Exhibition: ‘Cy Twombly’ at the Centre Pompidou, Paris

Exhibition dates: 30th November 2016 – 24th April 2017


Cy Twombly 'Untitled (Lexington)' 1951


Cy Twombly (American, 1928-2011)
Untitled (Lexington)
Oil-based house paint on canvas
101.6 x 121.9cm
Cy Twombly Foundation
© Cy Twombly Foundation, courtesy Archives Nicola Del Roscio



This posting is for a friend who is a great Twombly fan.

Of the installation photograph of the series Nine Discourses on Commodus (1963, below) he observes:

“Quite an amazing installation… who would have thought #6 being placed there.
The text(?) which replaces the position of the “main” elements in #4, #5 sets the position of #6 – what a choice!
And it all had to be on one wall apparently – it looks tight, yet it is a success.”

It would take years to understand the intricacies of Twombly’s work, but the main archetypes that we can all interpret are there: themes such as love, war, death and night.

“Roland Barthes famously wrote of Twombly: ‘His work is based not upon concept (the trace) but rather upon an activity (tracing)’. In Twombly’s graphic art, the trace is the record of a gesture. Barthes again: ‘line is action become visible’. Like Olson, Twombly connects heart to line via the body.”

This is a visceral art of smudges, smears, and inscriptions. It is art that tells a story, an art that emotes? evokes deep inward feelings while challenging the intellect.


Many thankx to the Centre Pompidou for allowing me to publish the artwork in the posting. Please click on the art work for a larger version of the image.



“To explore Twombly’s work with the eyes and the lips is therefore to continuously dash the expectations inspired by ‘what it looks like’.”

Roland Barthes in Yvon Lambert, ed., Cy Twombly: Catalogue raisonné des oeuvres sur papier (Multhipla Edizioni, Milan, 1979) Éditions du Seuil, 1995


“My line is childlike but not childish. It is very difficult to fake… to get that quality you need to project yourself into the child’s line. It has to be felt.”

Cy Twombly


“Each line now is the actual experience with its own innate history. It does not illustrate – it is the sensation of its own realisation. The imagery is one of the private or separate indulgences rather than an abstract totality of visual perception.”

Cy Twombly, L’Esperienza moderna, no. 2 (1957)



Cy Twombly. 'Volublis' 1953


Cy Twombly (American, 1928-2011)
White lead pencil, oil-based house paint, wax crayon on canvas
139.7 x 193cm
Cy Twombly Foundation, on deposit at the Menil Collection, Houston
© Cy Twombly Foundation, courtesy The Menil Collection



“The Centre Pompidou is presenting a major retrospective of the work of American artist Cy Twombly. A key event of the fall 2016, this exceptionally vast exhibition will only be shown in Paris, and will feature remarkable loans from private and public collections from all over the world.

Organized around three major cycles – Nine Discourses on Commodus (1963), Fifty Days at Iliam (1978) and Coronation of Sesostris (2000) – this retrospective covers the artist’s entire career in a chronological circuit of some 140 paintings, sculptures, drawings and photographs, providing a clear picture of an extraordinarily rich body of work which is both intellectual and sensual. The selection includes many of Twombly’s iconic works, several of them never previously exhibited in France.

Born in 1928 in Lexington, Virginia, Cy Twombly died in 2011 at the age of 83 in Rome, where he spent a large part of his life. Unanimously acclaimed as one of the greatest painters of the second half of the 20th century, Twombly, who began dividing his life between Italy and America in the late Fifties, merged the legacy of American abstract expressionism with the origins of Mediterranean culture. From his first works in the early Fifties (marked by the so-called primitive arts, graffiti and writing) to his last paintings with their exuberant colour schemes, by way of the highly carnal compositions of the early Sixties and his response to minimalist and conceptual art during the Seventies, this retrospective emphasises the importance of cycles and series for Twombly, in which he reinvented great history painting. The exhibition is also the occasion to highlight the artist’s close relationship with Paris. The Centre Pompidou had devoted a first substantial retrospective to him as early as 1988.”

