Cy Twombly

Gazing intensely at the great hand belonging to Colossus of Constantine, Cy Twombly looks effortlessly cool. With a notebook in hand and the ever-growing mind of a classic yet cultured wanderer, Twombly’s European adventure of 1952 contributed as a prelude to his visceral vision of modern art.

Robert Rauschenberg’s wide-eyed portrait of Cy Twombly resonates with the young artist’s infatuation with history and myth, a motif that would confound his creative appetite and consume his artistic practice for decades to come. Until April 2017, the Centre Pompidou will expose Twombly’s ingenious compositions through an extensive retrospective: an emotive and fervent exhibition that shouldn’t be missed.

Setting the pace for the show with a relaxed chronological order, the display begins with Twombly’s series of 1959 White Paintings – an array of layered and scraped canvases so subtle in tone and subject that they left critics riled up in a baffled frenzy. Onlookers quarreled, questioning whether Twombly’s works were the scribbles and scrawling’s of a genius or a madman. In truth, the world was not quite prepared for the high intellect and high creativity of such a well-read painter from Lexington, Virginia.

The habitual, childlike markings of Twombly’s paintings evolve room to room, changing from slight presences to chaotic requisites. The artist maps out mathematical dilemmas and scrawls evocative outlines providing viewers with a whirlwind of aesthetic wonders that can be devoured without creative boundaries. Is this symbology something to be deciphered? Something to help form an understanding of an unknown, disjointed story? Or rather, a display that unravels Twombly’s obsessive and addictive thought process? Whatever these stimulating paintings portray, they are desperately intimate.

Most evocative in the recent exposé of Twombly’s practice, are the ‘Nine Discourses on Commodus’. Painted the same year President John F. Kennedy was assassinated (1963), Twombly created nine paintings emblematic of the barbaric reign Commodus held as Roman Emperor. These works parade the artist’s erratic and performative process through violent brush strokes and the use of bloody, murderous reds. They are emotionally draining, igniting a riot of savage and sad thoughts in the mind – a contemporary sensibility that is aware of Twombly’s disturbingly relevant discourse to today’s tragic world leadership. The grasping handprints suggest human contact in the work, a frantic last effort to seek intimate connections in a world seemingly lost to turmoil and torment.

Many of Twombly’s paintings heave heavy theory in mythology or history, and are often bitter and melancholic in subject. A great deal of this work is shown in the exhibition, proving it to be a display not for the faint hearted. Though the dark and dramatic are prevalent, Twombly also seizes the delicate allure of lighter affairs through his tactile practice. ‘Quatro Stagioni: Primavera, Estate, Autumno, Inverno’ depicts the raw beauty of nature’s seasons in four immense canvases. The wild harshness of winter is made explicit in Twombly’s icy dripping greys, and the soft warmth of autumn comes to the fore through the artist’s unexpected use of colour.

Aesthetically thrilling, Cy Twombly’s exhibition at the Centre Pompidou is a tour de force. The younger, ethereal White Paintings lend delicacy to a larger impassioned and fiery practice that was infatuated by mythos and antiquity. Twombly proportioned these potent themes into contemporary culture, creating emotive canvases of unrestrained feeling that really become the pièce de résistance of the Parisian exhibition. Like John Keats (a writer he often quoted), Twombly would sooner fail than not be amongst the greatest; yet, the burning American artist has undoubtedly set himself amongst the greatest today.