Paris in Person | Cy Twombly at Centre Pompidou
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Cy Twombly at Centre Pompidou

OK, not exactly an exclusive here, seeing how this exhibition opened more than a couple of weeks ago, but still, it’s will be on for another four months, so reading this article in that timespan will make some sense. Meaning, for a limited time it will have some/more sense, but that’s beside the point. Let’s see what this exhibition was like.


As we’ve already stated about Centre Pompidou, they tend to invest more effort into their temporary exhibitions than they seem to do in their regular, permanent set-up. This trait really shows in this case, as the exhibition is (much) lauded in the French and Parisian media as the first complete retrospection of Twombly’s work. Pretty impressive, given the artist’s long life and a considerable creative output. So on that account, there is really little if anything to reproach to the organization of this exhibition – it is impressive, immersive and well organized. The museum stays true to itself (and its habit to organize comprehensive, well thought out and carefully brought together show); in this particular case, we dare say that they’ve surpassed their already high standards.


So it only makes sense that our article will rather be on the art itself, the aesthetics of Cy Twombly. Both our criticism and praise are to be focused on that, seeing how there is really nothing to say about the rather impressive organization of the exhibition creators. Right off the bath, also, we’re giving a warm recommendation to go and see this show, so, if that’s the only thing you were interested in, you can stop reading here. This recommendation is to be taken with a grain of salt though ; if you like this type of art, meaning abstract expressionism that eers heavily on the side of “informel”, than this is likely to be the event of the year for you. If you however don’t appreciate non-formal style and prefer realistic type of painting, with discernable shapes and aestheticism built around the human body as a standard of beauty, you’re likely to be repulsed by all the aggressive doodles and seemingly incoherent splashes of paint. Should this be your thing, or should you be curious to find out how that particular approach to painting can actually make sense, read on (also, when you’re done reading, go see the exhibition).



Cy Twombly, “Blooming,” 2001-2008



We’re not going to waste your time by the biographical data on the artist that you can google yourself ; rather, we’ll focus on the actual art at hand. This however is the tricky part, as the works displayed range from truly great ones to those who are indeed incomprehensible, messy and chaotic beyond the well worn out notion of “it was meant to be that way”. We get how the abstract art works ; we get how expressionism work ; we also get how abstract expressionism work. In a nutshell, the whole purpose of abstract art is a noble cause of bringing the visual art to its basic aspects. Meaning, that you will look for harmony, symmetry, visual sense and structure not in the already existing shapes that you can see, but in the highly abstract shapes that you create. It is a way of simplifying the visual plane and looking for a higher meaning in what we see ; it is a way of seeking hidden correlations between colors and lines and masses. As such, abstract art (in theory) is awesome, and well above the mimetic, representative art, because it truly seeks to create and understand, rather than to just repeat (albeit in a stylized manner). It is a complex field that cannot be summed up in a couple of lines. Yet, we needed to give some sort of proof of understanding of the whole point (or one of the points) of abstract art just so that when we say that a certain paint is a blotch we’re not tagged as ignorants who can’t appreciate art beyond the formalistic, mimetic representations. We can.



Cy Twombly, Untitled (Bacchus), 2005



Thing is, and this is the major problem with the abstract art, while it does sound great in theory, in practice it’s a whole different story. Some artists have great intentions and well made poetics, but are jut lacking in the visual department. Their abstract art is great “on paper” and in theory, but in practice, they don’t seem to be able to truly find harmonies and meaningful relations between shapes colors and lines. So the only valid point (a very strong one though) of this type of art gets to be missed.


It becomes further complicated if you introduce expressionism in the equation and if you start talking about abstract expressionism. Not only you are supposed to search for visual harmony between simplified, abstract shapes, you are supposed to do that in a very expressive, explosive, violent and above all personal, individualistic and subjective manner. It seems to be a fine rope to walk on, and it is ; as many an artist just can’t find the necessary balance to strike between these domains. Cy Twombly is one of those artists ; his paintings can make it work, when they do. They don’t always though. Sometimes, it’s just a mess, and a fine line between abstractions (that are supposed to be cerebral, thought out and contemplative) and expressions (which are supposed to be quite the opposite, explosive, emotional, subjective and personal) is broken. His personal trait, not to call it a problem, is eering to much the side of the expressive.



Cy Twombly, Achilles Mourning the Death of Patroclus (Achille pleurant la mort de Patrocle), 1962



Still, it has to be mentioned that Cy Twombly is afore all a gifted artist. He has (we know that he is deceased but his work lives on therefore the usage of the present tense) a well honed natural talent of balancing out sometimes seemingly chaotic splashes of paint and rapid, broken lines. He makes it work, simply put. In our eyes, this is the most important aspect of his work, the purely visual mastery of form ; although, it is visible that his ambition tends to be more firmly set in the cultural context he chose to create in – Greek and Roman myth, ancient Egyptian history, inquiry into the early days of the Mediterranean civilizations that are nowadays seen as the cradle of the European (and American) culture.