Press release from the Centre Pompidou


“The exhibition is deployed around three Cycles: Nine Discourses on Commodus, 1963, Fifty Days at Iliam, 1978, and Coronation of Sesostris, 2000. Each of them reinterprets an antique tradition by addressing themes such as love, war, death and night. Next to these exceptional series are exhibited magnificent works in which the artist confronts abstraction and figuration while exploring psychoanalysis, primitivism, writing and painting. The works incorporate names of gods, lyric heroes of Homer and Virgil and confirms his fascination for Classical authors, cosmogony, Greece, Rome and Egypt. Mysterious, obscene, crude, this exhibition confirms that Twombly was one the most original and unexpected of artists of the twentieth century.”

Mercedes Lambarri
Cataloguer, Contemporary art


Cy Twombly. 'Still Life, Black Mountain College I' 1951

Cy Twombly. 'Still Life, Black Mountain College II' 1951

Cy Twombly. 'Still Life, Black Mountain College III' 1951


Cy Twombly (American, 1928-2011)
Still Life, Black Mountain College
Dry print on cardboard
43,1 x 27.9cm
Fondazione Nicola Del Roscio collection
© Fondazione Nicola Del Roscio, courtesy Archives Nicola Del Roscio


Cy Twombly. 'Untitled (Grottaferrata) III' 1957

Cy Twombly. 'Untitled (Grottaferrata) IV' 1957

Cy Twombly. 'Untitled (Grottaferrata) V' 1957

Cy Twombly. 'Untitled (Grottaferrata) VI' 1957

Cy Twombly. 'Untitled (Grottaferrata) VII' 1957


Cy Twombly (American, 1928-2011)
Untitled (Grottaferrata) (No’s 3-7)
Wax crayon and lead pencil on squared paper
7 drawings: 21.6 x 29.9cm (each)
Private Collection
© Cy Twombly Foundation, courtesy Galerie Karsten Greve, St.



“Resisting the term ‘graffiti’ (‘naughty or aggressive’ protest) that is often applied to his work, Twombly says that, ‘it’s more lyrical … in the totality of the painting, feeling and content are more complicated, or more elaborate than say just graffiti.’ Barthes suggests that Twombly’s impossible calligraphy invokes ‘what one might call writing’s field of allusions’ – a cultural field as well as feeling and content; a long way from a fine hand. His writing is also epigraphic, in the double sense of alluding to the object or surface on which it is written, and requiring to be deciphered like an ancient inscription. Twombly’s illegible scrawls and polyglot, non-standardised capitals, his interweaving of phrases from high modernist European poets and names from the Graeco-Roman tradition, evoke the longue durée of a commemorative culture that reaches back to Egypt and beyond: cult as well as culture.”

Mary Jacobus. “Time-Lines: Rilke and Twombly on the Nile,” in Tate Papers no. 10 [Online] Cited 09/12/2021


Cy Twombly. 'Sperlonga Collage' 1959


Cy Twombly (American, 1928-2011)
Sperlonga Collage
Pieces of semi-transparent cristal paper, oil-based house paint on paper
85 x 62cm
Cy Twombly Foundation
© Cy Twombly Foundation, courtesy Archives Nicola Del Roscio




The 1950s saw Twombly evidence a precocious maturity. After leaving Black Mountain College – the experimental liberal arts college in North Carolina where he encountered the crème de la crème of the US avant-garde – the 24-year-old painter from Lexington, Virginia, set off on a trip to Europe and North Africa in the company of Robert Rauschenberg. On returning to New York in late spring 1953, he produced his first major works, the sounds of their titles recalling villages and archaeological sites of Morocco. These were followed by white canvases covered in script – Twombly disliked the term “graffiti” employed by many of the critics – and its suggestion of triviality. The masterpiece of the decade is undoubtedly the series of white paintings done at Lexington in 1959, which Leo Castelli however refused to show. The austerity of their pictorial language makes outstanding works, economy of means being pushed to an extreme in the combination of white house paint and pencil.



