1001 Ways to Die – (7) Cy Twombly, American, Painter and Sculptor


Cy Twombly, one of my favourite modern artists, has died on Tuesday, 5th July 2011 in Rome, Italy, losing a long battle to cancer.

His work “The Rose” was the object of a previous article. In another article on this blog I presented his sculpture “Thermopylae” in relation to C. Cavafy’s poem. Today I want to travel with Twombly in the Sea.

I have somehow visualized Death, more precisely the departure from this life, to embarking, to getting on a boat and sailing in the sea. This is no crossing of Acheron, the river of Hades. This is becoming one with the Sea, taking his boat out to the sea, and then sinking with it.

In order to do this, I will use his “Poems to the Sea”, a series of 24 works done in 1959, a photograph of the Sea that the artist took, and his monumental work “Lepanto”.

Twombly in 1958, the year after he moved to Italy from the US. Photograph: David Lees/Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images

Poems to the Sea

‘As Twombly told the critic David Sylvester, “the Mediterranean is always just white, white, white”: in the 24 drawings called Poems to the Sea the colour blue barely appears, and yet the cursory lines and spots create a sea of the mind’s eye – hours of contemplation transformed into a few cryptic marks. With their textured, creamy backgrounds, the paintings inspired by Procida are also extremely evocative: parched cliff-tops in the Bay of Naples; crumbling plaster; the heat – it’s all there if you look for it, though without that act of the imagination the charm quickly fades.’ (source: Christopher Masters, the Guardian).

Poems to the Sea, 1959, Collection Dia Art foundation, New York

‘What order of poems, punctuated with numerals and question marks, are these? The sea is reduced to horizon line and word, scribblings and veils of paint against the stark white of paper. A persistent compulsion is invoked in the viewer, the desire to read what is there, but not fully manifest in the artist’s scrawled script. Two words in these drawings emerge into legibility, “time”and “Sappho”, as if washed up on the beach alongside sudden, subtle gem-flashes of colour – blue, orange-yellow, pink – gleaming all the more because of their discretion. In these pages, meaning is endlessly frustrated and pursued. It settles only in the distance, figured perhaps by the horizon lines that move across the top of each of the drawings – in fact, simply grey or blue lines made with a straight edge, but suggesting seascapes at the vanishing point. The flat planes of sea and page have been collapsed. Writing comes in waves, rolling funnels of cursive script, crossed out, erased, enfoamed in satiny greyish-white paint. The signs are given as nascent forms, as gestural indications of “the hand’s becoming”, as Roland Barthes so aptly phrased it.’ (source: Claire Daigle on Cy Twombly, Tate Gallery, London).

Cy Twombly: Miramare 2005


‘Cy Twombly photographs the subjects that he encounters in his studio in Gaeta, in Bassano, Rome or in Lexington, on the beach at Miramare or in botanical gardens, using an instant camera. By means of a special pigmenting process that involves dryprint, these one-offs are enlarged and printed in limited editions. Not only the special saturation of color, but also the fact that the shots are strikingly out of focus account for their unmistakable nature and extraordinary appeal. The consistent lack of focus is reminiscent of the photographs of the late 19th-century Pictorialists. Hubertus Von Amelunxen, however, discerns photo-historical references to the early days of photography, namely to early calotypes, first paper photographs permeated in “light and emulsion”. Indeed, with their aesthetic effect, Twombly’s photographic images exhibit a sense of both astonishment and entrancement with the (new) technology. The unusual and the new is of a quite singular beauty.

Using his particular technique, Cy Twombly manages to concentrate on the textures of surfaces which, removed from the flow of time, generate visual orders of an over-arching world of perception. Hubertus Von Amelunxen calls them “musical, rhythmical positions in an ineffable syntax” – as the focus is not on representation but on the unmistakable nature of things or the clarity of motifs. Finding the invisible in the visible, retaining the purportedly excluded in the image and at the same time sensing the intangible dimensions of time and space, that is what constitutes the great appeal of Twombly’s photographs. The eye is always very close to things, the direct view suggests an almost intimate proximity – of tender tulip blooms, of everyday objects such as glasses and bottles, of the artist’s slippers, his brushes and painting utensils, and not least his paintings themselves.’

(Source: La Lettre de la Photographie)

Cy Twombly: Lepanto


The work consists of 12 large canvases that looks back to one of the most important naval battles of early modern history. Lepanto was shown in September 2008 in the Museo del Prado prior to its permanent installation in the Brandhorst Museum in Munich in October of the same year. I saw the work in Brandhorst in 2010 and was deeply moved by it.

