Greek Lyric On Canvas
On the Cy Twombly Exhibit at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.
Greek and Roman literature is considered by many to be inaccessible. From personal experience, I have found no on-ramp for an appreciation of modern art. How is it that when two in-accessibilities collide, a certain clarity of the human condition can unfold? The Museum of Fine Art’s exhibit “Making Past Present: Cy Twombly” makes this impossibility possible, whether for a classicist like me with little understanding of abstract expressionism, or a modern art connoisseur with vague recollections of Greek mythology. Even a person with no grasp of either niche will leave with something, because the very sense of communication with the past growing more distant and incomprehensible is part of this ever modern experience.
Up the stairs and down the “Art of Asia” section on the left, the exhibit is currently housed behind glass doors until May 7, 2023. Cy (like the first syllables of “Cyrus” and “psychologically entrancing,”) Twombly (1928–2011) was a Virginia-born artist who lived in Rome starting in 1959. His art interacts with the architecture of Greek, Roman, Egyptian, and Near Eastern cultures, partially inspired from his travels, partially from the classicized plantations of the American South, and partially from his stint as a student at the MFA in the 40s. Although Twombly himself never learned Greek or Latin, his reading of translations and experience along the streets of Rome also allowed him to engage in the power of ancient inscriptions and poetry.
One of the first works on display is a wall of boxed blue scribbles.
Although completely illegible, these lines evoke a sense of writing upon past layers of writing. Already, the theme of palimpsest is apparent as rubbed away blue is written over with starker strokes. The overall effect is a sort of babbling that dies down over time and transforms to static. The exhibit’s curator, Christine Kondoleon, chose to surround the work with examples of variously worn Greek and Roman inscriptions to compare the attempts of communication between past and present.
Twombly establishes the power of public inscriptions by using writing within his scribbled canvases and sculptures. A great example, and a lesson for amateurs of modern art, is Il Parnasso, an homage to a work by Raphael in the Vatican. The piece’s panel helpfully shows an image of the Renaissance painting to help compare the original to Twombly’s movement of scribbles, warmth of colors, and representation of figures through written names — Apollo, Sappho, Twombly’s own signature and the large dating of 1964.
The initial flatness of this work becomes our window into Twombly’s impression of Raphael’s work and the various movements, thicknesses, and pressures of the strokes allow the viewer to imagine Twombly at work. The process of art-making seems to be immortalized within the final product.
His use of writing is especially effective on the following canvas:
Initially, I was reminded of the footrace stadium in the ancient Olympia site from the perspective of the stone arch. The title, in smudged pencil, shows that is is a combination of landscapes from Virginia and Rome. The weight of the piazza on the Blue Ridge Mountain is juxtaposed with the weightlessness of the whole figure in the white space.
Whiteness and space is a common motif in Twombly’s work, both in the paintings and his sculpture. The sculpture of a column, for example, is painted over in white as if ossified in time. This is not the whiteness of pure marble idealized by the Italian Renaissance and slowly overturned by our growing knowledge of the original saturated and almost tacky colors painted on sculptures. This is the whiteness of palimpsest, a blurry fog either created from the inevitable destruction of time, or the deliberate establishment of a new artist’s voice over the echoes of the old.
This comes across beautifully in a selection of Greek and Roman authors. I was especially taken by these Latin examples:
The layers of the names are so heavy with significance, from the figure of the original signified, to all the legacies of reception. Perhaps the Catullus piece will be discussed by Anne Carson in the already sold out Estelle Shohet Brettman Memorial Lecture “Anne Carson: A Rustle of Catullus” on January 29 at 2 p.m.
The use of inscription and the power of names also appear in explorations of the essences of gods like Apollo and Venus. Kondoleon does a wonderful job as curator pairing Twombly’s works with ancient examples to show his dialogues with his predecessors. One of my favorite pairings was Twombly’s sculpture of a red leaf/shell of Aphrodite with a fantastic mid 4th century B.C.E. oil flask in the shape of Aphrodite coming out of a shell.
The power of words culminates in my favorite piece, that of Orpheus. Just as the mythical musician has the power to move natural landscape and animals with his song, the appearance of Orpheus’ name leads viewers to have a physical reaction.
The stark O, moving the reader to form an O with their mouths, is matched by a theatrical Roman marble mask with mouth agape on the left. The palimpsest nature of the rest of the name, cloudy and layered, creates a wonderful expansive moment. The O seems like a portal, whether to the Underworld or to the past, but it fixes the viewer in place at the same time as it suggests movement.
Another painting creates a beautiful moment with the help of white space and lyric poetry turned into inscription.
This white-purple smudge is accompanied by a fragmented quote of Sappho: “like a hyacinth in the mountains, trampled by shepherds until only a purple stain remains on the ground.” This is a more distanced allusion to a passionate love (Apollo and Hyacinth) and far less violent than Twombly’s works on the rape of Leda.
In contrast to the dominance of words in the work above, the paint dominates the words, this time quoting Archilochus: “hang iambics/ this is no time/ for poetry.” Just as the recusatio is read, a wave of wine-dark paint sweeps over the rest of the space to form an impression of being consumed by a symposiastic, Dionysian frenzy.
Rather than continue describing more various and fascinating pieces (many of which can be viewed on the MFA Mobile app), I want to share one of the last pieces in the exhibit, a small sculpture with a slightly humorous title.
This wood and plaster object ossified in white paint holds an inscription in pencil: “In Time the Wind Will Come and Destroy My Lemons.” Just as the poets are immortalized through their poetry and thus through the weight of their name alone, so is Twombly displaying the virtuosity of his defiance of mortality through his art. Rather than engraving his inscriptions into stone, he uses flimsy graphite on wood to make the loss of knowledge and communication part of his message. He does not claim immortality, but he finds success in living on, just a little longer, through his art.
The partnership of Greek and Roman themes with modern abstraction and impressionism highlights the delightful modernity of Greek lyric poetry and the vivid, momentary, flash of experience that this modern form brings to a past always slipping away.
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