In the summer of 1957, Cy Twombly returned to Italy to visit his friend Betty Stokes, who was married to Venetian aristocrat Alvise Di Robilant and had just given birth to their first child. The Robilants were then living at Grottaferrata, where Twombly took several photographs of Betty. During his stay, he also made a series of eight wax crayons drawings, which he presented to her. One of these has since been separated from the group, leaving only seven, outstanding in their vigorous hand and lively colour.


Cy Twombly. 'School of Athens' 1961


Cy Twombly (American, 1928-2011)
School of Athens
Oil, oil-based house paint, coloured pencil and lead pencil on canvas
190.3 x 200.5cm
Private Collection
© Cy Twombly Foundation, courtesy Archives Nicola Del Roscio


Cy Twombly. 'Achilles Mourning the Death of Patroclus' 1962


Cy Twombly (American, 1928-2011)
Achilles Mourning the Death of Patroclus
259 x 302cm
Oil, lead pencil on canvas
Collection Centre Pompidou, Paris
© Cy Twombly Foundation



Describing space in Twombly’s work, Barthes uses the term ‘rare’ (Latin, rarus): ‘that which has gaps or interstices, sparse, porous, scattered’.


Cy Twombly. 'The Vengeance of Achilles' 1962


Cy Twombly (American, 1928-2011)
The Vengeance of Achilles
Oil, lead pencil on canvas
300 x 175cm
Kunsthaus Zürich, Zurich
© Cy Twombly Foundation, courtesy Kunsthaus Zürich, Zürich



Roland Barthes famously wrote of Twombly: ‘His work is based not upon concept (the trace) but rather upon an activity (tracing)’. In Twombly’s graphic art, the trace is the record of a gesture. Barthes again: ‘line is action become visible’. Like Olson, Twombly connects heart to line via the body.


Cy Twombly. View of the series 'Nine Discourses on Commodus' 1963


Cy Twombly (American, 1928-2011)
View of the series Nine Discourses on Commodus
Guggenheim Bilbao Museo, Bilbao
© Cy Twombly Foundation




After Twombly’s marriage to Italian aristocrat Luisa Tatiana Franchetti, celebrated in New York on 20 April 1959, the couple settled in Rome, living in a palazzo on the Via di Monserrato, in a quarter known for its intellectual life. Twombly had just given up using his fluid and viscous house paint for oil paint in tubes with precisely the opposite properties. Between 1960 and 1962 he produced some of his most sexual paintings, Empire of Flora being an evocative example. Partial glimpses of body parts, male and female, are scattered over canvases that seem to preserve the sensual memory of hot Roman nights.



In late 1963, when John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, Cy Twombly devoted a cycle of nine paintings to the Roman emperor Commodus (161-192), son of Marcus Aurelius and remembered as a cruel and bloodthirsty ruler. In these he conveys the climate of violence that prevailed during his reign, marked by executions and terror. Shown at Leo Castelli’s in New York in the spring of 1964, the paintings were roundly condemned by the critics. Won to the newly emergent Minimalism, the New York public was unable to grasp Twombly’s painterly gifts and his ability to render on canvas the complex psychological phases informing the life and death of the emperor. At the close of the exhibition, Twombly recovered the paintings, which would be sold to an Italian industrialist before being acquired in 2007 by the Guggenheim Museum, Bilbao.



Having painted a series under the sign of Eros in the very early part of the decade, in 1962 Twombly turned to Thanatos, death, a theme that finds paroxysmal expression in his first two meditations on the Trojan War, Achilles Mourning the Death of Patroclus and Vengeance of Achilles. In these two paintings, brought together for this exhibition, Twombly gives form to Achilles’ sorrow and fury on the death of his friend. The Ilium triptych, for its part, was broken up at an unknown date, the first panel joining the Eli and Edythe Broad collection in Los Angeles. In the early 2000s, Twombly painted a new version of that panel to recreate the triptych, then owned by collector François Pinault.


