Since his move to Italy in 1957, Twombly reveled in the richness and grandeur entrenched within antique European culture. His fascination with Roman gods and Greek mythology inspired some of his most celebrated cycles; Idilli (I am Thyrsis of Etna blessed with a tuneful voice) forms part of a series of works on paper – Twombly’s favored medium – created in 1976 that reference the Idylls, a collection of thirty short poems by the ancient Greek Theocritus, also known as the creator of bucolic poetry. Indeed the reference to the Idylls and the powerful lamentation of the shepherd Thyrsis longing for Daphnis allows a more refined view into Twombly’s sources of inspiration. It is the first time within Twombly’s oeuvre that the script is addressed in the first person: I am. This purposeful self-identification with the bucolic poet of lyrical tradition infuses the work with a particular sense of intimacy, alluding to Twombly’s very personal relation to poetry.
The Idylls served as a great influence not only to Twombly but also to other poets including Virgil, who Twombly also admired greatly. In contrast to the heroic writings of Homer (another important reference for the artist), the Idylls of Theocritus are short and highly wrought descriptive poems on pastoral subjects descriptive of a rustic life. The pastoral air of Theocritus’ poetry resonated with Twombly’s art at a transitional moment in his career when he was turning away from the epic themes of mythological battles and towards the elements of water, sky, and trees during the mid-1970s. These components from nature reflected the artist’s life in the countryside of Bassano in the North of Italy where the first two works from the present series were created. Kirk Varnedoe commented on this transition in Twombly’s art: “The land around the house and the (then depopulated) village was thoroughly rustic, and shepherds would come with tinkling bells on their flocks to play music on the hillside directly below the studio windows. Whether from these or other internal cues, Twombly’s art changed as he moved between his fiftieth and sixtieth years.” (Kirk Varnedoe in Exh. Cat., New York, Museum of Modern Art (and travelling), Cy Twombly – A Retrospective, 1994, p. 46)
In its diversity, Twombly’s oeuvre refutes systematic categorization into any specific stream of post-war art. Immersed in the ephemera of a by-gone world, Twombly’s works bear traces of the polymaths of the Antique and Renaissance world, a nostalgic longing for classical myths and legends, that is contrasted by the wild scribbling marks often reminiscent of graffiti-like scrawls. Quoting again from Kirk Varnedoe, who beautifully surmised this fascinating dual presence: “There is a necessary and close exchange in Twombly’s work between his affection for the venerable and timeworn and for the fresh and simple; in the fantasy of the work they fuse to their mutual benefit. His experience of the ancient world as continuously, sensually alive in layers of translation is in some sense consistent with a lush decadence properly called Alexandrian, and it needs constant refreshment by his parallel love for a crude, naïve, and uninitiated manner of expression.” (Ibid., p. 49)
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