When Twombly left the United States for Italy in 1957, he was rejecting the modern artistic world and returning to a classical, European tradition that was considered moribund by many of his artistic contemporaries in America. Influenced by the primitive classicism he had seen in North Africa in the early 1950s, Twombly had adopted an idealised Roman classicism that had then developed into what he called the ‘baroque’ paintings of the early sixties. By 1963 his work had moved into another, more sombre phase focusing on the darker episodes of ancient history.
Dionysos is remarkably controlled when compared with other works from this period. The lines are emphatic and confident with Twombly as ever the master of the white spaces of his composition. Once again we are confronted with the depth and integrity of Twombly’s imaginative classicism for he makes real the more unusual incarnation of Dionysos Psilax – the winged one, the uplifter.
Despite the order and cohesion of the drawn lines, however, there is also the consistent threat of disorder. Nietzsche famously opposed Dionysus to Apollo; the latter representing the rational, ordered systems, with Dionysus emblematic of the wilder loss of self experienced in moments of great ecstasy or enthusiasm. There is something inherently natural and instinctive in Dionysus that recalls Twombly’s fascination with primitive art and his experiments in drawing as if with his left hand in an attempt to deny the proscribed dexterity imposed upon us. What Twombly calls the ‘ecstatic impulse’ in his work is often associated with Dionysian impulse. When asked however whether he saw himself as Apollo or Dionysus, he was typically enigmatic, ‘In different times, different things. Every now and then one gets excited by nature’. (The artist in interview with Nicholas Serota, 'History behind the thought', Rome, 2007)
Twombly’s drawing is authentically Dionysian in spirit with his image suggesting figuration only to then shy away, eluding signification. Twombly brings to the fore the problematic relationship between the abstract work and its titular allusions in a piece that simultaneously offers and withdraws interpretation. In this sense Twombly’s loose and exuberant scrawl perfectly captures the spirit of Dionysus; playful, instinctive, the wild man that is our other.
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