Cy Twombly. 'Alessandro Twombly' 1965


Cy Twombly (American, 1928-2011)
Alessandro Twombly
Dry print on cardboard
43.2 x 28cm
Cy Twombly Foundation
© Fondazione Nicola Del Roscio


Cy Twombly. 'Night Watch' 1966


Cy Twombly (American, 1928-2011)
Night Watch
Oil-based house paint, wax crayon on canvas
190 x 200cm
Private Collection
Courtesy Jeffrey Hoffeld Fine Arts, Inc.
© Cy Twombly Foundation, courtesy Cheim & Read


Cy Twombly. 'Pan' 1975


Cy Twombly (American, 1928-2011)
Oil pastel and collage on paper
148 x 100cm
Cy Twombly Foundation
© Cy Twombly Foundation, courtesy Archives
Nicola Del Roscio


Cy Twombly. 'Apollo' 1975


Cy Twombly (American, 1928-2011)
Oil pastel and lead pencil on paper
150 x 134cm
Cy Twombly Foundation
© Cy Twombly Foundation, courtesy
Archives Nicola Del Roscio


Cy Twombly. 'Venus' 1975


Cy Twombly (American, 1928-2011)
Oil Pastel, lead pencil and collage on paper
150 x 137cm
Cy Twombly Foundation
© Cy Twombly Foundation, courtesy Archives Nicola
Del Roscio



Walter Benjamin’s 1917 essay, ‘Painting, or Signs and Marks’, argues that, ‘The graphic line is defined by its contrast to area’ as opposed to the mark (‘Mal’) and painting (‘Malerei’): ‘the realm of the mark is a medium.’ His distinction between line and mark, drawing and painting, is especially hard to maintain in relation to Cy Twombly: the scribbled pencilling, the smudges and smears, are the marks of an affective body used as a writing instrument. Where Benjamin speaks proleptically to Twombly is in the decisive role he gives to writing, inscription, and naming, along with the spatial marks on monuments and gravestones. ‘[T]he linguistic word’, he writes, ‘lodges in the medium of the language of painting.’ With its collage of quotations, inscriptions, and names, Twombly’s entire oeuvre could be read as a retrospective commentary on this early Benjamin essay.

Walter Benjamin: Selected Writings, Vol.1, 19131926, ed. Marcus Bullock and Michael W. Jennings, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1996, pp. 84-85 quoted in Mary Jacobus. “Time-Lines: Rilke and Twombly on the Nile,” in Tate Papers no. 10 [Online] Cited 09/12/2021


Cy Twombly. 'Fifty Days at Iliam Shield of Achilles (Part 1)' 1978


Cy Twombly (American, 1928-2011)
Fifty Days at Iliam Shield of Achilles (Part I)
Oil, oil stick, lead pencil on canvas
191.8 x 170.2cm
Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia, gift (by exchange) of Samuel S.White 3rd and Vera White 1989-90-1
© Cy Twombly Foundation, courtesy of Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphie


Cy Twombly. 'Fifty Days at Iliam Shades of Achilles, Patroclus and Hector (Part VI)' 1978


Cy Twombly (American, 1928-2011)
Fifty Days at Iliam Shades of Achilles, Patroclus and Hector (Part VI)
Oil, Oil Pencil, lead pencil on canvas
299.7 x 491.5cm
Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphie, gift (by exchange) of Samuel S.White 3rd and Vera White, 1989-90-6
© Cy Twombly Foundation, courtesy of Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphie




Reacting to the Minimalism and Conceptualism that emerged in the United States in the 1960s, in 1966 Twombly, then living in Rome, embarked on a new series of remarkably austere paintings, with backgrounds of grey or black inscribed with simple forms or script-like loops in white wax crayon. He showed these at the Galleria Notizie, Turin, in early 1967. In the autumn, Leo Castelli in New York exhibited a second series, painted in January in a Canal Street loft made available to the painter by curator and collector David Whitney. Among the works shown was Untitled (New York City) (1967, cat. No. 75), which Twombly would later exchange with Andy Warhol for one of his Tuna Fish Disasters.



