity represent energy (libido) as a psychic entity which is variously and ambivalently expressed in the disposition of human nature: symbol of the antithesis between Mars and Venus, between sexual and aggressive impulses, between productivity and destruction” (Heiner Bastian, Cy Twombly: Paintings 1952-1976 Volume I, Berlin 1978, p. 42). This is particularly evident in Twombly’s use in the present painting, not only of explicitly phallic references, violent gashes and scribbled-out phrases such as ‘The Sea’ – perhaps a reference to the Birth of Venus or Galatea – but also to the employment of numbers and trapeze-like shapes and rectangles, an allusion to the geometric shapes associated with the idealised female form of Praxiteles’ Aphrodite of Knidos. The present work connotes such a balance between male and female, destruction and creation through a pseudo-unconscious automatism: Twombly’s frantic erasures and explosive marks juxtapose phallic forms with breasts, buttocks and female organs. These cluster or wing-like shapes overworked with red crayon signify human form, as Bastian again explains: “He smears the colour on with his fingers or applies it directly from the tube onto the canvas as a physical act: colour becomes raw condition or ‘materia nuda’, human presence of gods and heroes like flesh and blood in pink and red” (Ibid., p. 43). These highly corporeal and savage marks forge an extraordinary collusion between the gestural action painting of Abstract Expressionism and the erotic abandon of Surrealism (Nicholas Cullinan and Xavier F. Salomon, ‘Venus and Eros’, in: Exhibition Catalogue, London, Dulwich Picture Gallery, Twombly and Poussin: Arcadian Painters, 2011, p. 113). Here the stuttering and violently fragmented deployment of gendered parts barely contained within the picture plane communicates a vision of classical Eros seen through the prism of modernity – the lack of hegemony and corporeal wholeness of which are irrefutable visual signals for the evisceration and loss of the classical ideal in art. Underscored with savage tales of passion rooted in the malicious jealousies found in Virgil, Ovid and Sappho, Crimes of Passion I delivers a masterful cross-pollination of Apollonian erudition and Dionysian abandon via Twombly’s utterly ground-breaking visual codex.

Twombly's staggering innovation and inimitable abstract aesthetic are on full display through the work's visceral imagery, compositional economy, and graphic intelligence, traits that appear so instinctive yet seemingly arbitrary. Indeed, Crimes of Passion I presents a mesmerising paragon of Twombly's pioneering interrogation of semiotic sign systems, a device strongly allied with Roland Barthes' observation that "What happens on the stage Twombly offers us (whether it is canvas or paper) is something which partakes of several kinds of event" (Roland Barthes quoted in: Exhibition Catalogue, New York, Whitney Museum of American Art, Cy Twombly: Paintings and Drawings 1954-1977, 1979, p. 9). In accordance with Twombly's best output, Crimes of Passion I mediates the boundary between figuration and abstraction, continually enticing the viewer with elusive meaning and challenging the deductions inherent to signifier-referent equations.