‘When Cy Twombly was offered a gallery dedicated to his work at the 2001 Venice Biennale, he chose to create a new work especially for the space, a work that he describes as one painting in twelve parts. For his concept of the project, Twombly turned to the genre of history painting. Before the advent of Modernism in the late 19th century, history painting, which encompassed images from mythology, the bible, and the lives of the saints, as well as scenes from ancient to contemporary history, was considered the highest achievement of the painter´s art. Responding to the exhibition´s locale adjoining the Arsenale shipyard, Twombly chose of his subject the famous 1571 naval battle of Lepanto.

Cy Twombly in front one of the "Lepanto" panels in the Venice Biennale of 2001

Venice, then an immensely powerful city-state, instigated the formation of an alliance against the Ottoman Empire, which had been attacking its colonies in the eastern Mediterranean and defiling their churches. Brokered by Pope Pius V, the western European alliance consisted of Venice, the Papal States, and Spain, three major Catholic powers of the post-Reformation period. The battle of Lepanto has always been viewed as a turning point in the history of Europe. The Ottoman Empire had heretofore seemed invincible and its fleet was far larger than the alliance´s armada. With more manageable Venetian-designed ships and superior deployment of artillery, the alliance vanquished and burned the Ottoman fleet. Lepanto was the last major sea battle that involved ramming and hand-to-hand fighting on deck. It was the first triumph of Christian Europe over the seemingly all-powerful Islamic Ottoman Empire. It also marked the end of the Mediterranean as the locus of shipping and trade; henceforth, the Atlantic routes to the riches of the American colonies dominated naval activity.

Twombly arranged Lepanto in a way that is at once symphonic and cinematic with four images of flames and falling leaves presaging, interrupting, and concluding his highly abstract narrative of the battle. The maritime scenes, with their stick-figure images of fighting galleys, become increasingly dense with the final triad drenched in the colors of his rich, limited palette. The lushness of the reds and yellows counterpoints their depiction of flames and blood.’

(Source: The Museum of Fine Arts Houston, USA)

As the ship disappears in the horizon, where sky and sea merge, I quote from Roland Barthes (The Wisdom of Art by Roland Barthes 3):

‘If we wished to locate this ethic, we would have to seek very far, outside painting, outside the West, outside history, at the very limit of meaning, and say, with the Tao Te King:

He produces without appropriating anything,
He acts without expecting anything,
His work accomplished, he does not get attached to it,
And since he is not attached to it,
His work will remain.’

Farewell Cy Twombly



    • Dear Stephen,

      Welcome to EVOCHIA, and thank you for visiting.
      Paraphrasing Barthes, I would say that Twombly was painting not a subject, but “culture”.

  1. “Αnd since he is not attached to it,
    His work will remain… ”

    How true this is it…

    εξαιρετικά ενδιαφέρον post για ένα καλλιτέχνη που ίσως ήταν πάντα μπροστά από την εποχή του

    καλησπέρα παναθήναιε

    • Καλησπερα Ναταλια!!!!!!!!
      Ειναι τυχαιο οτι ξεμυτησες μετα την διασκεψη κορυφης που εκρινε το δευτερο πακεττο διασωσης της πατριδος;

      • άφησα για 2-3 μήνες την πλατεία κι ήρθα… χαχαχα

        υγ τώρα που πηραμε και την πλήρη προστασία του ΔΝΤ, φεύγω για Καραιβική, ξέγνοιαστη

        • Ναταλια!!!!!!!!!!!
          Τα λογια σου αποδιδουν συγχυση μεγαλη!!!!!!!!!!!
          Ειδικα τωρα, που το πηραμε και το δευτερο πακεττο, παμε ολοταχως για χρεωκοπια, μονο που θα ειναι ελεγχομενη, και θα απορροφηθει απο τα αμορτισερ του Ευρωπαικου συστηματος σταθεροποιησης (οταν το φτιαξουν).
          Προς τι λοιπον οι σπαταλες εκδρομες;;;;;;;
          Αλεποχωρι και πολυ ειναι.

  2. εν μέσω σύγχυσης, είπα να ρίξω ό,τι χρήμα έχω σε σπάταλες εκδρομές, πριν μου τα φάνε άλλοι…

    υγ του χρόνου οχι Αλεποχώρι, ιχθυόσκαλα Κερατσινίου χαχαχα

    • ειναι αυτο που λεει ο λαος: τι ΚΑραιβικη, τι Κερατσινι!!!!!!
      ευγε, ευγε Ναταλια, εισαι στο πνευμα των καιρων!!!!!!!!!

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