Twombly’s sculptures might be described as “assemblages” or “hybridisations”, in that they consist of disparate elements. These combinations of found materials (pieces of wood, electrical plugs, cardboard boxes, scraps of metal, dried or artificial flowers) are unified by a thin coat of plaster. The white in which they are roughly painted catches the light, bringing out subtle nuances in the surface and giving them a spectral appearance. As Twombly explained in an interview with art critic David Sylvester, “White paint is my marble”. Sometimes later cast in bronze, these sculptures suggest myths, symbolic objects, archaeological finds, as in Winter’s Passage Luxor (Porto Ercole) (1985). “Cy Twombly’s sculpture,” wrote Edmund de Waal, “seems more archaic than archaizing, as if the impulse behind its creation were ancient itself.”



In 1975, Cy Twombly bought a 16th-century house at Bassano in Teverina, north of Rome, and after basic renovations he established his summer studio there. Inspired by Homer’s Iliad, read in Alexander Pope’s 18th-century English translation, he embarked in 1977 on the major cycle “Fifty Days at Iliam,” whose ten paintings were completed over two successive summers. In the word “Ilium”, one of the ancient names for Troy, Twombly replaced the U with an A, preferring the sound. For him, the letter A evoked Achilles, the Greek hero to whom he had devoted two paintings in 1962. After being shown in 1978 at the Lone Star Foundation (now Dia Art Foundation) in New York, the work remained boxed up for 10 years, to be seen again only upon its purchase in 1989 by the Philadelphia Museum of Art, where it is on permanent exhibition in a room devoted to Cy Twombly. This exhibition marks the first time it has been shown in Europe.


Cy Twombly. 'Untitled (Formia)' 1981


Cy Twombly (American, 1928-2011)
Untitled (Formia)
Wood, iron wire, nails, string, white paint
152 x 88.5 x 33.5cm
Cy Twombly Foundation
© Cy Twombly Foundation, courtesy Foundazione
Nicola Del Roscio


Cy Twombly. 'Untitled (Lexington)' 2004


Cy Twombly (American, 1928-2011)
Untitled (Lexington)
Wood , screw, rope, scakcloth, plaster, synthetic resin paint
206.5 x 44.5 x 45cm
Cy Twombly Foundation
© Cy Twombly Foundation, courtesy Sammlung Udo and Anette Brandhorst


Cy Twombly. 'Untitled (Bassano in Teverina)' 1985


Cy Twombly (American, 1928-2011)
Untitled (Bassano in Teverina)
Oil, acrylic on wooden panel
181.7 x 181.7cm
Cy Twombly Foundation
© Cy Twombly Foundation, courtesy Archives Nicola Del Roscio


Cy Twombly. 'Wilder Shores of Love' 1985


Cy Twombly (American, 1928-2011)
Wilder Shores of Love
Oil-based house paint , oil (oil paint stick), coloured pencil, lead pencil on wooden panel
140 x 120cm
Private Collection
© Cy Twombly Foundation


Cy Twombly. 'Summer Madness' 1990


Cy Twombly (American, 1928-2011)
Summer Madness
Acrylic, oil, coloured pencil, lead
Pencil on paper mounted on wooden panels
150 x 126cm
Udo and Anette Brandhorst Collection
© Cy Twombly Foundation


Cy Twombly. 'Quattro Stagioni: Primavera' 1993-1995


Cy Twombly (American, 1928-2011)
Quattro Stagioni: Primavera
Acrylic, oil, coloured pencil and et lead pencil on canvas
313.2 x 189.5cm
Tate, London
© Cy Twombly Foundation, courtesy Tate, London 2016




“Coronation of Sesostris” is one of the major painting cycles that punctuate Cy Twombly’s career, differing from the purely abstract series in their incorporation of narrative elements. Inspired by the example of the god Râ, whose sun-boat traverses the heavens from dawn to dusk to the end of night, Twombly opens the series with luminous canvasses dominated by sunny yellow and red to close it in black and white with an evocation of Eros from a poem of Sappho’s: “Eros weaver of Myth / Eros, sweet and bitter / Eros, bringer of pain.” Twombly combines fragmentary references to Sesostris I, to ancient Greek poets Sappho and Alcman, and to the contemporary poet Patricia Waters. Begun at Twombly’s house in Bassano, this cycle was completed after the canvases were shipped to Lexington. Sally Mann’s photographs show canvases of different sizes tacked to the walls of the little studio, showing that they were stretched only when finished.