Cy Twombly, Coronation of Sesostris V, 2000



This is a part we’re mostly critical about, that is the part that we personally approve of the least. It is a logical development of the artistic scene from the late 19th century to, well, nowadays, but it’s therefore all the less original for it. What do we mean by that ? Well, the entire modern art (from the second half of the 19th century onwards) as well as most of the contemporary scene is fascinated by that purely turn-of-the-century (19th to 20th) idea of roots of all cultures. Everyone and their grandmother back in the day were persuaded in the following ; the European artistic scene is boring, used up, dead and spent. We need to inspect foreign cultures, exotic, primitive arts, as well as our own past (back in the day when we were exotic and primitive). To some this may make some sense but to us it’s just a very offensive snobbery as well as a poor excuse for colonialism and cultural appropriation. So not impressed.



Cy Twombly, Coronation of Sesostris, 2000. Part VI



Still, the fact is that all of our modern art from Gaugaine onwards, especially channeled through the likes of Picasso, was anchored in this notion – exploring the primitive, the exotic, the wild, along with the ancient. Those two tend to be brought together – a part of the interest into exploration of the exotic, the primitive and the wild is this idea that we were once all those things and that by analyzing those traits with the others we can discover something about ourselves. How different the 20th century would be without it.


Anyhow, Twombly continues this line of thought and immerses himself into the Greek and Roman myth, as well as in the entirely Mediterranean cultural context (fascination with the Egyptian kings etc.). This might be a purely American thing, though, being fascinated by anything ancient ; it should also be noted that to most Chinese or Hindi people the fact that we consider Greece and Rome of antiquity ancient would be downright laughable, but let’s leave that aside for the moment. Twombly wants to visually explore Greek and Roman deities and heroes ; Venus, Apollo, Bacchus, Achilles. What brings these figures together, apart from being the noted celebrities of antiquity ? Well, seeing how some of us here just happen to be acclaimed scholars in the field of myth, we can say with certainty – violent origins and a deeply bloody, gory even character.



Cy Twombly, Venus, 1975



Yes, Venus is a goddess of love, and yes, Apollo is the patron god of arts ; Bacchus, on the other hand, is the god of drunken folly. Still, Venus (that is, Aphrodite’s) was born out of severed genitals of Uranus ; Apollo was originally a sun good (the emanation of the solar principle, that is of death and violence – his weapon of choice being the bow and the arrow) and Bacchus was torn apart before he was born and had his flesh consumed – a destiny that would befall those who do not respect him. No need to further explain the violent nature of Achilles. Point is, Twombly brings together his visual style (eering strongly on the side of the expressionism) with the very roots of our culture, that are, necessarily (and not only in Freudian terms) marked by gore and violence. He inspects those notions in his works. Here is the point where we can (however begrudgingly) allow the possibility of his less successful works being conceptually valid still. What might to us look like an indistinctly harmonious set of blotches on an ill treated canvas does conceptually click with his notion of the violent origin of culture (and everything else).



Cy Twombly, Apollo, 1975



His highly simplified and reduced style corresponds with that. Often the impression is indeed that of an order being (slowly) created out of chaos. To get this impression though, one must embrace more than one work. This is not a linear line ; you can’t say that the beginning of his work would be chaos and then progressively it would turn towards the order. No, it goes in loops, it jumps back and forth, it has it’s own fragmented logic. But, what does shine through is his innate sensibility and a “knack” for the visual. Some of his work is almost poster-like in this respect. And this is a good thing.



Cy Twombly, Lemons, Gaète, 1998



To sum up, on one hand, Twombly is set in a line defined well before him and he follows along the (too) often walked road often marred with snobbery, pose, petit-bourgeois view of the world and everything else unnerving about the modern art (we’re looking at you, Picasso) – it is the path of the fascination with origins, the primitive, the African fetishes, the very hipster-like adoration of the nature (that is somehow always around people who live in the cities and have felt the genuine harshness of the elements exactly zero times in their lives). On the other side, he is a visually gifted, well skilled author who can strike a delicate balance between different notions he’s juggling. All in all, well worthy of your consideration and time.


P.S We were going to go full conspiracy theory on the art of abstract expressionism and how it was a part of a cultural (cold) war between the capitalistic notion of individuality versus the communist notion of universality, but it got off track. If you’d wish to hear more about it, do book one of our tours and we’ll talk about it in person. In the meantime, visit this show.


Cy Twombly at Centre Pompidou
From 30th November 2016 to 24 April 2017