For the Bacchus series, painted at Twombly’s Gaeta studio in early 2005, in the midst of the Iraq War, the artist remembered again Homer’s Iliad and returned to the very characteristic writing he had explored in the “Black Paintings” of the late 1960s. Here, however, he replaced the white wax crayon with red paint evocative of both blood and wine, allowed to run freely across the vast beige canvases. The first series consisted of eight monumental paintings that were shown in late 2005 at the Gagosian Gallery on Madison Avenue in New York. Between 2006 and 2008, Twombly produced another series on the theme of Bacchus, some of these paintings being even larger in format. The two works here are from the first series.

Twombly took up photography at Black Mountain College in North Carolina and never afterwards gave it up. Studying under American photographer Hazel-Frieda Larsen, in 1951 he produced a series of still lifes with bottles and other glass vessels that recall the memory of the work of the Italian painter Giorgio  Morandi. In Morocco in 1953, on his first trans-Atlantic travels, he attentively studied the chairs and draped tablecloths of a Tetouan restaurant. But it was only later, on discovering the square format of the Polaroid, that he discovered his own photographic identity. Reflecting his taste for the blurred, for colours sometimes pastel and sometimes stridently saturated, the dry-printed enlargements evoke a world of contemplation. The photographs evoke the places he lived and his interest in sculpture, flowers and plants. When a friend brought him citrons, Buddha’s hands and other citrus fruits, he captured their sculptural and sensual aspect in a series of Polaroids. Distant from the photographic conventions of the time, Twombly’s images are “succinct and discreet poems.”


Cy Twombly 'Lemons (VI)' (Gaète) (detail) 1998


Cy Twombly (American, 1928-2011)
Lemons (VI) (Gaète) (detail)
Dry print on cardboard
43.1 x 27.9cm
Fondazione Nicola del Roscio collection
© Fondazione Nicola Del Roscio, courtesy Archives Nicola Del Roscio


Cy Twombly. 'Coronation of Sesostris (Part III)' 2000


Cy Twombly (American, 1928-2011)
Coronation of Sesostris (Part III)
Acrylic, wax crayon, lead pencil on canvas
206.1 x 136.5cm
Pinault Collection
© Cy Twombly Foundation, courtesy Pinault Collection



Cy Twombly’s remark that ‘lines have a great effect on painting’ resonates not only with his graphic practice but with his relation to poetry. The importance of the modern German poet Rainer Maria Rilke to Twombly includes the figure of the Orphic poet and their shared interest in the ancient River Nile. Twombly’s Egyptian series, Coronation of Sesostris, 2000, represents a late flowering of his remarkable graphic inventiveness…

Twombly’s ten-part Coronation of Sesostris, 2000, is the culminating synthesis of his ship ideographs and whirling expeditionary chariots: a blazing, triumphal departure that burns itself out on the far side of the Nile. Begun in Gaeta and completed in Virginia, it combines deceptive simplicity with painterly sophistication and poetic adaptation. Twombly calls this multi-media series (drawn, written, painted) one of his favourite sets and ‘very personal’. It incorporates a poem of 1996 by the Southern poet Patricia Waters, not a translation this time, although its title (‘Now is the Drinking’) translates Nunc est bibendum. With a few strokes and deletions, Twombly ‘interprets’ the poem to create his own reticent version:

When they leave,
Do you think they hesitate,
Turn and make a farewell sign,
Some gesture of regret?

When they leave,
the music is loudest,
the sun high,

and you, dizzy with wine
befuddled with well-being,
sink into your body
as though it were real,
as if yours to keep.

You neither see their going,
nor hear their silence.

Either side of this ambiguous celebration of bodily oblivion, Twombly’s sequence tracks the energetic course of the Pharaonic conquerer, Sesostris II.

Mary Jacobus. “Time-Lines: Rilke and Twombly on the Nile,” in Tate Papers no. 10 [Online] Cited 09/12/2021


Cy Twombly. 'Coronation of Sesostris (Part V)' 2000


Cy Twombly (American, 1928-2011)
Coronation of Sesostris (Part V)
Acrylic, wax crayon, lead pencil on canvas
206.1 x 156.5cm
Pinault Collection
© Cy Twombly Foundation, courtesy Pinault Collection


Cy Twombly. 'Coronation of Sesostris (Part VI)' 2000


Cy Twombly (American, 1928-2011)
Coronation of Sesostris (Part VI)
Acrylic, wax crayon, lead pencil on canvas
203.7 x 155.6cm
Pinault Collection
© Cy Twombly Foundation, courtesy Pinault Collection



Jonas Storsve: Curator’s point of view

Rich and complex, the work of Cy Twombly, who passed away in 2011, spans a period of some sixty years without ever losing any of its force, even in the very last years of the artist’s life. One of the most productive in recent history, Twombly’s career links the culture of post-war America, dominated artistically by Abstract Expressionism, and the Classical Mediterranean culture that he discovered as a young man and made his own. The artist would remain very close to the world of his birth, that of the Southern United States, better known in Europe for its literature, with William Faulkner, Carson McCullers, Flannery O’Connor, Truman Capote and more.

From his childhood and youth in Lexington, Virginia, where he grew up under the attentive eye of his African-American nanny, Lula Bell Watts, he retained the characteristic and sometimes difficult-to-understand accent of the South. The boy’s family environment seems to have stimulated his intellectual curiosity, cultivated his sensibility and encouraged an interest in painting. When in 1952, at the age of 24, he applied for a grant to travel to Europe, he said he wanted “to study the prehistoric cave drawings of Lascaux.” He also planned to view French, Italian and Dutch museums, Gothic and Baroque architecture, and Roman ruins. He also declared himself to be “drawn to the primitive, the ritual and fetishistic elements, to the symmetrical visual order.” Once he had his grant, he invited the artist Robert Rauschenberg, whom he met in New York two years earlier, to accompany him. They took a ship for Naples on 20 August 1952. The rich and original culture that he acquired would nourish his work. His readings were also voyages – Goethe, Homer, Horace, Herodotus, Keats, Mallarmé, Ovid, Rilke, Sappho, Virgil – on which he would draw for his creation. He found inspiration too in less well-known authors, among them Lesley Blanch, Robert Burton, George Gissing and 13th-century Persian poet and mystic Jalāl ad-Dīn Muhammad Rūmī. This uncommonly refined sensibility found an expressive outlet in his painting.

Yet while Twombly was indeed a highly cultivated and well-read painter, this was only one aspect of his complex personality. The sophistication of his work is accompanied by a constant attention to vernacular realities, visible to varying degrees but always present. Endowed with a rare wit and humour, Twombly could be deliciously irreverent and even dirty-minded when he wanted. In front of his painting Apollo (1963), he remarked laconically to Paul Winkler, who used to be director of the Menil Collection in Houston: “Rachel and I used to love to go dancing at the Apollo Theater in Harlem”. And in a whole series of drawings from 1981-1982, he wrote the phrase “Private Ejaculations”, in the knowledge that in the 17th century it referred to short, intense prayer at regular intervals.

We know today, too, that photography played an important role in Twombly’s work and life. A private, even secretive man, he nonetheless regularly allowed himself to be photographed. Some of the most famous pictures of the artist were taken by Horst P. Horst for Vogue magazine, illustrating an article by Valentine Lawford entitled “Roman Classic Surprise” published in the November 1966 issue. Taken in Twombly’s apartment in the Via Monserrato in Rome, the photographs reveal a dandy living in palatial accommodations. This appearance in Vogue did little to improve his relationship with the United States, at a low ebb since the controversy of the Nine Discourses on Commodus shown at Leo Castelli’s in New York. It was considered too smart and sophisticated: too distant, in brief, from the American idea of an American artist.

Twelve years later, in 1978, Heiner Bastian published the first monograph on Twombly’s painting, for which the artist took care to present himself differently. The cover picture shows him dressed in jeans and pull-over, boots on his feet, sitting on the ground beneath a tree, with sheep close by – an image intended to communicate an idea of an artist close to the earth, living a healthy and simple life. Twombly indeed was probably both, dandy and Roman shepherd.

Sally Mann, a friend from Lexington, often photographed Twombly and his studio toward the end of his life. Thanks to her we have photos that document the development of the Coronation of Sesostris series, which he finished in the city of his birth. Among the most beautiful of the images are those of the studio, empty of work, with just traces of paint on the walls. From some of these ghostly images of a whole phase of Twombly’s work, of his place of work and creation, Mann assembled an album, recently published as Remembered Light.

The Centre Pompidou is staging the first comprehensive retrospective of Cy Twombly’s work in Europe. Unprecedented in scope, bringing together works from public and private collections the whole world over, the exhibition will be shown only in Paris. Organised around three great series – Nine Discourses on Commodus (1963), Fifty Days at Iliam (1978) and Coronation of Sesostris (2000) – it offers a chronological survey of the whole of the artist’s career, the 140 paintings, drawings and photographs affording an insight into the complexity of his work as a whole, simultaneously scholarly and sensual. Among the works shown are some of his best-known ones, many never exhibited in France before. Polyphonic in conception, the accompanying catalogue proposes a multiplicity of approaches, with essays on different aspects and periods of Twombly’s career. It also includes reflections and personal impressions by other artists, and accounts of the formation of the two great collections of Twombly’s work – the Brandhorsts’ and Yvon Lambert’s – as well as recollections by his son Alessandro Twombly. The catalogue closes on a lively and joyful portrait of Twombly from the pen of Nicola Del Roscio. Through this varied testimony, readers will discover not only the artist, but also the man, seemingly returned to life before our eyes.”

Jonas Storsve in Code Couleur, no. 26, September – December 2016, pp. 18-23.


Cy Twombly. 'Blooming' 2001-2008


Cy Twombly (American, 1928-2011)
Acrylic, wax crayon on 10 wooden panels
250 x 500cm
Private collection
© Cy Twombly Foundation, courtesy Archives Fondazione Nicola Del Roscio


Cy Twombly. 'Untitled, (A Gathering of Time)' 2003


Cy Twombly (American, 1928-2011)
Untitled, (A Gathering of Time)
Acrylic on canvas
215.9 x 267.3cm
Udo and Anette Brandhorst Collection
© Cy Twombly Foundation


Cy Twombly. 'Untitled (Bacchus)' 2005


Cy Twombly (American, 1928-2011)
Untitled (Bacchus)
Acrylic on canvas
317.5 x 417.8cm
Udo and Anette Brandhorst Collection
© Cy Twombly Foundation


Cy Twombly. 'Sans titre' (Gaète) 2007


Cy Twombly (American, 1928-2011)
Sans titre (Gaète)
Acrylic, wax crayon on wooden panel
252 x 552cm
Museum Brandhorst, Munich
Udo and Anette Brandhorst Collection
© Cy Twombly Foundation


Cy Twombly. 'Camino Real (V)' 2010


Cy Twombly (American, 1928-2011)
Camino Real (V),
Acrylic on wood panel
252.4 x 185.1cm
Louis Vuitton Foundation
© Cy Twombly Foundation, courtesy Gagosian Gallery



Centre Pompidou 
75191 Paris cedex 04
Phone: 00 33 (0)1 44 78 12 33

Opening hours:
Exhibition open every day from 11am – 9pm except on Tuesday
Closed on May 1st

Centre Pompidou website


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Dr Marcus Bunyan

Dr Marcus Bunyan is an Australian artist and writer. His art work explores the boundaries of identity and place. He writes Art Blart, an art and cultural memory archive, which posts mainly photography exhibitions from around the world. He holds a Doctor of Philosophy from RMIT University, Melbourne, a Master of Arts (Fine Art Photography) from RMIT University, and a Master of Art Curatorship from the University of Melbourne.

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Marcus Bunyan black and white archive: ‘Orphans and small groups’ 1994-96 Part 2

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